Wood Ducks: A Conservation Success Story

The coolness of October mornings is such a treat after the blazing heat of those long summer days. As I am out in Little Lake Valley, I notice that there is more activity now. The sound of the Western gray squirrels eating the Black walnuts is always a surprise. These nuts are very hard to crack so it sounds like the loud scraping of a wood rasp. One of my favorite fall sounds is the sound of the beautiful Wood Duck, Aix sponsa. Today as I was walking along Outlet Creek, I could hear them talking to each other, the females making a squeaky whistle that sounds like ‘ooEEK, ooEEK’ and the male with a high ‘jeweep’ or ‘sweeooo.’ There are other sounds too, small pips and squeaks. All in all, it sounds like a bunch of chatter that gets more intense if a predator or unknown creature is nearby. As I approach, I try to stay very quiet, but they are wary and sound the alarm. Off they fly noisily down the creek where there is more cover for these shy birds.

This spring we did not photograph the baby Wood Ducks jumping out of the boxes as in previous years but did see that at least four of the boxes were used. In June there were baby ducklings in Outlet Creek and today I scared up a fine flock of about twelve, five being males and the others were females or juvenile birds.

Wood Ducks are smaller than Mallards, with a dark back and a whiter, contrasting belly. Males and females differ in color. The Wood Duck males, just like Mallard males, exhibit beautiful colors. They have a green-crested head with a chestnut band on their breast above a white belly. They also have a small bill. The female Wood Duck is a warm brown overall with a large white teardrop around the eyes.

Historically the Wood Duck had a troubling time in the early 1900’s as their numbers decreased dramatically. Much of their important habitat such as inland wetlands and hardwood forest bottomlands, where they nest, had been drained, plowed, and logged for use in agriculture due to the burgeoning United States population. Hunting of native and migratory birds and waterfowl was unrestricted without any consideration for population numbers or the season. Tens of millions of wild migratory birds were shot per year, and this resulted in birds for hunting becoming scarce. Luckily, there were many people that became concerned the species was facing extinction. As a result, in 1916 the important and powerful Migratory Bird Treaty was proposed. At the time, it was obvious to Congress that the treaty was necessary to preserve and help rebound the declining populations of migratory waterfowl and other birds. It was ratified in 1918, with Canada (then a part of Great Britain) and the United States signing on. This was the first time in the world that a legal document made it unlawful to endanger any migratory bird or harm their nests, unless authorized under a permit. Mexico, Japan, and Russia have since joined this treaty. The issue then became: How to enforce the regulations? And, where would the funds come from? In the early 1930’s there was a man named Jay N. Darling who was a hunter and waterfowl enthusiast who began to get notoriety for his political cartoons, many of which had environmental themes and focused on the overhunting of ducks. He was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to be the first Chief of Biological Survey (1934-1936) and came up with an ingenious plan to economically support the Migratory Bird Act and therefore help the plight of the declining waterfowl. His idea was the Duck Stamp Act which enlisted waterfowl hunters as the stewards of the species and habitats they enjoyed so much. In 1934 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act which required all waterfowl hunters aged 16 and older to purchase a stamp and carry it along with their general game hunting license. This revenue was directly linked to securing and managing lands prioritized for migratory waterfowl species. Originally a Duck Stamp cost one dollar but today a stamp is twenty-five dollars. Since its inception these stamps have raised over 850 million dollars. Taxes on ammunition also go toward conservation programs. We now have 562 refuges and another 209 waterfowl production areas, which comprise about 150,000,000 acres devoted to wildlife. The contribution from waterfowl hunters has gone a long way in providing the funds necessary for setting aside and protecting wetlands and other wildlife habitat. Organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association have performed public outreach and education, in addition to contributing financially to the cause.

In 1937, Wood Duck populations were recovering at a slower rate than other waterfowl species, probably due to the fact that Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities. Nesting habitat had become scarce due to the unregulated cutting down of riparian and bottomland forests. A design for building Wood Duck nesting boxes was created in 1937 by two biologists from the same U.S. Biological Survey. Shortly thereafter, 486 boxes were put up in the Chautauqua National Refuge in central Illinois. Their success became the ticket for the recovery of the beautiful Wood Duck.

Today, Wood Ducks are not listed as a species that is threatened. There are currently 3 million breeding pairs across the United States. This is a conservation success story that we on the Little Lake Valley Mitigation Lands are proud to support by installing Wood Duck nesting boxes and educating the public about the importance of conserving these and other fantastic waterfowl species.