Column: The dapper duck of the woods

Published 8:27 pm Thursday, November 10, 2005

By Staff
As you regular readers know I am reveling in a new, rural home. One of my new pleasures is sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee and watching the wood ducks parading up and down the creek that runs just feet from the patio doors. Usually in pairs, they furtively sneak amongst the bushes hanging out over the water, disappearing and reappearing like ghostly apparitions. When venturing into the sunlight the gaudily garbed male looks like an artist's masterpiece but back in the shaded foliage his colorful trappings blend into an invisible mosaic of light and shadow. He literally disappears right before your eyes. The wood duck is one of our most richly and beautifully colored birds. They're also an all American bird, living almost entirely within the United States. In the warmer months they can be found in nearly every state from coast to coast and they rarely migrate beyond our borders.
Woodies, as most hunters call them, are the most un-duck like of our waterfowl. They shun the open expanse of lakes and rivers most other ducks inhabit. As their name suggests, they are a bird of the woodlands. Woodies prefer small, tree lined creeks and secluded ponds nestled in woodlots. Either a-wing or a-foot, they venture some distance into the woods in search of nuts, insects and delectable vegetation. In the fall, acorns are one of their favorites and it's common for their crops to be stuffed to overflowing with whole acorns. Must take a lot of grit to grind all those up.
They typically nest in hollow trees, preferably in the woods and often some distance away from the water. They're not opposed to urban life, though. Every year I see woodies flying about town where they nest in hollow trees along the streets and even in chimneys atop houses. The chosen nesting site can be as low as just several feet off the ground to high up in the trunks of towering trees, wherever a suitable hollow happens to be. They've also been known to make nests in hay stored in the lofts of old barns. I guess that would be considered the ultimate king size suite. When ma deems the time right she coaxes her unfledged youngsters to bail out of the nest, each falling to the ground with a jarring thud but usually unharmed. They then march perilously a-foot whatever distance is required, which is often considerable, to reach water.
Daytimes are usually spent along small creeks, foraging in the adjacent woodlands. Come dusk, most head to the safety and tranquility of a secluded pond for the night. This is when they are the most vulnerable to hunters. Mallards and most other ducks cautiously circle their landing site many times looking for danger but when a woodie makes up his mind to land he's coming in no matter what. Many a hunter has stood totally unconcealed with shotgun blazing while woodies pour in around him like kamikaze pilots. To limit the carnage, legal duck hunting hours end early before most woodies head to the night ponds.
The woody's vulnerability to hunters was nearly their undoing back in the market hunting days. They are considered the most delectable of ducks and their brilliant feathers were in high demand as well. By the early 1900s they were on the verge of extinction. Just in the knick of time wood duck hunting was banned. It was discovered that woodies took well to captive breeding and artificial propagation came into vogue, both for profit and for reintroduction into the wild. One of the major players in wood duck rearing was the country of Holland, which made a big business selling them to the U.S. market. The Audubon Society, then called the National Association of Audubon Societies, through their Department of Applied Ornithology also provided detailed information on wood duck rearing. Through these efforts the wood duck began a long, slow comeback. I remember back in the late 1960s they were not uncommon but still a novelty to see.
Now, at least in these parts, they are our most common duck. Carpe diem.