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The Bitterroot Valley's most beautiful duck
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The Bitterroot Valley's most beautiful duck

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Spring, here at Teller is often signaled by the return of migratory birds that use Teller habitats seasonally, to court, nest and successfully raise their young in time for a fall departure south to warmer temperatures.

Coinciding with the return of our avian friends, each spring three dedicated Teller volunteers, Jim Hamilton, Mark Dickerson and Paul Hayes also return to Teller for an important task. The three serve as Teller’s Wood Duck Nesting Box program volunteers.

Wood ducks are cavity nesters which means they nest in hollowed out cavities in old-growth cottonwoods or man-made boxes that mimic the natural tree cavity. Are you curious what drives these volunteers ever year to scale tall ladders to service 15 nesting boxes? Read on.

Besides being the most colorful species of North American waterfowl, wood ducks are yet another conservation success story.

Having experienced significant declines in the early 1900s, these birds have responded well to habitat protection and artificial nest box programs across the country. California Waterfowl Association’s wood duck nesting box programs have produced an estimated 800,000 ducklings since 1991. Each spring at Teller, the volunteers tidy up the boxes by placing fresh bedding material such as wood shavings to entice a hen to choose the box.

Habitats found at Teller and Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, attract numerous wood ducks annually with many of them successfully raising a brood in one of the dozens of nesting boxes placed on cottonwoods in the river gallery of trees.

Wood ducks prefer “swampy” wetland habitat, with an abundance of woody debris. If you think a waterway is too covered with tangles of alder or willows and downed timber, you probably have discovered great wood duck habitat. Preferring back bays along the river, you will often find wood ducks swimming toward that portion of the waterway with the highest vegetative structural diversity.

I am always amazed when I stumble upon wood ducks in such dense vegetation that they can quickly become airborne and maneuver through a thick jungle of branches without ever hitting a limb. When they take flight the unmistakable call glee-et, glee-et, glee-et, seems to bounce off the water surface and while you will most likely only get a glimpse of the birds, the call assures you that it was a wood duck.

Once the pair of wood ducks select a cavity or nesting box, both male and female will enter the cavity and tidy up the nest site. The female will deposit a mat of grey down to insulate the eggs. She typically lays around 8-10 eggs. A common occurrence of female wood ducks is known as “egg dumping” where a hen will lay eggs in another nest, hoping the other female will raise the young. If you ever see a nest or brood with 15 or more eggs or young, you can rest assured it was the product of an egg dump.

Wood ducks also commonly bring off two successful broods in one season, so if the first nest is lost to predation, the female will likely give it another try.

Most nests are located near water but occasionally a wood duck will select a nest site quite a distance from water.

I once observed a wood duck nesting in a maple tree in Iowa that was at least one mile from the nearest waterway.

It is amazing to think that when the ducklings hatch they climb up to the edge of the cavity and jump to the ground. Because they are extremely light, they simply bounce gently to the ground and immediately follow their mother to the nearest water. The closer to the water the less likely the travel will encounter predators like skunks, raccoons and feral cats. However, reaching the water is no guarantee of survival in many parts of the country as largemouth bass, northern pike and snapping turtles can totally eliminate an entire brood in days after hatching. Luckily for ducklings hatched on Teller Wildlife Refuge, these aquatic predators have not made their way here and hopefully never will.

As mentioned earlier, the wood duck is often described as the most handsome species of North American waterfowl. The female, as with most waterfowl species, retains a dull grayish-brown plumage camouflaging her, especially when raising young. The male has striking iridescent green and purple head, back and wing plumage with a beautiful chestnut breast etched in small white triangles. The flank feathers often sought by fly tiers are golden ocher with streaks of black and white. Even the bill on the males has red and yellow streaks.

Wood ducks prefer forest mast like acorns when available but will feed on other grains, insects and aquatic vegetation during various seasons of the year. By late September, Teller’s wood ducks have departed south and could easily winter in California’s Sacramento Valley. This spring keep a sharp eye out for these elegant beauties.

If you have a pond or river stretch near you, consider placing a wood duck box. You might be rewarded next spring with 8 to 10 little yellow puffball ducklings bouncing to the forest floor in search of their new aquatic home.

Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org

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