By Mark Fike
In many parts of our country, particularly the south and southeast, duck hunting has been rough to pretty much not worth going unless you just happen to have a sweet spot that gets very little pressure and offers food and cover. The one exception to that statement would be the reliable wood duck.
Wood ducks have been a mainstay of hunting the past few years because they are the one duck that most waterfowlers can count on to be available if they have access to a swamp or marsh.
These gorgeous birds are regular residents of small backwaters, swamps, marshes, and even wide creeks or rivers and ponds. Weighing about a pound and a half each and residing over the whole eastern portion of North America and the Pacific coast as well, these birds are now seeing an upswing in their population thanks in part to hunters putting up wood duck boxes.
Out of all the ducks in America, an argument could certainly be made that the wood duck has the most beauty. The males have the most color with a crest on their head and metallic green with a little purple complete with a white stripe going through the eye. The iris is bright crimson red. Their chest is a rusty red speckled with white flecks until it blends with a white belly while the legs are yellow. The females are a drab color and blend in well to hide themselves and their nest.
Wood ducks nest in cavities of old trees and of course the wood duck boxes we put up for them. In these cavities, the female will on average lay 12 eggs that are white. When tending wood duck boxes, I have observed females laying eggs on top of the eggs of other hens. Sometimes I have found over two dozen eggs in one box and sometimes that box has been abandoned.
Eggs are incubated for 25-30 days and when the last little one hatches they climb out of the cavity or box after being encouraged by the mother hen and jump out. Some of the jumps are up to 60 feet above the ground or water. The mother leads them to the water if they are not over water and teaches them. At five weeks she begins weaning them of her assistance and at eight weeks or so, they can fly.
The young birds will eat aquatic invertebrates, insects and seeds, while the adults will eat mostly seeds and the vegetation that bears the seeds. Acorns are also a very common and favorite food of these birds. Wood ducks can roost in trees. I have seen them while deer hunting in swamps as they whip in at dusk to land in an oak tree.
If you want to help wood ducks, build a wood duck box and place it, preferably over shallow water, with a predator guard. Try to face the hole east. Maintaining your wood duck box is important as from year to year old eggs can be left and rot in the box, wasps can get in there and build nests, and the box can be damaged.
Pine shavings can and should be placed in the box each late winter (January to early February) and removing those wasps nests will help the ducks too. I put a latch and door on the side of my boxes to make cleaning them out easier.
Once you put your box up, try to avoid peering in the box. This may cause the hen to abandon her eggs. However, putting a trail camera on the entrance may allow you to capture some great photos of the babies leaping out after they hatch.
This spring, consider giving back to a duck that has been a staple on the hunter’s strap for a number of years. If every waterfowler put up a duck box or two, we would have a steady supply of wood ducks to observe and even hunt.