Each year, when spring returns, so do the numerous species of waterfowl that fly through Iowa on their annual migrations. Fortunately, Iowa lies along the Mississippi Flyway, a major migration route for many species of birds, so we are able to observe large numbers of birds as they head north and south each year. One species that we regularly see this time of year is the wood duck, a species that only a century ago was faced with extinction. Its comeback is one of our nation’s finest conservation success stories.
Wood ducks are a little different than other ducks because they are cavity-nesting birds and, as a result, spend a lot of their time in trees. By all accounts, they were quite common when the first settlers arrived in North America. But, by the late 1800’s, wood duck numbers were practically nonexistent. Wetland habitat loss and the loss of bottomland hardwood forests, along with extensive market hunting, doomed the species to almost certain extinction.
But, in 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibited the hunting of migratory birds except by the issuance of a license. So, because of this law, wood duck hunting was banned. Soon afterwards, a biologist named Dr. Frank Bellrose developed a nesting box to replace the tree cavities that had been lost. As a result of these two developments, the wood duck population began to increase. By 1941, wood duck numbers had improved to the point that licenses were issued for limited hunting seasons.
Wood duck numbers continued to grow throughout the decades and are now quite stable. Hunting is still regulated, as dictated by the MBTA, as is the hunting of other waterfowl species. Nesting boxes continue to provide cavities in places where old-growth trees are sparse. And, recent efforts to protect and restore wetlands and bottomland habitats have provided new areas for Wood Ducks to inhabit. As a result of these efforts, wood ducks continue to be quite common throughout North America.
As spring weather sets in, and our wetlands open up for the year, we will once again see wood ducks moving back into the area. They will find the wetlands and bottomlands that we have preserved for them. They will find the old, hollow trees and the nesting boxes that we have provided for them. And, later this spring, little fluffball ducklings will emerge from those tree cavities and nesting boxes. They’ll jump out, not knowing, yet, how to fly. Then, they’ll bounce a few times and take off for the water. There they’ll start a new life, the next generation of a species that, at one time, almost disappeared.