Wood Duck

Wood Duck by David J. L'Hoste
© David J. L'Hoste
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Most naturalists agree the male Wood Duck is North America's most beautiful bird. Its color pattern is resplendent with rich chestnut, splashes of black and white, golden flanks, and even red eyelids arrayed amidst iridescent greens, purples, and bronze. In addition to all of this, the feathers of the head form a crest, as if a final touch of splendor were needed. The female has a rather nondescript grayish brown body and gray-crested head, with a prominent white ring around the eye. Even in flight at distances where none of its brilliant colors can be seen, the Wood Duck remains a distinctive bird. Its holds its had above the level of its back with the bill pointed downward at a sharp angle. It has a long squarish tail and a short neck. The call note, which is often uttered in flight. Is a squealing hoo-eek, hoo-eek.
This species and the Hooded Merganser are among the few North American ducks that normally nest in hollow trees. The nest of the Wood Duck is placed at heights varying from 4 to as much as 50 feet from the ground. The nest cavity itself may be quite shallow or as much as 6 feet deep. No materials are transported to the nest, but down feathers from the breast are used to cushion the normal compliment of 10 to 15 dull white or creamy white eggs. Nesting boxes of the proper size, erected specifically for Wood Ducks, have met with great success.
The cutting of the forests, drainage of swamplands, excessive hunting pressure, and, probably above all, the commercial traffic in feathers for artificial trout flies nearly led to the Wood Duck's extinction. Timely action in 1918 forbade the killing of the species both in the United States and Canada, and the bird has now made a notable comeback. Since 1941 limited hunting has been permitted. In the point system currently in force, the Wood Duck is a 90-point bird. With hunters being allowed 100 points, he can have in his bag two Wood Ducks, provided he has nothing else.
Some people object to the point system on the g round that learning to tell the species apart is too hard a task. But first-rate sportsmen already know how to recognize the various kinds of ducks both on the water and in the air, and beginners will find mastering the art adds immeasurably to the fun of hunting.
A few brief words should be said about the classuc debate among naturalists and sportsmen concerning the question of how young Wood Ducks get out of their nests high uo in hollow trees. Some have said that the mother bird carries them in her bill down to the water. Others have claimed that the baby chicks ride on the mother's back or are carried between her feet. Still others have insisted that the ducklings climb from the floor of the nest to the entrance by using the sharp nails on their claws, jump spread-eagled into space, and hit the ground or water with their tiny feet outstretched. All three explanations have alleged eyewitness testimony to support them, though the last has been most frequently observed. Perhaps, as Audubon told us long ago, Wood Ducks vary their methods of getting young to water according to circumstance.
Some years ago, I am Told, an investigator trying to incubate and raise Wood Ducks in captivity for experiment met with great frustration. His hatchlings refused to eat and quickly died of starvation. Then one day he happened to drop one. Immediately, according to the story, it began to search for food. So he lifted aloft his other downy young Wood Ducks and let them fall. They began at once to look for something to eat. This tale led to the idea that a baby Wood Duck's life is a series of rigid programmed events, each of which is needed to trigger the next. Unfortunately for the theory, other breeders of Wood Ducks, notably Peter Scott, a British waterfowl specialist of worldwide fame, and our own John T. Lynch, have been raising these birds successfully without knowing that they needed to be dropped before commencing to eat.
The Wood Duck is a moderately common permanent resident throughout the heavily wooded swamps of the state. In the northern parishes it is possibly somewhat less numerous in winter than in summer, but in southern Louisiana its population appears to increase slightly in the cold months. Finding a Wood Duck in the coastal marshes is unusual, though a few instances are on record. But they seem out of place in a setting without trees. Possibly they go to the marshes only in the daytime to feed, returning at night to some wooded swamp on the northern edge of the marsh belt.
--George H. Lowery, Jr., 1974, Louisiana Birds
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