[Published in 1923: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part 1): 158-171]
Spring.--While wandering through the dim cathedral aisles of a big cypress swamp in Florida, where the great trunks of the stately trees towered straight upward for a hundred feet or more until the branches interlaced above so thickly that the sunlight could not penetrate, we seemed to be lost in the gloom of a strange tropical forest and far removed from the familiar sights and sounds of the outside world. Only the frequent cries of the omnipresent Florida red-shouldered hawk and an occasional glimpse of a familiar flycatcher or vireo, migrating northward reminded us of home. But at last the light seemed to break through the gloom, as we approached a little sunlit pond, and there we saw some familiar friends, the center of interest in a pretty picture, framed in the surroundings of their winter home, warmed by the genial April sun and perhaps preparing to leave for their northern summer home. The sunlight filtering through the tops of the tall cypresses which surrounded the pool shone full upon the snowy forms of 50 or more white ibises, feeding on the muddy shores, dozing on the fallen logs, or perched upon the dead stumps or surrounding trees; the air seemed full of them as they rose and flew away. But with this dazzling cloud of whiteness there arose from the still waters of the pool a little flock of wood ducks, brilliant in their full nuptial plumage, their gaudy colors flashing in the sunshine, as they went whirring off through the tree tops. What a beautiful creature is this Beau Brummel among birds and what an exquisite touch of color he adds to the scene among the water hyacinths of Florida or among the pond lilies of New England!
The wood duck is a strictly North American species and principally a bird of the United States, for its summer range extends but a short distance north of our borders, except in the warmer, central portions of Canada, and even in winter it does not migrate far south of us. It is one of the most widely distributed species, breeding throughout most of its range and wintering more or less regularly over much of its habitat in the United States. For these reasons its migrations are not easily traced except in the Northern states and provinces. It is a moderately early migrant, coming after the ice has left the woodland ponds and timbered sloughs. Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) says:
They arrive in three distinct issues, after sunset and through the night suddenly appearing in the morning upon their accustomed haunts. The first stays but a brief period, and departs for the north to breed; the second puts in an appearance a few days later, but soon leaves to nest in the northern parts of the United States; the third arrives directly after the second leaves and scatters over the Middle States to nest. This issue forms the local ducks of each State it breeds in.
Dr. P. L. Hatch (1892) writes:
Arriving simultaneously with the other earlier species, none other braves the last rigors of the departing winter in the closing days of a Minnesota March with greater spirit. And when they come, like the rains of the Tropics, they pour in until every pool in the woodlands has been deluged with them.
When March has again returned, and the dogwood expands its pure blossoms to the sun, the cranes soar away on their broad wings, bidding our country adieu for a season, flocks of waterfowl are pursuing their early migrations, the frogs issue from their muddy beds to pipe a few notes of languid joy, the swallow has just arrived, and the bluebird has returned to his box. The wood duck almost alone remains on the pool, as if to afford us an opportunity of studying the habits of its tribe. Here they are, a whole flock of beautiful birds, the males chasing their rivals, the females coquetting with their chosen beaux. Observe that fine drake, how gracefully he raises his head and curves his neck! As he bows before the object of his love, he raises for a moment his silken crest. His throat is swelled, and from it there issues a guttural sound, which to his beloved is as sweet as the song of the wood thrush to its gentle mate. The female, as if not unwilling to manifest the desire to please which she really feels, swims close by his side, now and then caresses him by touching his feathers with her bill, and shows displeasure toward any other of her sex that may come near. Soon the happy pair separate from the rest, repeat every now and then their caresses, and at length, having sealed the conjugal compact, fly off to the woods to search for a large woodpecker's hole. Occasionally the males fight with each other, but their combats are not of long duration, nor is the field ever stained with blood, the loss of a few feathers or a sharp tug on the head being generally enough to decide the contest. Although the wood ducks always form their nests in the hollow of a tree, their caresses are performed exclusively on the water, to which they resort for the purpose, even when their loves have been first proved far above the ground on a branch of some tall sycamore. While the female is depositing her eggs, the male is seen to fly swiftly past the hole in which she is hidden, erecting his crest, and sending forth his love notes, to which she never fails to respond.
