Book review: There’s so much more to the beautiful wood duck
That’s pretty much a given among bird lovers, and that alone makes this duck so appreciated.
But there is so much more to the wood duck. For example, they are the only ones on the continent to be members of their genus; they have an unusually large tail for a waterfowl; they helped defeat German U-boats in World War I; and the species that was once given up as lost has staged a momentous comeback.
Greg Hoch gives us that whole picture and more in his new book “With Wings Extended: A Leap Into the Wood Duck’s World.” It’s a true treat to read in this often dark time of coronavirus and roiling politics. It’s a success story that shows we can help endangered species.
The author is a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prairie habitat supervisor and author of books on the greater prairie chicken and woodcock. In his third book, he brings us into the world of a duck we have been seeing more and more around here, and which hunters relish putting in the bag. In some states, it’s the most common duck shot.
He mostly uses research from many other sources, some going back to the 1800s; the bibliography covers 18 pages.
Here are some things Hoch found through his research:
- Though the wood duck seems most closely related to dabbler (puddle) ducks, such as teal or mallards, some things about it seem more closely like divers, such as canvasbacks or redheads, so it really doesn’t fit neatly anywhere. Its only other close relative is a Chinese duck.
- Its tail is much bigger than other ducks’ because it’s a rudder the wood duck twists and turns to twist and turn when flying through the forest. It’s as good as a grouse at that, and grouse are masters of evading predators (including hunters) by weaving through trees. Furthermore, their eyes are unusually big, probably so they can see branches and trees in low light as they zigzag.
- Perhaps the oddest thing about this gorgeous duck is its relation to World War I, and the reason for that is even stranger. One would think that a duck as gorgeous and striking as a drake wood duck would make horrid camouflage. But British naval experts in that war noted that, though the wood duck is bright, the colors are greatly mixed with different patterns, that, overall, can confuse predators. Using that idea, they painted gaudy but mixed patterns on ships so U-boat commanders couldn’t key in on a ship’s direction or speed.
- When wood duck numbers were low several decades ago, hunters and conservationists chipped in by building and putting up the now common nesting boxes. Just how important they are to wood duck numbers today, however, appears to vary considerably, with some studies showing great benefit and others tiny help because wood ducks prefer natural tree cavities. But there is another side to this —it gives people a way to help out; it makes them feel good and involved. “Boxes have both a biological value for the wood duck and a social value to the people who become engaged in conservation work,” Hoch writes.
- Overhunting once threatened them, as did loss of nesting sites, but people helped with tens of thousands of nesting boxes that are so common along small creeks and ponds. A new threat is loss of oaks that are slowly being replaced by maple, basswood and other trees that don’t provide the acorns wood ducks eat in large quantities. Also, felling too many old trees of many species with nesting cavities can hurt the wood duck population, Hoch writes.
He encourages people to get involved, often by making boxes. That might be one of the great benefits of the book — it not only lays out the past problems, but also ways people can help today. We can do it by ourselves or in civic and scout groups.
“It can’t stop there, however,” Hoch writes. “If nest boxes are a gateway, the gateway must lead to other involvement.”
That could be recording how many birds are fledged, funding conservation groups, talking with politicians, or volunteering to help wildlife agencies.
“Wood ducks allow us into their lives as few other wildlife and almost no other duck allow,” he writes.
The ducks will live close to people, often in towns or next to homes, when nesting. But their living habitat tends to be messy, swampy, buggy and muddy, so be prepared to get wet.
Hoch concludes: “Go find the place where your wood duck drake rests in his beauty.”