12/05/08 — Wood ducks offer easy waterfowling

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Wood ducks offer easy waterfowling

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on December 5, 2008 1:46 PM

Of all the birds in the world, the wood duck may be the most beautiful. While some may argue the title for an exotic species such as the peacock, even diehard birders would agree the wood duck is the most beautiful of all ducks.

Such beauty in plumage seems an anomaly since the secretive "squealer" duck hides in the densest of swamps and flooded timberlands. But the reds, purples, oranges and yellows of his bill, feathers, feet and eyelids are starkly contrasted by snowy white. The many colors give perfect camouflage to the little drakes as they go about their business of chasing the drab colored hens for mating or dabbing for acorns that have fallen into the water.

A controversy raged for many years between wildlife managers and hunters over the status of the wood duck. Unlike many other ducks, which stage in huge numbers so they are easy to count, wood ducks stick to the swamps and occur in smaller groups so their numbers are difficult to gauge.

Banding studies have helped along with anecdotal and some other scientific observations. Biologists conclude that this year, for the first time, the general hunting season bag limit for wood ducks would be three birds per hunter per day rather than two.

Early seasons in the past, typically a few days during the first week in October in North Carolina, had sometimes allowed a take of the regular bag limit for ducks and I remember taking four or five wood ducks a day during those seasons years ago. These seasons ostensibly allowed a take of abundant southern wood ducks but protected northern wood ducks whose numbers have never been quite so high.

Nevertheless, this-pre-migration bag limit was curtailed under pressure from northern hunters and biologists.

There is no doubt that the three-bird bag limit will increase hunting pressure on wood ducks, especially since this year diving duck bag limits have declined. Canvasback ducks are no longer legal and the early season bag limit for scaup is one duck. Black ducks may not be taken until late in the season. These reduced limits on other ducks are added incentives for hunters to take more of the tastier, and easier to hunt, wood duck and will induce many hunters to stick closer to home.

The wood duck, once close to extinction, is now the ultimate backyard waterfowl. They nest in tree cavities that can be a mile from water. They feed in water an inch deep. They nest in wood duck boxes erected in the smallest farm pond or the largest reservoir.

The wood duck is therefore available to hunters in every county of the state and require no long migration on the part of the hunter to find big water and set huge decoy spreads with the aid of a boat. All he must do is drive, or walk, to the nearest woodland stream or beaver pond and he can have the makings of one of the fastest shoots on the planet.

Wood ducks feed in small groups, which are family groups early in the season and consisting of a few males competing over a female's reproductive potential the latter parts of the season. While this social order is what occurs during the day, at night wood ducks are among the most gregarious of all waterfowl.

A wood duck roost at dawn is one of the noisiest congregations in all of nature. Dozens of hens squealing to rally their flocks raise the hairs on the nape on any hunter's neck and make the staunchest of retrievers whine in anticipation of the flight. The drake's buzzing calls are difficult for an older hunter with too many magnum waterfowl loads shot over his head to hear very far. But they add to the conversations and flapping of wings as ducks stretch to great the dawn before heading out en masse.

The exodus is amazing, with a few ducks taking flight tantalizingly before legal shooting hours at one-half hour before dawn. Seeing the early departures only heightens the pace of a hunter's heartbeat, until the zero hour arrives.

The shooting is over as suddenly as it begins, with the roost emptied of overnight lodgers within five minutes. If the hunter is able to control his shaking, his shooting is true, and his dog remains steady to wing and shot, three gorgeous little drakes will go home for dinner, providing the finest eating of any waterfowl.