Nesting.--The wood duck has earned the common name of "summer duck" on account of its breeding and spending the summer so far south; it has also been called the "tree duck" from its habit of nesting in trees. Its favorite nesting site is in a fairly large natural cavity in the trunk or large branch of a tree; it has no special preference for any particular kind of tree and not much choice as to its location; it probably would prefer to find a suitable hollow tree near some body of water, but it is often forced to select a tree at a long distance away from it and sometimes very near the habitations of man. The size and depth of the cavity selected vary greatly, and its height from the ground may be anywhere from 3 or 4 feet to 40 or 50. If it cannot find a natural cavity that suits its taste, the wood duck occasionally occupies the deserted nesting hole of one of the larger woodpeckers, such as the ivory-billed or pileated woodpecker, or even the flicker; sometimes the former home of a fox squirrel or other large squirrel is selected, in which case the old nesting material, dry leaves and soft rubbish, is left in the cavity and mixed with the down of the duck. Such material is often found in the nest of the wood duck, but I doubt if it is ever brought in by the bird.
A few quotations from the writings of others will give an idea of the variety of nesting sites chosen. Audubon (1840) gives the best general idea of the nesting habits of the wood duck as follows:
The wood duck breeds in the Middle States about the beginning of April, in Massachusetts a month later, and in Nova Scotia or on northern lakes, seldom before the first days of June. In Louisiana and Kentucky, where I have had better opportunities of studying their habits in this respect, they generally pair about the 1st of March, sometimes a fortnight earlier. I never knew one of these birds to form a nest on the ground, or on the branches of a tree. They appear at all times to prefer the hollow broken portion of some large branch, the hole of a large woodpecker (Picus principalis), or the deserted retreat of the fox squirrel, and I have frequently been surprised to see them go in and out of a hole of any one of these, as their bodies while on wing seemed to be nearly half as large again as the aperture within which they had deposited their eggs. Once only I found a nest (with 10 eggs) in the fissure of a rock on the Kentucky River a few miles below Frankfort. Generally, however, the holes to which they betake themselves are either over deep swamps, above canebrakes, or on broken branches of high sycamores, seldom more than 40 or 50 feet from the water. They are much attached to their breeding places, and for three successive years I found a pair near Henderson, in Kentucky, with eggs in the beginning of April, in the abandoned nest of an ivory-billed woodpecker. The eggs, which are from 6 to 15, according to the age of the bird, are placed on dry plants, feathers, and a scanty portion of down, which I believe is mostly plucked from the breast of the female.
Wilson (1832) describes a nest which he found, as follows:
On the 18th of May I visited a tree containing the nest of a summer duck, on the banks of Tuckahoe River, New Jersey. It was an old grotesque white oak, whose top had been torn off by a storm. It stood on the declivity of the bank, about 20 yards from the water. In this hollow and broken top, and about 6 feet down, on the soft decayed wood, lay 13 eggs, snugly covered with down, doubtless taken from the breast of the bird. This tree had been occupied, probably by the same pair, for four successive years.
Mr. William B. Crispin gave me his notes on a nest which he found near Salem, New Jersey, on April 25, 1908; it was in a natural cavity in a sour gum tree 40 feet from the ground; the 16 eggs were 3 feet below the opening in a nest of down mixed with dry leaves, which were probably taken there by squirrels the previous season; two gray squirrels were living just a few inches below the nest.
Mr. Henry R. Buck (1893) describes a nest found in a hole in a large apple tree near Hartford, Connecticut, as follows:
This tree was hardly 5 rods from an occupied house, and perhaps three times as far from a well-traveled road leading to the city. There was nothing to hide it from the road, and only a few trees in the immediate neighborhood. The trunk was hollow and had a wide split in one side from a height of 6 feet nearly to the ground.
