This is the most beautiful duck on Earth.
That’s author Greg Hoch speaking about wood ducks, adding his opinion to many others.
In his new book “With Wings Extended” Hoch says he has found the words “most beautiful” in the first sentence of at least 30 ornithological or waterfowl accounts of this common bird.
As the last century began, wood ducks were thought to be destined for extinction. There were two reasons for that, Hoch explains.
Prior to the migratory bird treaty with Canada in 1916 there were no hunting restrictions on waterfowl. Duck species nesting in Northern prairies were here briefly in the spring, so escaped hunting pressure. Wood ducks were/are summer residents, and they were literally the only (waterfowl) game in town.
The second problem was harvest of Eastern hardwood forests. Wood ducks are aptly named, evolved to nest in tree cavities. Nature creates some of those, and large woodpeckers others. The nest holes chopped by ivory-billed woodpeckers were perfect, but if you know that woodpecker’s sorry fate, you can see the problem there.
Beaver ponds provide excellent wood duck habitat, but trapping extirpated beavers from eastern North American woods.
Wood ducks are tolerant of humans, too, and that certainly didn’t help protect them. The ducks would nest in ponds next door if conditions were suitable.
Wood ducks had been sold to waterfowl fanciers in Europe. There came a time in the early 1900s when Europeans sold ducks back to us because numbers in the wild were so small.
Hunting of these birds was prohibited from 1918 to 1941. A 1940 book on habitat management, and attention from biologists and naturalists, including Minnesota’s Walter Breckenridge, led the species to a safe place, Hoch writes. (Breckenridge was director of the University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History for 24 years.)
The awareness of the value of nesting boxes grew, as well. Those boxes are ubiquitous today, certainly in our yard. We have five, two of them used this spring, a third visited by a hooded merganser hen that chose elsewhere.
Hoch says wood ducks are so tolerant of humans that they can be tamed. Those using our pond don’t come when called, but do eagerly feed on the shelled corn spread beneath our feeders on spring mornings.
The ducks arrived this past April before all of the ice was gone. We always get more males than females, a 14 to 1 count at one point this year. That eventually became four pairs, three of which produced ducklings.
In mid-August two of those ducklings appeared for a couple of days, matured to drakes yet to sport the plumage that led Hoch and the others to give wood ducks most-favored status.
The book is a history, a biological profile, and often a how-to for people interested in offering a nesting invitation. There are the excerpts from other wood duck writings, a welcome feature here as in his two earlier books. There are stories, too.
Hoch, a prairie habitat supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is author of two other excellent books on Minnesota game birds. They are “Sky Dance of the Woodcock” and “Booming From the Mists of Nowhere,” about prairie chickens.
University of Iowa Press (uipress.uiowa.edu) published this book and those. The book is softcover, 168 pages, illustrated with photographs, priced at $35.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.