Duck breeding season in the southern United States typically begins by February, at the same time that legal duck hunting ends. This came as a relief to my neighbor’s 9-year-old son whose pet duck had disappeared. He feared it might be flying into a phalanx of shotgun-armed duck hunters. I assured him that we did not allow hunting in our backyard and would let him know if we heard quacking.
His duck was probably answering the call of the wild to look for a mate, and our young neighbor took comfort in learning that it was not likely to get shot. Based on his description of the duck – a green head and yellow bill – I assumed it was a mallard drake that was winging its way north to select a mate before the onset of nesting. That’s what most North American ducks do this time of year.
So why does duck hunting season end from the Carolinas, to Alabama, to Louisiana in January instead of February? Perhaps in part because one species of hunted waterfowl, wood ducks, are resident in the Deep South. These ducks begin their own breeding season early in the year, laying eggs as early as mid to late January. Hunting ducks while they are trying to produce new ducks would not be a good wildlife management plan.
Some wood ducks migrate as far north as southern Canada where they nest and spend the summer, but many remain resident throughout the year in the South. Wood ducks are a conservationist success story. The species was nearly wiped out by the early 20th century because of habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Not only were wood ducks hunted for food, as they are today, but the male’s plumage, which is one of the most beautiful of all ducks, could be sold commercially.
One of my colleagues, Bobby Kennamer, has handled more wood ducks than anyone else I know of. As a research coordinator at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory over the past 30 years, he has captured wood duck hens and counted more than 48,000 eggs in South Carolina’s cypress-gum swamps and wetlands. One goal is to enhance population levels of wood ducks, the only duck that commonly nests in the southeastern Atlantic coastal plain. He accomplishes this through his long-term research, which provides a better understanding of nesting patterns of this highly prized game species. His efforts will bring far-reaching, long-term benefits to wood ducks and, paradoxically, to those who hunt them.
To provide nesting habitat for this game species, conservationists use duck boxes, which are wooden structures with a duck size hole to mimic the tree holes where they lay eggs. Of the more than 3,500 wood duck nests Bobby has checked during his research, he has only found one on the ground. The rest have been in hollow trees or wood duck boxes. He has put out more than 275 wood duck boxes and checked them daily to weekly during nesting season to record the number of birds nesting and eggs laid.
To monitor wood duck nesting success he begins checking the boxes in early January to see if hens have begun to occupy the artificial nest cavities. By early February, the tedious but gratifying egg counting begins. In some habitats, all the boxes have wood ducks nesting in them at some time during a year.
In the southeastern United States, wood ducks lay eggs as early as mid-January and as late as early July. These are the only North American species of duck to commonly have more than one brood of ducklings in a season. The incubation period averages about a month. Thus, young ducklings may leave the nest cavity as early as the first of March or as late as the middle of August.
Our neighbor’s former pet duck and most other waterfowl are about to embark on a long trek to get to their summer home. Wood ducks, however, will remain in the South all year round.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.