I have a set of 14 eggs in my collection, taken in Norton, Massachusetts, on May 8, 1892, from a hollow apple tree; the cavity was 3 or 4 feet deep and the eggs lay in their bed of down 3 feet below the opening and only 2 feet above the ground. I found a nest in Taunton, Massachusetts, on May 19, 1917, containing 9 eggs, about 40 feet from the ground in a dead pine tree in a grove of tall trees near a house; the tree was so rotten that the cavity, which had once been a flicker's nest had broken open and much of the down had fallen out and was scattered around the grove; a few feet below the duck's nest was a gray squirrel's nest in a cavity, with several half grown young in it. I was shown another nest, near Taunton, in a natural cavity in a large elm, about 30 feet from the ground; the tree stood close to a much-traveled road and in the front yard of a farm house. Mr. R. S. Wheeler found a nest in a barn near the Sacramento River, California; the birds entered through a hole in the boards and built a nest in the hay. Mr. Herbert K. Job found a nest similarly located in a barn located near Kent, Connecticut. Mr. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) found a nest in South Carolina on April 25, 1906. "The eight eggs were nearly hatched, and were laid in a sleeping hole of the pileated woodpecker, in a living sweet gum tree, 40 feet above the ground and more than a mile from the nearest reservoir." Mr. T. G. Pearson (1891) found a nest in Florida, on April 13, containing 13 fresh eggs. "The nest was in a hollow stump 30 feet from the ground. The entrance had been made by a yellow-shafted flicker, and it really seemed impossible for a duck to pass in and out of a hole of such small size. The nest was lined with a thick layer of downy feathers from the breast of the old bird." Dr. Walter B. Sampson (1901) records a nest, which he found in California on April 29, 1900, "in a deserted home of a red-shafted flicker and placed about 25 feet up in a white oak tree"; this nest contained the remarkable number of 21 eggs.
The down in the wood duck's nest is grayish white or "pallid mouse gray," with nearly pure white centers. More or less rubbish from the cavity is mixed with it and the breast feathers found in it are pure white.
Eggs.--The wood duck raises but one brood in a season in any part of its wide range. The set usually consists of from 10 to 15 eggs, but sometimes only 6 or 8 eggs are laid and occasionally much larger sets have been found, ranging from 18 to 29 eggs. Mr. George D. Peck (1911) mentions a remarkable set that he found in Iowa, containing 31 eggs of the wood duck and 5 eggs of the hooded merganser. There are other cases on record where these two species have contended for the use of the same hole or have occupied it jointly ***. The eggs are nearly oval in shape, with a slight tendency toward ovate. The shell is smooth, hard, and somewhat glossy. The color is dull white or creamy white, perhaps pale buffy white in some cases or a color resembling old ivory white.
The measurements of 99 eggs in various collections average 51.1 by 38.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 55.5 by 41, 53.5 by 42, 48 by 38.5 and 50 by 37.3 millimeters.
Young.--The period of incubation is from 28 to 30 days. This duty is performed wholly by the female, but the male is more or less in attendance on her during this period and returns to help her care for the young. The young are provided with sharp claws which they use in climbing from the nest up to the entrance of the cavity, a distance of often 3 to 4 feet and sometimes as much as 6 or 8 feet. Much has been written about how the female conveys the young from the nest to the water in her bill, between her feet or even on her back, and several writers claim to have seen the first method employed. I am inclined to think that this method of conveyance is used only when circumstances make it necessary; if the nest cavity is not too high, or if it overhangs the water, or if there is soft open ground below it, I believe that the young are usually coaxed or urged to jump or flutter down and are then led by the old bird to the nearest water; certainly such is often the case.
Mr. J. H. Langille (1884) describes it very well as follows:
When the young are about 24 hours old, if the limb containing the nest be over the water, they may find their way severally to the edge, and dropping into their favorite element begin life's perilous career. If the nest be a little distant from the water, as is generally the case, the mother may seize them by the wing or neck, and convey them to it, or, landing them thus on the ground, may lead them thither in a flock. More commonly, however, the mother having thoroughly reconnoitered the place for some time, and now uttering her soft cooing call at the doorway, the little ones scramble up from the nest with the aid of their sharp toenails, and huddle around the mother a few minutes. The mother, now descending to the ground, calls again to the young, and they drop one by one on to the soft moss or dried leaves, their tiny bodies so enveloped in long down, falling scarcely harder than a leaf or a feather. Again they huddle around the mother bird; and, as the distance of the nest from the water is sometimes as much as 60 or 70 rods, and generally more or less on an elevation, they need the maternal guidance to their favorite element.
