Wood Ducks And Beaver Ponds: A Connection?

Both wood ducks and beavers have made remarkable comebacks across the South. Are these phenomena related? (November 2007)

Photo by Mike Marsh.

On the next occasion you don your waders and head out hours before daybreak, braving frigid morning air to await the blur of wood ducks as they take their early-morning flight, tip your hat to the large, toothy rodents responsible for creating the miserable flooded mess that the wood ducks call home. Beavers and wood ducks go hand in hand. Woodies are fond of waters with plenty of wooded cover -- hence the name -- and a new-built beaver pond offers habitat that attracts and keeps wood ducks in the vicinity.

The wood duck can sometimes be the most reliable among all of the Southern duck hunter's winged quarry. The brightly colored ducks are prevalent throughout the Southeast, and are the most abundant of the wild duck species to breed and live out their life cycles as full-time residents in our Southeastern states.

Hunters also benefit from the great number of wood ducks that migrate south along the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways during the colder winter months. During mild winters, other migratory species may even remain farther north, making the wood duck the only dependable target for Southern duck hunters. Returning home with a couple of woodies in the game bag can save an otherwise unproductive day of staring towards the sky waiting for a flock of mallards to show.

Known as "dabblers," because they tilt into the water to feed instead of diving beneath the surface, woodies rarely leave their woody habitat. They fly very little, and generally stick close to vegetation at water's edge. Wetland areas with large numbers of oak trees make ideal habitat for the crested birds. Wood ducks feed heavily on acorns in the fall in preparation for the winter months, switching to a high-protein diet such as insects in the spring; they also feed on aquatic plants and duckweed.

Hunting woodies requires tactics different from those used to pursue other duck species more apt to fly over open water. Using decoys isn't practical for hunting wood ducks. They fly too fast, and usually through dense cover too thick to really see the decoys in. Wood ducks don't take to the air very often, so the best chance to catch them in flight is at first light.

Find a clearing in a wooded swamp, perhaps near a fallen tree or two and a break in the canopy, and wait for that first early-morning flight, which brings your best chance of the day. You can also position yourself close to the bank of a wooded creek, keeping your eye on the opening above the water for woodies using it as a flyway.

Sometimes hunting by boat or canoe is the best option; it can be productive any time of day. By easing along creek and river edges -- especially waterways with lots of twists and turns -- woodies can be jumped, their usual warning call hopefully providing you time to take aim. Camouflaging the front of your boat with some brush and branches can be a good idea.

Targeting woodies from a boat or canoe works best with a partner, with one of you paddling the vessel and the other sitting up front ready to shoot. But be ready: A wood duck can fly up to speeds of 40 to 55 miles per hour.

The woodies' preference for sticking close to dense woods makes the birds' numbers more difficult to determine with the aerial surveys used for counting other duck species on open water. Biologists have greater success with monitoring the birds by means of banding methods. Many woodies taken by hunters show that the birds were banded in the same state, and that most Southern states are sustaining their local populations. Even with the added number of woodies that visit us on the southerly migration in the winter making them seem especially plentiful, hunting seasons need to be carefully monitored so as to not deplete populations.

THE WOOD DUCK STORY

Wood ducks weren't always so plentiful. Hundreds of years ago, they flourished in our country's dense woodlands, along secluded ponds, marshes and slow-moving creeks. As man moved in, eradicating large swaths of forest through logging and clearing for farmland and draining swamplands, the wood duck's habitat diminished. Especially hard hit were the hollow hardwood trees used for nesting. Excessive hunting pressure from long seasons and large bag limits both severely reduced numbers, with commercial market hunting playing a big role.

Conservation measures were few and far between during that period, and the number of officers available to enforce any laws was correspondingly low. These factors combined to put the wood duck's survival as a species in grave peril, and as a result, the wood duck had virtually disappeared by the turn of the 20th century.

THE BEAVER TALE

Oddly enough, another aspect of the humans' invasion that greatly affected the wood duck population was the fur trade. One of the most heavily desired pelts was that of the beaver. The rise and fall of the wood duck population in a given area can be directly connected to the presence of beavers, and the degree of trapping pressure put upon them.

Before the European entry into North America, beavers were hunted and trapped by Native Americans, providing a staple source of meat and fur. However, from the 1600s through the 1800s, European settlers heavily exploited the beaver population. Beaver furs were valuable commodities, and the pelts were even used as currency in those days. In fact, the first westward expansion of settlers into frontier regions resulted primarily from growing demand for beaver pelts.

Large trading companies shipped the pelts throughout the world for use in making coats and felted beaver pelt hats. The oldest and largest of the North American trading companies was Hudson's Bay Company. In fact, Hudson's Bay Company was the first commercial corporation established in North America and was at one time the largest landowner in the world; it continues in business today.

Hudson's Bay was established in the late 1660s after two French-born fur-traders convinced some Boston businessmen and their British backers that profit was to be made in the fur-trading business. Beaver pelts were soon being traded for axe heads, knives, fishhooks, muskets, ammunition, gunpowder, cloth, linens, jewelry, brandy and rum.

