For many waterfowl hunters and nature viewers, the wood duck is Missouri’s – and, to a larger extent, North America’s – forgotten conservation success story. Much media attention has been given to the comeback of this region’s deer and turkey populations from near extinction to their present levels of abundance. In non-hunting circles, the population resurgences of eye-catching creatures like bald eagles and bluebirds have garnered many headlines. Granted, this attention has been well-deserved because these events are examples of great conservation successes. The wood duck’s comeback is a lesser-known conservation success story. This bird’s return to prosperity is well-documented, but over the decades, it has gradually slipped into the realm of obscurity. Wood ducks are North America’s most attractive duck species – hands down. The green- headed male mallard may be the most familiar wild duck to most people, but you would get little argument from biologists and nature viewers if you said the male wood duck is the prettiest duck. As with most bird species, males are more colorful than females. The head of a male wood duck in spring courtship colors is iridescent green, blue and purple. Two white lines run parallel to each other from the base of the bill to the back of the head. The male’s strikingly colored head is complemented by a white chin and throat, red eyes, red at the base of the bill, a deep, rust- colored chest, bronze sides and a black back and tail. Some of these colorful body feathers are
accentuated by additional white striping.
From a population standpoint, it’s easy to understand why the wood duck’s comeback story has slipped out of the spotlight. Wood ducks are common nesters throughout the state. Wood ducks are year-round residents of Missouri, but in winter, visiting ducks from colder areas in the north swell southern Missouri’s wood duck numbers to greater abundance. Wood ducks aren’t just doing well in Missouri: This creature’s population is considered to be secure throughout out much of its range in the eastern and central U.S. Because of this abundance, wood ducks are classified as a gamebird and are one of the species included in Missouri’s waterfowl seasons. In duck hunting circles, wood ducks are known for providing tasty table fare. Their colorful feathers are also valued by fly-fishing enthusiasts who like to tie their own lures. The wood duck’s story hasn’t always been a tale of abundance. At the outset of the 20th century, a number of the country’s bird experts were alarmed at the bird’s dwindling numbers. In 1901, the U.S. Biological Survey stated that the wood duck was facing extinction. Noted turn-of- the-century naturalist W.W. Cooke wrote: “… The wood duck is constantly diminishing in numbers and soon is likely to be known only from books or by tradition.” Another well-known nature name from this era, historian and naturalist George Bird Grinnell, also was pessimistic. He wrote: “They (wood ducks) are becoming scarce and are likely to be exterminated before too long.”
Unregulated hunting was partly to blame. Not only were wood ducks relentlessly pursued by market hunters for meat; plume hunters killed wood ducks for their colorful feathers which were used in women’s hats and for a variety of other decorative clothing purposes. Over-hunting wasn’t the only culprit in the wood duck’s decline, though. Changing habitat conditions were also a factor. The disappearance of bottomland forests and timbered areas along streams deprived wood ducks of nesting habitat. Unlike most other ducks, wood ducks nest in cavities in tree trunks. That’s where they get their name, because their nests are in the wood of trees. (They’re also called “tree ducks,” another appropriate moniker.) It’s presumed the disappearance of this nesting habitat had as much to do with sending North America’s wood duck population into a tailspin as unregulated hunting did. The creation of federal laws to regulate the hunting of migratory bird species in the early 1900s helped the plight of wood ducks and other migratory birds. Better forestry management practices improved habitat for wood ducks and other birds.
In addition to these broad-stroke measures, another effort focused specifically on wood ducks has helped to bring this colorful waterfowl species back from the brink of extinction – the installation of wood duck nesting boxes. Studies showed that wood ducks would readily nest and raise broods in man-made nesting boxes that are built to specifications preferred by nesting females and located at habitat-appropriate sites. As early as 1912, mention is made of nesting boxes being a cure for the wood duck’s woes. It’s thought the installation and monitoring of wood duck nesting boxes by government wildlife agencies and citizen conservation groups throughout the eastern and central U.S. over the past century has played a major role in the resurgence of the wood duck population. The wood duck’s comeback is another example of what can happen when citizens care about conservation. The availability of good nesting habitat is just as important today as it was 100 years ago, which means wood duck nesting boxes still play an important role in maintaining this species’ population. If you’re interested in learning about wood ducks and in building a wood duck box as a family conservation project, information can be found at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.
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