Audubon (1840) says:
If the nest is placed immediately over the water, the young, the moment they are hatched, scramble to the mouth of the hole, launch into the air with their little wings and feet spread out, and drop into their favorite element; but whenever their birthplace is at some distance from it, the mother carries them to it one by one in her bill, holding them so as not to injure their yet tender frame. On several occasions, however, when the hole was 30, 40, or more yards from a bayou or other piece of water, I observed that the mother suffered the young to fall on the grasses and dried leaves beneath the trees, and afterwards led them directly to the nearest edge of the next pool or creek. At this early age, the young answer to their parents' call with mellow 'pee, pee, pee' often and rapidly repeated. The call of the mother at such times is low, soft, and prolonged, resembling the syllables 'pe-ee, pe-ee.'
The young are carefully led along the shallow and grassy shores, and taught to obtain their food, which at this early period consists of small aquatic insects, flies, mosquitoes, and seeds. As they grow up, you now and then see the whole flock run as if it were along the surface of the sluggish stream in chase of a dragon fly, or to pick up a grasshopper or locust that has accidentally dropped upon it. They are excellent divers, and when frightened, instantly disappear, disperse below the surface, and make for the nearest shore, on attaining which they run for the woods, squat in any convenient place, and thus elude pursuit.
Mr. E. G. Kingsford (1917) has seen the wood duck carry its young to the water and thus relates his personal experience:
Early in July, 1898, while tented on the bank of the Michigamme River, township 43, north range 32 west, section 1, Iron County, Michigan, I had the good fortune to see it done. The nest was in a hollow pine that stood directly back of the tent and about 200 feet from the water, and the hole where the old duck went in was 50 or 60 feet from the ground. After seeing the old duck fly by the tent, to and from her feeding grounds up the river many times during the time of incubation, one morning before sunrise she flew by from the tree to the river with a little duck in her beak which she left in an eddy a short distance upstream. She then made 10 or 12 trips to the nest and each time took a little duck in her beak by the neck to the water, where they all huddled in a little bunch. It was all done in a few minutes, and she evidently took them to the water very soon after they hatched, as they were only little balls of down. In going to and from work, we passed the little bunch many times. On our approach the old duck would fly away and leave the little ones huddled in a bunch near the shore where the water was quiet.
Mr. E. F. Pope in a letter to Mr. Edward H. Forbush says:
Once while fishing on the Nueces River in southeastern Texas, I observed a female wood duck bringing part of her brood of 10 ducklings down from a white oak stub 28 feet above the water. There were three or four of the young already in the water when I appeared on the scene. She emerged from the cavity in the stub with a young duck on her back and simply dropped straight down into the water, using her wings to check the speed of her descent. When she arrived within a foot or two of the surface she suddenly assumed a vertical position which caused the duckling to slide from her back into the water. She rose quickly, circled a time or two, reentered the stub, and at once repeated the performance until the whole brood of 10 were on the water.
Mr. W. S. Cochrane, state game warden of Arkansas, also in a letter to Mr. Forbush, describes a similar performance; after watching for three hours, he saw the female carry down the young on her back, as follows:
She visited the nest several times and after circling around the woods returned and rested on the edge of the nest which was in a hollow stub of the oak. After resting there about 10 minutes she flew down toward the water with her wings slightly elevated, and when about 10 feet from the water she began flying in an upward position, allowing one of the young which she was carrying on her back to slide off over her tail into the water. She went through this performance 14 times.
