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Bird in Bridal Dress

The wood duck is a perennial Texas favorite and one of this century's conservation success stories.

By Henry Chappell

Occasionally, while woodcock hunting, I'll flush wood ducks from Pineywoods creeks narrow enough to jump across. I never see the gaudy drake or demure hen until I hear the beating wings and see the dog charge into the creek. The bird will bore upstream and through the timber, usually offering an easy straightaway shot that I never take.

I've listened to wood ducks' rising, quavering whistles while shivering in a johnboat in flooded timber. I've seen their flattened crests and square tails silhouetted against the dawn sky, always just out of shotgun range, or so it seems.

I've admired taxidermists' art, resisting the temptation to stroke the green-and white-striped crest, and I've enjoyed magazine covers featuring well-groomed retrievers gently holding a jewel-like wood duck drake.

Yet I've never held one. Most of the serious hunters I know have a special game bird they seldom if ever take because biology, philosophy and practicality fail to overcome sentimentalism. Mine is the wood duck.

I've considered hunting with steel shot exclusively so as to be ready and legal when drakes rise from the East Texas creeks I visit every winter. I may yet take up the practice. After all, I never know when I'll flush a mallard instead of a wood duck.

Water Bird in Bridal Dress

"They're called wood ducks because they're birds of forested regions," says TPWD waterfowl biologist Carl Frentress. The birds inhabit hardwood bottoms and wooded creeks and sloughs from the Atlantic Coast westward to Kansas and from Nova Scotia to northern Mexico. On the West Coast, wood duck range extends from British Columbia south to Mexico.

In Texas, wood ducks are fairly common in winter as far west as the Hill Country, and there's a disjunct population on the Rolling Plains, especially along the Canadian River. But the birds' stronghold is in East Texas - the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah regions. While the state boasts a healthy resident breeding population, migrant birds arrive each winter via the Central Flyway from the upper Midwest and Ontario. A few spill over from the Mississippi Flyway.

Just as the wood duck's common name describes its habitat, its scientific name, Aix sponsa, which translates to "water bird in bridal dress," speaks for its plumage. Most hunters and birders consider the wood duck North America's most striking waterfowl. The drake sports an iridescent green-and-white striped head and crest, plum-colored throat, white belly, red eyes and bright red-and-white bill. Hens are dark brown with conspicuous, white, tear-shaped eye rings and dark brown crests. Both exhibit blue speculums. Wood ducks in flight are easily identified by their large head and crest and long, square tail.

Wood ducks nest in natural tree cavities and, in some cases, those hollowed out and abandoned by woodpeckers. The birds also readily accept artificial nest boxes. Nesting pairs typically select cavities in deciduous woodlands close to rivers and wetlands and prefer sites located 30 feet or more above the ground, although the height can vary from near ground level to more than 60 feet. The hen lays 10 to 16 cream-colored eggs that hatch in four to five weeks.

Newly hatched ducklings use their sharp claws to climb up the inside of the nest cavity to the entrance, then jump and flutter to the ground or water. Under the hen's guidance, they spend the next eight to nine weeks foraging as a brood.

The young ducks require shallow water for foraging on aquatic plants and protein-rich invertebrates such as dragonflies, beetles and spiders. Overhanging trees and shrubs protect the young from avian predators.

Adult birds are primarily herbivores, subsisting on acorns and other seeds and fruits - a diet that makes them excellent on the table. At times wood ducks leave the water to forage on the forest floor. "They'll waddle around and feed like chickens," says Frentress. "I've seen them walking in the woods some distance from water."

Female wood ducks have a strong homing instinct, tending to return to areas where they nested or were reared. "Therein lies a management tool," says Frentress. "If a female uses a certain cavity and survives the winter, you can expect she'll be back."

Ducks on a Mission

Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks, wood ducks don't decoy well and rarely respond to calling. During hunting season, they typically fly singly, in pairs or in small flocks. Few hunters pursue them specifically. "Wood ducks in flight seem to be on a mission," says Frentress. "If you're lucky, their mission involves flying over you. Hunting them is a lot like hunting doves; just go to their foods and hope for the best. I hear people talking about calling, but I've never seen them respond."

Nevertheless, hunters covet them. In recent years, wood ducks accounted for four to eight percent of the annual harvest, ranking fifth behind gadwalls, mallards, blue-wing teal, green-wing teal and wigeons.

TPWD biologist Kevin Mote of Brownwood takes a simple approach. "I'm basically an opportunist," he says. "I typically hunt mallards, but I love seeing wood ducks. Since I always walk into my hunting areas - I'm not a boat hunter - I have to carry whatever I pitch out on the water. Naturally, I tote mallard decoys. They'll occasionally bring in wood ducks, at least close enough for a shot."

