Dr. John Scanlon - November 2008


Woodie Fever


Dr. John Scanlon

   The male Woodduck (Aix sponsa) is undoubtedly the most colorful of all North American waterfowl. A white throat plus double chin strap sets off his iridescent blue-green head and drooped crest with tricolor red-white-yellow bill. The eye is ruby red. A chestnut-hued chest with symmetrical white spots gives way to a lemon-colored flank highlighted by the signature barred flank feathers so highly favored by trout fly tiers.
    The more somber hen, pearly gray overall with a white eye bar and darker highlight markings is a distinctively handsome duck as well. Perhaps only its close cousin, the drake Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) from Asia, is more richly colored. The woodduck has limited tolerance for cold weather and leaves our region with the first frost, earning it the nickname, “summer duck.”
    Woodducks regularly perch in trees. Their unique breeding habitat requirement demands dead hardwood trees with hollowed trunks in which the hen can lay eggs. These natural nests may be 20 to 50 or more feet above the ground and are usually located close to water. Newly hatched ducklings must climb up the inside of the hole (using a special “climbing claw”) then leap into space, having faith their mother will keep them safe below.
    Natural trunk cavities are made by large woodpeckers such as the Pileated (Dryocopus pileatus) or gouged by boring insects. Woodies compete with owls or squirrels for best digs. Raccoons and snakes are major nest predators. Woodducks are fairly common in the freshwater branches on the Eastern Shore, but it wasn’t always so.
    During the early part of the 20th century, woodduck numbers were in decline all along the Atlantic flyway. Over-hunting, and particularly habitat degradation, had reduced their population almost to the point of no return. A coalition of sportsmen, conservationists and legislators joined together to bring the woodie back.
    State and federal refuge development, strict gunning laws and placing thousands of specially designed boxes on both public and private lands greatly facilitated the gaudy little bird’s increase. Woodduck enhancement was one of the earliest public/private ventures in North American waterfowl management history, preceding the Federal Duck Stamp initiative and Ducks Unlimited. Not bad for a secretive little bird with blood-colored eyes!
    The work continues today with the Maryland Woodduck Initiative led by Cliff Brown (cliftonabrown@aol.com). This private program has been active since 2004, surveying woodduck populations and nesting sites. MWDI has erected or rehabilitated more than 1,300 nest boxes, which annually produce more than 5,000 ducklings.
    MWDI has developed educational programs to teach improved habitat management and nesting success, as well as providing consultation for private landowners. They purchase box pole guards in bulk and provide these at cost to landowners.
    MWDI also works very closely with Maryland’s DNR to ensure woodduck-favored regulations and refuge management practices. Most importantly, they involve youth groups (schools, 4-H and such) in building, refurbishing and erecting boxes on appropriate publicly owned wetlands. Maryland’s woodduck future is in good hands.
    I mentioned the woodduck’s red eye. This is an optical adaptation to increase light gathering, not simply another ostentatious color statement. Woodies have incredible low-light vision. They zoom through trees and across marshes well before dawn. As one sage hunter remarked, “If you can see the sun, woodduck hunting is done.” Waterfowlers who set out to hunt these darting multicolored wraiths must be in position well before legal shooting time, which is sunrise minus 30 minutes.
    Calling and decoys are of little help. Hunting often takes place in flooded timber, requiring waders, bug spray and a sloppy hike in the dark. The woodduck’s typical high-pitched squeal is usually an alarm call. Mimicking this sound will not often bring them near.
    When the woodduck first sees a decoy it is usually close enough to shoot. Toting counterfeits to a woodduck hunt is not very useful. Splashing water with a booted foot can sometimes lure birds lower for a look. Most often they suddenly just splash down nearby, drifting from above on cupped wings like so many dark leaves.
    Woodies make excellent table fare. A small duck, its breast meat is light colored and delicate in flavor. Simple roasting, perhaps after some time in a fruity marinade or served with currant jelly, can make a delectable meal. My wife has a recipe for cold woodduck breasts in citrus aspic garnished with slivered lemon that is out of this world. Since woodies’ diet is more than 95% vegetable material, you will never eat a “gamey” or unpleasant-tasting bird.
    Because they are secretive and extremely wary ducks, most non-hunters or non-bird watchers rarely have an opportunity to observe them. It is well worthwhile to get up very early, put on DEET, wear waterproof boots and creep into flooded woods for a glimpse. You will be richly rewarded and might even catch Woodie Fever.