Mr. A. B. Eastman (1915) gives us the following account of the behavior of the young:
One day a friend and I were out on a little camping and canoe trip and on rounding a sudden bend in the creek above the pond, we came upon a mother duck and about seven little ones. A sudden note from the mother caused a prompt disappearance of the ducklings into the depths below. The courageous mother, however, instead of beating a hasty retreat, as one would most naturally expect, came flying toward the canoe and flopped down just in front of us, beating the water with her wings and trying by every means to make us believe that a crippled duck was just within our grasp. Seeing no signs of the little ones, we started to follow the mother as if intending to catch her. She skillfully decoyed us up by the creek until around another bend when we were, in her estimation, a safe distance from her little brood. She then suddenly and miraculously recovered and quickly disappeared among the heavy growth of hardwood timber which clothes the banks of the creek. We promptly returned to the scene of the first encounter. The little ones had evidently recovered from their fright as we saw three of them swimming around. On seeing us, two of them dove, while the other made slowly for the bank, half submerged like a grebe. As soon as it landed we made a dash for the spot and the little fellow led us a merry chase through fallen timber, across ditches and through thicket and tangle. We finally corralled him, however, and made him pose as a photograph, much against his will. After taking a good look at the youngster, we set him down near the creek bank, and by the way he took to the water, we could imagine him congratulating himself on his fortunate escape from his terrible captors.
Mr. Manly Hardy, in his manuscript notes sent to Major Bendire, relates the following incident:
I once came suddenly upon a female with six half-grown young. As I approached the young ran into the tall grass while the mother flew away. I captured one while they were trying to escape to a bend in the stream above. An hour or more after, while approaching the stream above by a road through the woods from which I could see and not be seen, I saw the old one who had evidently been below looking for the missing one, flying high in the air until she was nearly opposite me, when dropping into the water she uttered a sharp call note upon which three young came out from the bushes on the right-hand bank and swam toward her--this evidently not pleasing her, she uttered a different note when they turned and swam back. She then, without moving, gave the first call note again, when two swam out from the left bank and came to her. Taking these with her she swam up abreast of where the others had disappeared, called them out and swam upstream with the united family. It was plain that she could count enough to know if one was missing, also that she had different notes by which she called her young or sent them away from her.
Plumages.--The downy young wood duck is much darker above and paler below than the young mallard; the lower mandible and the smaller tip of the upper mandible are of a rich yellowish shade, which will serve to distinguish it from other ducks. The crown is a very deep rich "seal brown" or "bone brown," or halfway between these colors and black; a stripe of the same color extends from the eye to the dark color of the occiput and there is a lighter auricular spot; the back shades from "bister" anteriorly to the same color as the crown posteriorly; the hind neck is of a darker shade of "bister"; the sides of the head and neck, including a superciliary stripe and the lores are "cream color" shaded locally with "Naples yellow"; the throat and under parts are "ivory yellow" to "Marguerite yellow," the colors of the upper and under parts mingling on the sides; there is a pale yellowish spot on each wing and on each side of the rump.
The plumage appears first on the scapulars and flanks, then on the tail, breast, and belly, then on the back and head, the last of the down showing on the hind neck and rump when the bird is nearly fully grown; the wing feathers are the last to grow. In this juvenal plumage the back varies from "argus brown" to "raw amber" with a metallic luster of purple, bronze, or green; the wings are similar to those of the adult female; the under parts are whitish, mottled with dull brown and tinged with bright brown or buff on the chest and flanks. The sexes look very much alike, but the wing of the male is more brilliant than the female's and the head pattern is different in the two sexes, each being a suggestion of the adult pattern; the crown is "clove brown" in both sexes but in the male it has a greenish luster; the white around the eye is more conspicuous in the female; the sides of the head are dull gray and the throat is white in both sexes, but in the male the white extends up into the cheek and side of the neck, as in the adult. The sexes soon begin to differentiate and the progress toward maturity is rapid. In the young male the mottled belly is replaced by white during September and October; the rich chestnut brown comes in on the chest and the vermiculated flank feathers are acquired. During October the adult color pattern of the head is assumed, and many of the brilliant, bronze, green, blue, and purple feathers appear in the back, scapulars and tail, so that by November the young male has assumed a plumage which is practically adult, though the full brilliancy and perfection of plumage is not acquired until the following year.
