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Washburn: The amazing wood duck

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The wood duck is one of the Mississippi Flyway’s -- and Iowa’s -- most recreationally important waterfowl. This fact is especially true for me. During the course of a year, I spend more time hunting, observing, photographing and working with wood ducks than any other single species.

In addition to its elegantly crested head and kaleidoscope plumage, the colorful wood duck is unique from other waterfowl in many ways. Instead of communicating in familiar duck-like quacks, woodies converse through a wide range of sounds that vary from penetrating screeches, to softly spoken mews, grunts and whistles. Although I can’t site any studies to back the claim, I think wood ducks may have the most developed vocabulary of any duck.

While most ducks are graceful in the air but rather clumsy on the ground, wood ducks remain agile whether on land, sea, or air. On the ground, they can run like pheasants. When foraging through the timber for grapes or late summer acorns, they can rapidly move along skinny tree branches with all the ease of a circus wire walker.

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Another rather unique feature is the woodie’s unduck-like habit of nesting in elevated natural tree cavities – some as high as 50 or 60 feet above the forest floor. While the adaptation is effective, it is also dangerous. When the nests of "normal" grassland nesting ducks are raided by raccoons, skunks, and 'possums, the eggs are lost but the hen almost always escapes.

By contrast, when a marauding raccoon discovers a cavity nesting wood duck, there is often no avenue of escape, resulting in the loss of both hen and eggs. The danger is illustrated by the fact that female wood ducks are subject to the highest nesting mortality of any of our duck species. But those hens that lose nests but manage to survive the attack are the most persistent re-nesters of any waterfowl.

Nest losses can be at least partially offset by erecting safe, predator-proof nest boxes. Back in the 1970s, Cerro Gordo County Conservation Board Director Ben Van Gundy and I had a couple of extra wood duck nest boxes that we installed at Mallard Marsh the first week of July.

We didn’t expect the boxes to be used that late in the season but thought the installations would give us a head start on the next year’s nesting season. While sprucing up a number of already established boxes the following March, I decided to make sure the wood chip bedding in the two new boxes was still in good order.

Much to my amazement, I discovered a complete clutch of hatched wood duck eggshells in one of the boxes. Even if a hen would have started laying eggs in the new box the same week it was installed, the ducklings wouldn’t have hatched until at least mid-August – nearly three months past peak nesting. That was one persistent hen, and her final attempt had finally paid off.

COLLECTION: The latest columns from Lowell Washburn

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Mix the sugar water and fill the backyard feeders. The fall migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds is underway. For those wishing to obtain e…

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Iowa’s small game hunting seasons are just around the corner.

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Iowa’s special teal seasons are the best single change in waterfowl regulations in the past 50 years.

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Iowa’s fall waterfowl seasons kick off Sept. 1 with a special 16-day, teal-only duck hunt. The bonus teal event is followed by a dizzying seri…

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 This is one bird that is definitely more often heard than seen.

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“There was nothing to see but prairie, green stretches of grassland rolling quietly outward ‘till lost in the haze that trembled on the horizon.” 

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Following decades of silence, Iowa’s most secretive reptiles are currently emitting radio signals from the watery depths of Eagle Lake.

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I was staking out – and hoping to photograph – an active nest of red-bellied woodpeckers.

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  With this year’s mulberry crop reaching full maturity, it’s time to grab your bucket and head for the woods.

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As predictable as lengthening days and summer heat, phone calls regarding “orphaned” wildlife are streaming in.

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I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive when I learned that Chuck had moved into the neighborhood.

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It’s called the golden oyster and is a species that every mushroom hunting enthusiast should be aware of.

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The hatch is on. Breaking free of their eggshell imprisonment, broods of newborn wood ducks are getting their first glimpse of the Iowa outdoo…

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The spring songbird migration is winging northward. And while the larger and more colorful species – such as tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks …

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Turkey hunting spins on a dime.

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Turkey hunting spins on a dime.

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The much-anticipated, spring mushroom season is currently sweeping northward across Iowa.  And although several mushroom species are edible, the famed morel reigns as undisputed king.  

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Once they’ve been at it for a few seasons, most mushroom hunters will have amassed a collection of stories recounting their grandest moments in the spring woodlands.

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 One robin may not make a spring, but when the turkey vultures return to Clear Lake’s Clausen’s Cove, you know the season has changed.

Enjoy more wildlife tales online at Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog

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