Mote recommends that wood duck hunters leave the big impoundments to the boat and blind hunters. "If I'm looking for wood ducks, I'll head for rivers, creeks and flooded timber - places where acorns and other mast and fruit will fall into water."

However, he stresses that hunters on big lakes often can find wood ducks simply by moving into the timbered backwaters. Scouting just before and during the hunting season pays off.

Jump-shooting - walking slowly along wooded creeks or sloughs - often produces some of the best hunting, especially after the early morning flights. Concentrate on slow pools and bends. Feeding ducks tend to congregate along the outside of a bend, where the faster current brings food. They'll often rest in the slower current along the inside of a bend. Wood ducks are wary; jump-shooting often involves longer shots than pass-shooting or hunting over decoys. Be prepared for birds streaking through timber.

The standard waterfowl guns and loads apply to wood ducks. Use nontoxic shot that patterns best for your gun. Waterfowl hunters are urged to improve their shooting skills by using videos developed by shooting expert Tom Roster. Videos may be purchased by calling (541) 884-2974.

Thinking Inside the Box

Although wood ducks now are common throughout most of their range, the striking plumage that delights modern hunters and birders probably contributed to their near-extinction. By the 1880s, unregulated hunting for meat and feathers and destruction of hardwood bottomland habitat had reduced the population to dangerously low levels. By the beginning of the 20th century, wood ducks had nearly disappeared from their historic range.

The road back began with enactment of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty in 1918, which effectively ended market hunting. The wood duck population began to increase in the 1920s. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 expanded refuges and authorized acquisition of wetlands for waterfowl conservation. In 1934, to fund the acquisitions, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, better known as the "Duck Stamp Act," which required every waterfowl hunter over the age of 16 to purchase a migratory bird stamp. By the 1940s, the wood duck population had rebounded sufficiently to support light hunting.

In the 1930s, biologists began using elevated nest boxes to augment naturally occurring cavities. The results have been spectacular. "The nesting box probably was a major factor in saving the wood duck from extinction," says Frentress. "You need the other habitat components, too - the hardwood bottomlands - but the nest box programs have been tremendously successful."

In the early 1980s, Frentress and his East Texas colleagues refined techniques for building and locating boxes and consolidated the many loosely affiliated nest box programs. Between 1986 and 1994, TPWD gave away some 22,000 nest boxes to more than 2,000 cooperators. "We put a lot of cavities out there," Frentress says, "and the wood ducks use them." His surveys show that the birds' use of the boxes increased to about 50 percent over the first few years of the program.

Today, artificial nest boxes are a common sight in wooded wetlands throughout the Southeast. The typical arrangement consists of a small wooden box elevated on a galvanized pole fitted with a sheet metal skirt or "predator guard" to discourage raccoons, snakes and other climbing nest raiders. A band of sticky insect pest barrier is now considered to be more effective than metal shields. The boxes are located over shallow water or on the shore amid natural habitat. Landowners, hunting club members and others interested in installing nest boxes should seek guidance from TPWD. Improperly installed boxes can leave nests vulnerable to flooding and predation.

Habitat loss remains the biggest threat to waterfowl. To help ensure healthy populations of wood ducks and other migratory birds, wildlife professionals and conservationists developed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture is part of this national waterfowl plan. It includes East Texas, where wood ducks are abundant. The Joint Venture is an ambitious program designed to develop population goals and determine habitat needs and objectives. Partners ranging from government agencies to private individuals work to make the Joint Venture a success.

The Joint Venture collaboration is producing restoration. For example, the East Texas Wetlands Project offers cost sharing to private landowners hoping to create or improve waterfowl habitat on their properties. It is a four-way partnership of TPWD, Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service that addresses the habitat needs unique to the area.

Although TPWD's nest box program ended in 1994, Frentress hopes to resurrect the effort through one of the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture projects. "I've been studying wood ducks for a long time," he says. "They've been a lifelong fascination."

Although wood ducks are only a small part of hunters' harvests, they own a big portion of hunters' hearts.

Henry Chappell's newest book is a historical novel, The Callings (Texas Tech University Press).

Additional Information

  • Hunting Regulations: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, (800) 792-1112, www.tpwd.state.tx.us
  • Texas Ducks Unlimited: www.texasducks.org
  • Ducks Unlimited: www.ducks.org
  • North American Waterfowl Management Plan: northamerican.fws.gov/NAWMP/nawmphp.htm
  • Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture: www.lmvjv.org
  • Ecology and Management of the Wood Duck, by Frank C. Belrose and Daniel J. Hohm, is available from Stackpole Books, (800) 732-3669, www.stackpolebooks.com.
  • Landowners and others interested in installing nest boxes should write to Carl Frentress, regional waterfowl biologist, East Texas, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, P.O. Box 30, Athens, TX 75751. Box building information and specifications are available from Ducks Unlimited at www.ducks.org/conservation/duck_box_plans.pdf.

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