The adult male begins to molt into the eclipse plumage in June or July, and the wings are molted in July or August, while the eclipse plumage is at its height. This plumage much resembles that of the young male, except that the belly of the adult is nearly pure white, instead of mottled as in the young, and the back retains nearly as much of the metallic colors as in the full plumage. The wings are molted only once and are always distinctive; also the brilliant colors of the eyes, feet, and bill are retained during the eclipse stage, though they lose a little of their brilliancy. The molt out of the eclipse occurs in August and September; I have seen an adult male in full plumage again as early as September 12 and another that had not finished the molt on October 16.
Food.--The wood duck obtains most if its food on or above the surface of the water, though it can tip up to feed on shallow bottoms if necessary, and it feeds largely on land. A large part of its food consists of insects which it finds on the surface of the water or on the leaves and stems of aquatic plants, such as beetles, mayflies, locusts, and various creeping insects. Here it also obtains small fish, minnows, frogs, tadpoles, snails, and small salamanders. Nuttall (1834) says:
I have seen a fine male whose stomach was wholly filled with a mass of the small coleoptera, called Donatias, which are seen so nimbly flying over or resting on the leaves of the pond lily. These birds are therefore very alert in quest of their prey, or they never could capture these wary insects.
Probably the greater part of the food of the wood duck, during the fall and winter particularly, is vegetable, of which a great variety is consumed. The bulbs of Sagittaria and other water plants, as well as the seeds and leaves of many varieties, are taken with the animal food in summer. Later in the season the wild rice marshes are visited and many wild fruits such as grapes and berries are found on dry land. The grain fields are apparently never visited, but the southern rice fields are favorite feeding grounds in fall and winter. The wood duck is particularly fond of acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts, which it picks up on the ground in the woods, turning over the fallen leaves to find them. Messrs. Beyer, Allison, and Kopman (1909) state that, in Louisiana, "an undoubted factor in determining the abundance of the wood duck is the presence of the water chinquapin (Nelumbium luteum). As a food of the wood duck the seeds of this plant are extremely important."
Mr. Douglas C. Mabbot (1920) says of the food of this duck:
More than nine-tenths (90.19 percent) of the food of the wood duck consists of vegetable matter. This high proportion of vegetable food is very similar to that taken by the mallard. With the wood duck it is quite evenly distributed among a large number of small items, chief among which are the following: duckweeds, 10.35 percent; cypress cones and galls, 9.25; sedge seeds and tubers, 9.14; grasses and grass seeds, 8.17; pondweeds and their seeds, 6.53; acorns and beechnuts, 6.28; seeds of water lilies and leaves of water shield, 5.95; seeds of water elm and its allies, 4.75; of smartweeds and docks, 4.74; of coontail, 2.86; of arrow arum and skunk cabbage, 2.42; of bur marigold and other composites, 2.38; of buttonbush and allied plants, 2.25; of bur reed, 1.96; wild celery and frogbit, 1.31; nuts of bitter pecan, 0.91; grape seeds, 0.82; and seeds of swamp privet and ash, 0.72 percent. The remaining 9.4 percent was made up of a large number of minor items.
The wood duck's animal food, which amounted to 9.81 percent of the total, consisted chiefly of the following items: dragon flies and damsel flies and their nymphs, 2.54 percent; bugs, 1.56; beetles, 1.02; grasshoppers and crickets, 0.23; flies and ants, bees, and wasps, 0.07; miscellaneous insects, 0.97; spiders and mites, 0.63; crustaceans, 0.08; and miscellaneous animal matter, 2.71 percent. Thus, nearly two-thirds of the animal food consisted of insects.
Behavior.--No duck is so expert as the wood duck in threading its way through the interlacing branches of the forest, at which its skill has been compared with that of the passenger pigeon. I have stood on the shore of a woodland pond in the darkening twilight of a summer evening and watched these ducks come in to roost; on swift and silent wings they would glide like meteors through the tree tops, twisting, turning, and dodging, until it was almost too dark for me to see them. Ordinarily its flight is swift and direct, usually high in the air. The short neck and white breast are good field marks for the female and the color pattern of the male is conspicuous at a long distance; it is said to resemble the baldpate in flight. When migrating it flies in small flocks, probably family parties.
