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Wood Duck Comeback

4/16/2008
Wood duck decoys shown with a nesting box, the latter directly responsible for their rebounding populations throughout the country. Courtesy of James Swan

In December, when I was hunting with a group of friends on the Wilderness Unlimited properties in the Sacramento Valley around Colusa, Calif., I did something I have never done before: I bagged three wood ducks in one day.

Back in the 1950s, when I was growing up along the marshes of Lake Erie, I bagged one wood duck in 20 years of serious waterfowl hunting before I migrated to the West Coast. Woodies were just not that common back then in those parts. And the limit was one per day.

I know wood ducks have become very common back east since then, but they still aren't that common in the Pacific Flyway, at least not yet. I've hunted California for over two decades, and only bagged a couple, never more than one in a day.

But on this day, woodies were thick around the blind where I hunted. There were mature riparian woods with lots of oak trees on both sides of the blind, set in a rice field. It was ideal habitat, and nesting boxes were scattered throughout the woods and water was close by. I could have shot more woodies but instead I stopped and just admired the birds, especially the two males, remembering the history of this species.

In 1758, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus bestowed upon the wood duck its scientific name, Aix sponsa, which loosely translated means "a waterfowl in wedding dress."

With its striking iridescent crested head: blue-dark green-violet with white stripes and vivid red eye; plus yellow, white and red bill; maroon breast; long tail; and tan, white and black artistic side feathers ideal for making trout flies, the male wood duck is unquestionably the most beautiful of all ducks of North America, and certainly one of the most beautiful in the world.

In the early 1900s, the wood duck was hovering on the brink of extinction. Many woodland ponds, their preferred habitat, had been drained. As much as 90 percent of the original wood duck nest habitat — bottomland forests — was destroyed by the logging of the late 1800s. Not to mention that for years woodies had been highly sought after, because they are among the best eating of all ducks.

The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibited hunting of wood ducks nationwide. About this time, sportsmen got involved in wood duck restoration. Especially across the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, where woodies were originally common, thousands of wood duck nesting boxes were constructed and erected on trees along waterways or even on posts in ponds. Habitat is crucial to wildlife prosperity, and as a result, wood duck populations rebounded as new habitat became available.

In 1941, hunting wood ducks was again permitted in some states in the Atlantic and Midwestern Flyways, with limits of one to two birds a day. Many states, though, did not allow legal hunting of woodies until 1959. For the next several decades, conservative one- to two-bird bag limits prevailed and wood duck numbers grew steadily.

The wood duck population today numbers about 3.5 million; they are especially common in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, where wood ducks have become second to mallards in number of birds harvested. Ducks Unlimited estimates 10 percent of all ducks harvested in the U.S. are wood ducks. Today you can even take a seven-bird limit of woodies in California, though few ever do.

Woodies have now grown to the same population size as scaup — although scaup numbers have fallen considerably, from 7 million to about 3.5 million — providing a good example of how nesting habitat directly correlates to waterfowl population size.

The only parts of the country wood ducks aren't found yet found are the southern Rocky Mountains and the desert. They even occasionally show up in England.

Nesting Boxes To The Rescue

Building and setting up wood duck boxes is a great conservation activity, though you never know what critter may be using the box. In North America, there are six species of ducks that nest in abandoned Pilated woodpecker holes, or other cavities in large trees (or nesting boxes): goldeneye, hooded merganser, common merganser, Barrow's goldeneye, and bufflehead, as well as the wood duck, which is the only species that normally nests in trees in the Lower 48. Owls may also use the boxes.

HUNTER TIP

Wood ducks will decoy to mallard and pintail decoys and respond to mallard calls, but to imitate the drake wood duck's buzzing wheeze, you need a whistle call
. There are several calls priced between $10-$15 that reproduce the contented quiver and the high-low calls of the woodie.

But if you have Scotch ancestry, you may find some of the dolls young girls enjoy playing with utter a cry remarkably similar to that uttered by the strikingly beautiful and inspiring wood duck. If you see a guy in camouflage walking around in a toy store squeezing the cheap dolls, hopefully he's looking for a cheap wood duck call.

A metal collar wrapped around the tree or post below the box helps keep squirrels and raccoons out the boxes, because both will feast on eggs and young and try to inhabit the cozy cedar boxes.

If you put up wood duck boxes, it's helpful to monitor them every year after the birds have left, as starlings and squirrels will use the boxes, and sometimes there can be a buildup of old shells and nest materials that will eventually fill up the box.

Today, it is estimated that 300,000 wood duck nest boxes produce 100,000 ducklings annually in North America. In California, where only 5 percent of the original riparian forests remain, the estimated number of breeding wood ducks in the Pacific Flyway is 60,000 — and nesting boxes are critically important to supporting those populations.

Currently, over 500 volunteers from the California Waterfowl Association maintain and monitor over 5,000 nest boxes throughout the state. Since 1991, over 400,000 wood duck ducklings have hatched from nest boxes.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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