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(For the week of January 4, 2010)
The Wood Duck
by James L. Cummins

In the early 1900s, wood ducks almost became extinct. This was due to unregulated market hunting for their meat and feathers, and also due to destruction of nesting and brood habitat as bottomland hardwood forests were cleared and drained. Thanks to the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, and discovery of the wood duck box, the wood duck is now one of the most abundant duck species in the United States.

Wood ducks are small ducks, weighing from 1 to 1.5 pounds. The male has beautiful long green feathers on its crest, large bright-red eyes and a short red bill with a black tip. The feathers of the wings and body are composed of a variety of colors and patterns. The female is predominantly a dull gray color, with a tear-shaped white streak around the eye.

Woodies can be observed in a variety of habitats, but prefer wooded sloughs, creeks and beaver swamps. Their small size, broad wings and tail make them quite adept at twisting and winding as they fly through trees. Many of the Magnolia State's wood ducks are non-migratory and live here throughout the year.

Mississippi has one of the densest populations of breeding wood ducks in North America. Wood ducks are cavity nesting birds...hens naturally nest in cavities in trees. A hen and a drake will pair off on the wintering grounds to breed. In Mississippi, hens have been observed initiating nests as early as the second week of January; however, most nesting begins in March and April. Weather has a great influence on when nesting occurs, and how late hens will continue to nest in the summer. During a cool summer, hens will nest into July and early August.

A hen will search out a suitable nest cavity in a tree or nest box. She will dig a shallow depression in the bottom sawdust and will lay one egg per day until she has lain approximately 12 to 15 eggs. Once the clutch has been laid, the hen will sit on the nest for 28 to 30 days, leaving only for a short time each morning and evening to feed. Once the eggs hatch, the hen leaves the nest and softly calls her ducklings out of the nest from the ground or water below.

The incubation period is especially stressful for hens. Predators destroy many nests and hens at this time. Raccoons, bobcats, snakes and woodpeckers are particularly troublesome. Dump nesting (when more than one hen contributes eggs to a nest) causes many nests to fail, especially in a wood duck box. Because of the large numbers of eggs in a dump nest, some eggs do not receive sufficient heat for incubation. However, some dump nests do successfully hatch and can provide extra ducklings to the population.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.