The wood duck is a swift and agile swimmer and can dive if necessary. Audubon (1840) says of its movements:
On the ground the wood duck runs nimbly and with more grace than most other birds of its tribe. On reaching the shore of a pond or stream, it immediately shakes its tail sidewise, looks around, and proceeds in search of food. It moves on the larger branches of trees with the same apparent ease; and, while looking at 30 or 40 of these birds perched on a single sycamore on the bank of a secluded bayou, I have conceived the sight as pleasing as any that I have ever enjoyed. They always reminded me of the Muscovy duck, of which they look as if a highly finished and flattering miniature. They frequently prefer walking on an inclined log or the fallen trunk of a tree, one end of which lies in the water, while the other rests on the steep bank, to betaking themselves to flight at the sight of an approaching enemy. In this manner I have seen a whole flock walk from the water into the woods, as a steamer was approaching them in the eddies of the Ohio or Mississippi. They swim and dive well, when wounded and closely pursued, often stopping at the edge of the water with nothing above it but the bill, but at other times running to a considerable distance into the woods, or hiding in a canebrake beside a log. In such places I have often found them, having been led to their place of concealment by my dog. When frightened, they rise by a single spring from the water, and are as apt to make directly for the woods as to follow the stream. When they discover an enemy while under the covert of shrubs or other plants on a pond, instead of taking to wing, they swim off in silence among the thickest weeds, so as generally to elude your search by landing and running over a narrow piece of ground to another pond. In autumn, a whole covey may often be seen standing or sitting on a floating log, pluming and cleaning themselves for hours. On such occasions the knowing sportsman commits great havoc among them killing half a dozen or more at a shot.
Its only notes seem to be little whistles. One of the most peculiar notes is uttered when it is disturbed and consists of a series of little 'chick, chick, chick's' low and hardly discernible at a distance of 30 feet. Accompanying these little monosyllables is a low thump that seems to be uttered immediately before the 'chick' but seeming to be made by different organs than are used vocally. I It has the peculiar intensity of the sound made by the springing in and out of the bottom of a tin or other can. It may be made during the utterance of the 'chick,' for though quite loud positively it is so illusive that it is hard to tell exactly just when it is made. It does seem however to be made quite independently of the other sounds, though it is never heard alone.
Another note he gives when he is quiet and usually when quite alone. I have heard it several times in the dead of night. It is comparatively loud and consists of a series of from half a dozen to a dozen whistles like 'H-o-o-w-e-e-e-t.' They follow each other rapidly and are without accent, the 'H-o-o' gliding smoothly into the 'w-e-e-e-t' without change in inflection. The whole having much the timbre of the sound made by drawing the finger nail sharply over and across the grain of heavily shot silk. Another note is made when he seems to be talking to himself and is something like 'Chick a wangh,' the 'angh' being rather drawn out, and the first syllable short. It is not loud either, in fact none of the notes it makes seem fitted for any more than the most private conversation. The only other note that I have heard it utter is a little short 'cheep, cheep.'
Mr. Elon H. Eaton (1910) describes the note as follows:
The call of the drake is a mellow 'peet, peet,' but when frightened it utters a harsher note which is usually written 'hoo eek, hoo eek.' The note of the duck, when startled, is a sharp 'cr-r-e-ek, cr-r-e-ek, cr-r-e-ek,' somewhat like the drake's alarm note.
The intimacy of the wood duck with the hooded merganser on its breeding grounds has already been referred to above ***. It also associates with the hooded merganser somewhat at other seasons, as similar haunts are congenial to both species. On migrations it usually flocks by itself and is not much given to frequenting the open resorts of other ducks. It is more essentially a bird of the wooded bottoms, narrow sluggish streams, heavily timbered reservoirs, and forest swamps.
Young wood ducks have many natural enemies to contend with, such as large pickerel, pike, and snapping turtles, which attack them from below and drag them under water to drown them. I quote again from Audubon's (1840) matchless biography of this species:
Their sense of hearing is exceedingly acute, and by means of it they often save themselves from their wily enemies the mink, the polecat, and the raccoon. The vile snake that creeps into their nest and destroys their eggs, is their most pernicious enemy on land. The young, when on the water, have to guard against the snapping turtle, the garfish, and the eel and, in the Southern Districts, against the lashing tail and the tremendous jaws of the alligator.
