A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The wood duck ranks third among waterfowl harvested across the state

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles about the ducks most often taken by hunters in Kentucky during waterfowl season.

The wood duck (Aix sponsa) is Kentucky’s homegrown duck, nesting throughout the state in trees along creeks, rivers, and wetlands, and in reservoirs where flooded timber is present.

Last season hunters in Kentucky bagged 9,721 “woodies,” ranked third in harvest in the state, according to the Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest report for the 2017-18 hunting season, compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Size and Description

The wood duck (Aix sponsa) is Kentucky’s homegrown duck, nesting throughout the state in trees along creeks, rivers, and wetlands, and in reservoirs where flooded timber is present. (Photo by Danny Brown, courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.)

The wood duck is a medium-sized duck, weighing about 1 1/2 pounds, with adults measuring about 17 to 20 inches long. Broad, relatively short wings enable the wood duck to made acrobatic twists and turns while flying through timber.

In the summer both sexes of wood ducks are in eclipse plumage, a drab grayish-brown coloration. The adult male’s winter plumage is distinctive — a magnificent blend of green, rust, yellow, black, and tan, accented with white.

Food Habits

Wood ducks eat aquatic plants and their seeds, and the seeds of trees and shrubs, also insects and crustaceans.

Acorns are a major part of their diet during the fall migration in the Midwest and South.

Young feed mainly on insects and other invertebrates.

Range and Distribution

The largest percentage of wood ducks breed in the central and eastern U.S., with the highest densities occurring in the Mississippi Flyway states. Some of the wood ducks in the Pacific Flyway breed in southern Canada.

In recent decades, the wood duck’s breeding range has expanded westward into the Great Plains region, where wooded riparian corridors are available.

East of the Mississippi River, wood ducks are year-round residents in states from Kentucky southward.

The adult male wood duck’s winter plumage is distinctive — a magnificent blend of green, rust, yellow, black, and tan, accented with white. (Photo courtesy of the Audubon Society)


Nesting

Wood ducks are cavity nesters, raising their young in trees above, or near water. The average clutch size is 10 to 15 eggs.

They also take readily to nest boxes.

Eggs are dull white to pale buff. Females frequently lay eggs in several nests. Incubation is by female only, and lasts 25 to 35 days.

Ducklings remain in nest until the morning after hatching, then they claw their way to the cavity entrance, and jump to the water or ground below.

The female tends the young for five to six weeks, and sometimes two or more broods may combine. The young are capable of flight at about 8 to 9 weeks.

In the northern reaches of their breeding range, wood ducks have one brood per year, sometimes two broods a year, farther south.

Kentucky’s Early Wood Duck and Teal Season

While 23 states have a teal season in September, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida are the only states where hunters can take both wood ducks and teal during an early season in September.

In 2017, the total duck harvest in Kentucky during the early season was 6,388, of which about 5,200 were wood ducks. Some years more than 50 percent of the banded wood ducks taken by hunters in Kentucky during the September season, were banded locally.

Kentucky’s early wood duck season started in 1981. The major justification for the creation of the early season was that Kentucky raises lots of wood ducks, but hunters harvest relatively few of them.

A banding program provides important data on the locally-produced birds. Wood ducks are caught in rocket nets and fitted with leg bands. Biologists also age and sex the birds to further quantify reproductive success and population dynamics. Band returns also help map migration routes.

“We band about 2,000 to 2,500 wood ducks a year at various locations across the state, said John Brunjes, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

In the 14 states of the Mississippi Flyway, waterfowl hunters bagged 610,542 wood ducks last season. The wood duck harvest ranked fourth behind mallards, green-winged teal and gadwalls. (Photo courtesy of the Audubon Society)

Hunter Harvest

Most of the wood ducks taken during the winter duck season in Kentucky are migrants from states to the north, including Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio, Brunjes said.

“About 50 percent of our banded wood ducks are taken by hunters in Louisiana during December and January. During real cold years there’s (little or) no wood duck harvest here late in the season.”

In the 14 states of the Mississippi Flyway, waterfowl hunters bagged 610,542 wood ducks last season. The wood duck harvest ranked fourth behind mallards, green-winged teal and gadwalls.

The annual duck harvest in the U.S. is based on data collected by the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP), which requires licensed migratory game bird hunters to register annually in each state in which they hunt. Hunters are asked a series of questions about their hunting success the previous year, and this information is sent to the USFWS, and compiled as an annual hunter activity and harvest report, which is released in August.

Kentucky has about 10,100 active duck hunters. Last season they spent about 78,400 days afield, according to survey data.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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