As important as were the economic benefits of the fur trade, the political benefits were also substantial. Fur trading became an avenue for creating alliances and maintaining good relations with indigenous peoples. Those supplying better pelts and doing business in a reliable manner became allies in times of upheaval and war.

All of which is to point out that beavers became the prime target of virtually every trapper in North Am

erica, including those in the Southeast. With all the economic and political benefits to be gained from the trade in beaver pelts, the species became quite scarce across its entire natural range by the late 1800s, especially so east of the Mississippi River. The expansion of agriculture and the clearing of land also contributed to the depletion of the beavers' natural habitat.

BEAVER RECOVERY

Beaver restocking programs were introduced in the 1930s and '40s. Animals were purchased from states that still had native populations and released into areas whose populations had diminished but whose habitat was intact. The beavers have since made a healthy comeback, and with its recovery and the revival of its crafty engineering, wood ducks also began to show up where beavers were actively maintaining dams.

A study performed on beavers compared two sites in which beaver colonies existed. At one site, beavers were trapped, while at the other, trapping was prohibited. At the former, beaver density remained constant and the number of new dam sites increased very little, while at the latter, the density of the beaver colonies doubled in a four-year period, and the number of dams increased dramatically.

Of the numerous species of waterfowl that prospered with the increase of beaver dams, wood ducks were foremost. Observers found that woodies followed the beavers' advance, much preferring new, active ponds to abandoned ones. Another study showed that wood ducks were found at 52 percent of active beaver ponds, and that only 21 percent of abandoned ponds were occupied by wood ducks.

WOOD DUCK MANAGEMENT

Woodies naturally build their nests in large tree hollows. These preferred nesting locations can be hard to come by, but fortunately, wood ducks take readily to human assistance. Woodies take advantage of when properly placed nesting boxes near creeks, swamps and other flooded areas.

An advantage of the nesting boxes is that a conical metal shield can be placed on the support pole below the box to deter predators. Fox and gray squirrels, rat snakes, crows, blue jays and -- perhaps the most serious aggressor -- raccoons all pose a threat to wood duck eggs and nestlings. Thus, the size of the opening in the box is critical. It has to be just large enough for wood ducks to enter, but too small for a raccoon.

One wood duck clutch generally consists of 10 to 15 eggs. In the South, woodies have a long nesting season. If a clutch of eggs is destroyed, the birds can re-nest.

Another factor contributing to population success is the practice of "dump" nesting: Two or more hens may deposit their eggs in a single nest. One researcher counted five hens dumping their eggs into the same nest. Occasionally, two hens may share incubation duties for an especially large clutch, but usually one hen does all the work.

It's not known why this "dumping" practice takes place. Even in a location with several available nest sites, a hen may still dump her eggs in another's nest. At times, the hen may even move on to lay a second clutch, which she then proceeds to incubate herself.

Incubation lasts approximately 27 to 34 days. Half of the clutch initially hatches before or around the 30-day mark; the remainder follows a few days later.

HELPING OUT

If you have land or a hunting lease that has beaver ponds on it, you can increase the number of wood ducks in the area by putting out some nesting boxes.

Building a wood duck nesting box is no complicated affair; in fact, it's easier than constructing a regular birdhouse. As far as materials go, simplicity is again the rule. Roughly 10 1/2 feet of 1-by-10-inch cedar board -- naturally resistant to both insects and weather and requiring no finishing -- is needed, along with some nails. If possible, one side should be rough; that should be used for inside surfaces.

On the other hand, pine or even plywood can be used. If you opt for these materials, some type of varnish or finish can make the structure last longer.

When constructing your nesting boxes, keep a couple of other things in mind. First, wood ducks are not good at collecting nesting material; indeed, they don't actually gather any at all. To aid them, fill the bottom of the box with a couple of inches of wood shaving such as can be picked up at most pet stores. Don't, however, use sawdust: Wood duck hatchlings can smother in that material.

It's important to maintain the boxes by cleaning out old nesting materials and replenishing fresh wood shavings in the fall or winter. Wood ducks scout out future nesting sites and will return in the spring to a well-maintained box.

When it's time to set the boxes out, put them on dead trees near standing water with the opening facing the water. If possible, mount the box on a solid dead tree that's in the water. The best position of all is to put the box on a steel pole near the edge of water with dead trees close by.

Placing a predator guard on the post can greatly affect the survival rate by deterring egg-stealing predators such as raccoons from entering the nests.

The Ducks Unlimited Web site at www.ducks.org illustrates ways to build guards and provides complete instructions for constructing your wood duck box. Follow the links through Conservation and Ducks 101 to find and download directions.

The Southern Regional office of Ducks Unlimited can provide any information pertaining to attracting and maintaining wood ducks in your area. Give them a call at (601) 956-1936.

The beavers create right conditions, and you can complete the effort with these nesting structures. By providing greater nesting opportunities, wood ducks can be coaxed to move into and to thrive in your back yard.

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