The wood duck has always been able to hold its own against its natural enemies, but it has yielded to the causes of destruction brought about by the hand of man and by the encroachments of civilization. The wholesale cutting down of forests and draining of swampy woodlands has destroyed its nesting sites and made its favorite haunts untenable. Its beautiful plumage has always made it an attractive mark for gunners, collectors, and taxidermists, and its feathers have been in demand for making artificial trout flies. Almost anyone who has found a wood duck's nest has been tempted to take the eggs home to hatch them, as these ducks are easily domesticated and make attractive pets. It is so tame and unsuspicious that it is easily shot in large numbers and it has been extensively caught in traps. From the great abundance, noted by all the earlier writers, its numbers have been reduced to a small fraction of what they were; in many places, where it was once abundant, it is now unknown or very rare; and it has everywhere been verging towards extinction. Fortunately our attention was called to these facts by Dr. A. K. Fisher (1901) and Mr. William Dutcher (1907) before it was too late, and now that suitable laws have been enacted for its protection in many states, it has been saved from extinction and is even on the increase in some places.
The first fall issue consists of local ducks, which migrate during the early part of the month of September. The second comes down from the Northern States about the end of September, while the last comes down in the early part of October. The second and third do not stay nearly so long as the first issue, which is the largest and collects in quantities on favorite grounds. The second and third collect in a different manner; they drop into willows, buck brush and on rivers and timber-clad ponds, in singles, pairs, or little flocks, about nightfall, and depart before morning; these places are used by them nightly during their migrations, until all have gone south, and appear to be regular stopping places. The ducks of the third issue are full fledged upon their arrival.
Game.--As a game bird the wood duck has always been popular, as it is a clean feeder, often very fat, and a delicious table bird. It will come readily to live decoys or even to well-made wooden decoys, if properly handled; it is such a swift flier and so clever in avoiding places that it has found to be dangerous that considerable skill and strategy is necessary to hunt it successfully. One of the best methods of hunting it is to lie in wait for it, properly concealed, on one of its fly ways between its feeding grounds and its roosting places, but to succeed in this the hunter must make a thorough study of its movements and learn all he can about the nature of the country in which it lives. Wood ducks usually roost for the night in small open pools in the woods, where they are sheltered and secure. About an hour before sunrise, or as soon as it begins to be light, they leave these pools and fly to their feeding grounds in the wild rice marshes, in sluggish streams and ponds filled with aquatic vegetation or along the wooded banks where they can pick up seeds, nuts, and acorns. If necessary, they will rise and fly over the tops of the forest trees, but they prefer to fly along the open lanes, streams or passageways which are usually found connecting the ponds in the regions they frequent. Here they fly low in regular flight lines and if the gunner places his blind in some narrow passageway between the trees in such a fly way, he is practically sure of good sport for about three hours in the morning and again for an hour or two on the return flight at sunset.
Mr. Dwight W. Huntington (1903) describes another method of hunting them:
At English Lake I shot them from a light boat, jumping them in the wild rice. The punter pushed the boat (which contained a revolving office chair for the gunner) rapidly. The birds often arose at short range and presented easy marks. They were very abundant on the Kankakee at certain bends in the river where they fed on acorns which dropped from the oaks into the water. A friend one day killed over 70 of these birds over decoys, and I often made fairly good scores shooting from a blind, but my fondness for moving about and exploring the marshes and ponds for other ducks and a change of scene always prevented my making very large bags.
Winter.--Long before the autumn
frosts have begun to close the northern ponds the tender
"summer duck" has moved southward toward its winter home
in the rice fields of the southern states, the wooded sloughs and
timbered ponds of Louisiana, and the cypress swamps of Florida,
mingling with the summer birds of these congenial climes. A few
hardier individuals winter farther north, where they can find
sheltered ponds and streams with an abundant food supply. They do
not, like many other ducks, frequent the seacoast in winter; if
found near the coast at all, they are in the fresh-water ponds and
streams, protected from the winter winds.
Wood Duck* Aix sponsa
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1923. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part I): 158-171. United States Government Printing Office