A Tribute To The Wood Duck

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In the American waterfowl system, hunting wood ducks are considered especially inspiring. In the woods and on the water, the dedicated hunters who go after these ducks are members of an elite squad known as the Special Waterfowl Unit. These are their stories… Doink! Doink! (That was my lame attempt of referencing Law and Order SVU and trying to be funny.)

Growing up in Central Georgia, I have had the privilege of being in fairly decent wood duck country.  Whether it has been on public rivers, swamps, flooded timber, or even back sides of lakes, there is plenty of opportunities to hunt wood ducks. Make no mistake thinking that they are overly abundant; It can be some of the toughest waterfowl hunting so consider yourself lucky if you happen to bag a limit. There is no other duck in the world I admire as much as a wood duck. At the same time, there is no other duck in the world that has made me curse as much as they have either. If ducks were organized into a structure that looks like the government, wood ducks would be CIA secret agents. They fly before the sunrises and roost after the sunsets. If you don’t happen to catch their small silhouette against the skyline, they will appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast. They are impervious to some of the best waterfowl callers and seem to spot a bad set-up before you even know they are there.  I see no other duck deserving enough of a tribute than the wood duck.

The wood duck or Aix sponsa is a dabbling duck. They are found in wooded streams, swamps, and ponds. They can navigate through thick timber with little to no effort. They mostly feed on acorns and berries on the forest floor. They are found across North America, with densities higher in southeastern and northeastern states. They are one of the very few species of ducks that have sharp claws that allow them to perch in trees. Female wood ducks prefer to lay their eggs in nested out tree cavities. They prefer to keep their hatchlings above water to soften their fall when they leave the nest. After the female has laid her eggs(typically between 7 and 15), the incubation period is only around 30 days. In the southern portions of the U.S., females are capable of producing two broods or hatchlings a year. They are the least migratory of all ducks. Biologists have said that 75% of all wood ducks in the southern and far western portions of North America are local ducks and have a small home range. I do see wood ducks where I live in Georgia year-round, but nothing like I do in late winter. So I know there are many wood ducks that stay here all year but I believe the 75% may be a little high. It is hard for me to see 25% more ducks here during late winter making as big of a difference as it does but I will leave the science to the biologists.

In the late 19th century, the wood duck just like many other wildlife populations was in serious decline. The beaver and bison tend to get the spotlight when it comes to unregulated hunting and the free for all that was happening in the U.S.; however, ducks took a big hit as well. Their plumage was highly sought after for the ladies’ hat market in Europe. After the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of  1918, their numbers slowly began to recover. One other contributing factor, that in my opinion was one of the most important for the recovery of the wood duck population, was the surge and spread of beaver populations across the United States. After the fur industry declined and the U.S. tightened down on hunting regulations, beavers were able to make a comeback. This is a perfect example of how saving one species, such as the beaver, could be the sole reason we have wood duck numbers we see today. Beavers create the perfect habitat for wood ducks. Beavers can turn a small wooded creek that is totally uninhabitable for a wood duck into a wood duck oasis. So, their comeback success can’t be talked about without the success of the beaver.

A few years ago, I started doing a lot more traveling for waterfowl hunting. I have been to Arkansas, Mississippi, North Georgia, and even shot coastal ducks in Georgia. I have always admired the bufflehead. I hunted many years before I was able to get one but when I did I was excited and headed straight to the taxidermist. As I am sitting here typing this article on my laptop, the bufflehead is mounted flying on my wall right next to me. I look at him from time to time and think back on the day I got him, but my mind always goes back to wood ducks. No matter where I go hunting or what species of ducks I get, I can’t shake the beauty and resilience of the American wood duck.

 

Last modified: February 16, 2020

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