Treasures of the Library

Summer or Wood Duck, plate CCVI

“I have always experienced a peculiar pleasure while endeavouring to study the habits of this most beautiful bird in its favourite places of resort.”

John James Audubon*

Early European North Americans called the wood duck the “summer duck.” The wood duck can be found in wooded shorelines of lakes, ponds and streams throughout southern Canada, the eastern United States and the Pacific Coast.

The wood duck’s most striking feature is the colourful plumage seen in the breeding males. Its Latin name, Aix sponsa, can be roughly translated to “bird in wedding raiment.” In other words, it is a duck that looks like it is dressed for a wedding!

Audubon painted four life-sized examples of this “most beautiful bird.” He showed the differences between the brightly coloured males with their green iridescent crested heads, red eyes, and red, black and white beaks, and the greyish-brown females.

This print also features a leafy buttonwood tree, or American sycamore, to highlight one of the wood duck’s other unusual characteristics. Wood ducks are one of the few types of duck that have sharp claws. They use the claws for perching on branches. These peculiar ducks also nest in large tree hollows, sometimes in hollows made by woodpeckers, up to 15 m above the ground.

Details

  • The print measures 97 cm high and 63.5 cm wide.
  • This is plate CCVI (or 206) in the collection. The plate refers to the original scientific or Latin name given to the wood duck, Anas sponsa. The currently accepted name is Aix sponsa.
  • The attribution reads: “Engraved, Printed & Coloured, by R. Havell, 1834.”
  • The plate is part of set number 42.
  • Wood ducks were abundant in Audubon’s time. Numbers had significantly declined by the late 19th century due to unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. A complete hunting ban in the early 20th century coupled with nest box programs and other conservation measures mean that the wood duck is no longer considered endangered.

* John James Audubon, Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, Accompanied by Descriptions of the Objects Represented in the Work Entitled The Birds of America, and Interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners, Volume III, Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1835, p. 52.

Summer or Wood Duck, Plate CCVI
Summer or Wood Duck, plate CCVI