Ducks the Color of Autumn

Shooting a wood duck in flooded timber is like trying to gun down a stone released from a slingshot, only harder

a

Photo © Chuck Heiting

I came to this conclusion while hunting ducks in a green-tree reservoir near Stuttgart, the self-proclaimed Rice and Duck Capital of the World. Mallards had not yet made their way into Arkansas' Grand Prairie in appreciable numbers, but wood ducks, year-round residents in the Natural State, were buzzing through the pin oaks like bumblebees round a flower garden. My purist waterfowling companions, who hunt only mallards, agreed that the lack of greenhead action made woodies fair game—for me. They wouldn't join my follies, but I was told I would be "allowed" to try pass shooting some of the birds streaking past our blind.

The wood ducks usually appeared in pairs, squealing loudly as they flew past. Oo-eek! Oo-eek. Their distinctive flight calls left no doubt how they earned the nickname "squealers." Those that weren't calling still were audible on their approach. The noise made as air rushed through their pinions closely resembled the sound of a bottle rocket fired on the Fourth of July.

It seemed that shooting one would be an impossible task. And in several instances, my assumption was correct. Many birds passed at such breakneck speed, there wasn't time to shoulder my shotgun and shoot. No problem, I thought. I'll just keep my gun at the ready and take the next one that comes by. But after 15 minutes waiting, I no longer could maintain a shooting stance. And, as one might expect, the instant I brought my shotgun down, two woodies flashed across the opening in the timber right in front of me.

My hunting companions found all this rather humorous. "You might as well give it up, Sutton," one of them said, chuckling. "You'd have better luck hunting quail with a pea shooter."

Undaunted, I continued my quest. And at 10 o'clock, almost four hours into the hunt, everything came together—sort of. I shouldered my shotgun, and almost immediately a pair of woodies came into view, flying fast from right to left, my favorite cross-shot swing. I aimed ahead of the lead bird and fired. The rear bird fell.

"That bird out front was just moving too fast for me to draw a bead on it," I told my hunting buddies. "So I had to take the one behind it."

"Well, lucky for you," Bob said as he waded back with the duck in hand. "The one you got was a drake. It sure is a beauty."

Bob held in his hand a bird more beautiful than any I had ever seen, a bird of such gorgeous coloring, it hardly seemed real. Its glistening green head was crowned with a short rakish crest; its back was a blend of magnificent blues and purples that shimmered and glinted like metal in the sun; its breast was rich chestnut, and its sides the color of marigolds. 

The bird's glossy bill was painted with broad brush strokes of red, black and white, and the large crimson eyes bore likeness to the glowing coals of a campfire. So brilliant were these colors, and so sharply contrasted, that the bird appeared to be painted. It was as if some skillful artist had spread upon its plumage the richest and most vivid pigments at his command; and yet there was nothing artificial in the effect produced, but, on the contrary, a perfection of beauty as natural as the beauty of a flower.

When I was a youngster hunting ducks in the river bottoms of eastern Arkansas, we rarely saw wood ducks, and never shot them. They were scarce throughout their range then, victims of market hunting and destruction of their bottomland hardwood habitat. Populations were protected by law.

Fortunately, in the 35 years since I started hunting ducks, the wood duck has rebounded remarkably, and now ranks among our most plentiful game birds. In many areas, we can hunt them without fear of harming the population, and for that, I am glad. I did not mind passing them by when they needed protection, and when mallards are plentiful in the woods I hunt, I probably won't give a second thought to taking wood ducks. But on days like that day last fall when mallards are scarce, the abundance of wood ducks gives me opportunity to take home game for the table. And for me, that, as much as anything, is the reason I hunt. I see beauty in wood ducks, but when I am hunting, my eyes follow them through the timber like a cat watches a bird. I hunt wood ducks because I know they provide the makings for memorable dinners.

And so, after admiring the wood duck I shot that morning, I returned to my hunting. And by noon, when our hunt ended, I had one more wood duck for the dinner table.

"You should be glad, Sutton," one of my companions said, "that you don't have to rely on your shooting skills for everything you eat."

That I was. But I was already looking forward to the day when I could try again for these autumn-colored birds. Wood ducks are challenging targets to be sure, but that's one thing that sets them apart from other, more commonly hunted species of waterfowl.

If my story has convinced you to give them a try this season, read on and learn more about their incredible history and some tactics that may help you bring more home for the dinner table.

Identification

Wood duck drakes are considered by many to be among the world's most beautiful ducks. They are boldly patterned with iridescent maroon, green and purple and have a distinctive white chin patch and a white-and-red bill. Females are grayish brown with lighter flanks, a white belly and broad white eye-rings. Both sexes sport a conspicuous head crest and have a blue speculum.

On the wing, the wood duck's white belly contrasts very strikingly with the dark breast and wings. The head is held above the level of the body, and the bill is pointed down at an angle. The short neck and long square tail are conspicuous. The flight is swift and direct, and flocks are usually small.

Range

The wood duck ranges throughout much of eastern North America, from Nova Scotia west to the north-central U.S. and south to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. The species also occurs in western coastal areas of the U.S. Populations are scarce in western interior states, especially Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

The northern half of the wood duck's range is occupied only the breeding season, with breeding populations highest in the Mississippi River Valley. Birds nesting in New England winter in the Atlantic states from the Carolinas southward. Midwestern wood ducks winter in the area extending from Georgia west to Texas. Upper west coast wood ducks will winter in southern California and the Mexican Pacific coast. Southern breeding wood ducks are year-round residents.

Life History

The most secretive of our waterfowl, wood ducks rarely are found on large expanses of open water. They are creatures of deeply forested wetlands, seeking the seclusion of cypress swamps, timbered river bottoms and willow-lined creeks. So strong is the bird's attachment to woodlands that even during migration it is seldom found away from trees.

Trees supply wood ducks with nesting sites and much of their food. Young are raised in tree cavities twenty to 50 feet above ground within a few yards of quiet, undisturbed bodies of water. The wood duck's diet consists largely of acorns, pecans and other woodland and wetland seeds.

Historical Notes

Wood ducks are common now, but they haven't always been plentiful. Near the turn of the century, populations reached all-time lows as a result of disappearing bottomland forests and market hunting. Wood ducks numbers fell so low the hunting season was closed for 20 years. This protection allowed our most colorful duck to begin slowly rebuilding its numbers, and in 1941, the hunting season reopened with a modest one-bird limit in 14 states.

For nearly two more decades, the wood duck's status was carefully monitored. In some years hunters were allowed to kill one daily; during other years, the season was closed. Then, in the early 1960s, one wood duck per day became the standard, a limit that eventually was raised to two daily in the three eastern flyways. At the same time, the wood duck's eastern population expanded its range westward into parts of the Central Flyway where 50 years ago it was unknown.

Many factors helped increase and stabilize wood duck populations, including a plentiful supply of artificial nest boxes built by government officials and conservation-minded citizens, the construction of thousands of wooded ponds, and the comeback of the beaver (which creates prime nesting and rearing habitat for wood ducks). The species' population growth and range expansion is testimony to what proper duck management can achieve. This growth has been so remarkable that today the wood duck is the second most common duck in the bag of Atlantic and Mississippi Flyway hunters.

Hunting Wood Ducks

To successfully hunt wood ducks, first you must find them. If you fish on creeks, rivers or ponds, or squirrel hunt near water, you may already know of spots where wood ducks hang out. Beaver ponds, sloughs, creeks, rivers, farm ponds in woods, floodplain potholes and forested swamps all can hold substantial numbers of woodies. There's excellent hunting for wood ducks on many bottomland wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges within the winter range described above, but only footwork and advance scouting will actually tell you if the ducks are there.

On certain rivers and bayous, float hunting can be extremely effective. Canoes or johnboats can be used, but canoes often are better because of their easy maneuverability and narrow profile. Regardless of the craft, camouflage it before each hunt with camo netting or splotches of flat brown and green paint. Dead branches or brush draped over the bow add to the effect.

Two hunters work better than one for float hunting. One paddles from the rear while the other handles the gun in the bow. Both should keep a low profile, sitting, if necessary, on the boat's floor. Keep the boat headed straight downstream, and remain immobile and silent. When approaching stream bends, hug the inside edge. This allows a closer approach to birds that may be around the bend.

Hunting "mud-puddle" habitats—small, out-of-the-way waters such as beaver ponds, brush-entangled swamps, little overflow lakes and backwoods farm ponds—is another way to zero in on wood ducks. Foods in these secluded stillwaters attract the birds in great numbers. 

Jump-shooting is one technique for hunting these waters. The hunter studies the contour of the land surrounding the water then figures the best way to sneak within gunning range without being detected. It may mean walking a quarter-mile then belly-crawling 50 yards to the water's edge. Or it may be as simple as slipping into some brush on the outside of a pond levee.

You also can sneak into the area before daylight or a couple hours before dark and wait in hiding until the ducks come. Use a portable blind for this hunting, or wear camouflage and hunker down in brush near the water's edge. Some hunters use three or four mallard decoys to help draw the birds in, but this isn't always necessary, especially if wood ducks are using the spot regularly.

In my experience, to enjoy wood duck hunting to its fullest, one should don waders and camouflage clothing and be waiting, waist-deep in the water of a flooded pin-oak flat, when wood ducks come roaring in at dawn or dusk. Decoys are unnecessary, although a half dozen mallard sets may serve to put the birds at ease and coax them to circle overhead before pitching in. There's no need for fancy calling either, so even novice waterfowlers can go it alone.

Quick instinctive shooting is best, especially during the first few minutes after legal shooting time. Woodies are on top of you in flooded timber almost before you can spot them, especially on foggy mornings. The ducks appear out of the mist and vanish quickly if you react too slowly. If you miss your first few shots, however, don't despair. Odds are you'll be able to adjust your shooting in time to bag some woodies.

Like me, many waterfowlers remember days when wood ducks were illegal game. But thanks to intensive management and protection, hunting opportunities for these home-grown ducks are plentiful again. Hunting this autumn-colored bird is a magical experience not to be missed. 

Keith Sutton
15601 Mountain Dr.
Alexander, AR 72002