Woodland Waterfowl

Bears go in the woods. Deer are often found in the woods. There are woodcock, woodpeckers and a variety of other birds living in Midwestern forests. But woodland waterfowl?

In North America, there are several species of woodland-nesting ducks. None of them build “nests” in the manner of robins, cardinals and other song-birds or nest on the ground like turkeys, rather they seek out hollow trees and make their nests inside the cavity. Whistling tree ducks are common in southern Texas and Louisiana but the bulk of the “whistlers” are found in Mexico, Central America and South America. Don’t look for any around here.

Several other tree-born ducks are frequently spotted in Indiana and Illinois, but don’t normally nest in our area. These include buffleheads, two closely related species of goldeneye - the common goldeneye is most common around here, the Barrow’s goldeneye are occasional visitors.

The common merganser is also a commonly seen duck in our area during the migration periods, spring and fall. Look for them on large lakes, the larger the better. Lake Michigan is loaded with them during their migration to forested areas in Canada and Alaska to search out their hollow-tree homes.

Here in the Midwest we do have nesting hooded mergansers. These are one of the smallest sized ducks to be found anywhere. Unlike their common merganser cousins, look for Hooded Mergansers on smaller lakes and ponds.

Hunters out to bag a duck for dinner try to avoid shooting these small mergansers. Not so much because of their size, but their diet consists mainly of fish and their flavor is decidedly strong and fishy-tasting. Hunters looking for birds to add to their taxidermy collection prize both hen and drake hooded mergansers. The sexes don’t look alike, but each sex has distinctively beautiful colors and color patterns.

Which brings us to what many people view as the most beautiful kind of duck and for sure the duck the most commonly nesting duck in our latitudes, the wood duck. Like the others, wood ducks nest in tree cavities; but unlike the others, often nesting in remote, even wilderness-like areas where it’s easy to find dead, dying or hole-ridden trees, the lack of nesting cavities in the Midwest almost brought woodies to the edge of extinction.

Many woodlands were cleared for settlement and agriculture. In the remaining woodlands the largest trees were often felled to use for lumber or firewood. Humans tend to view dead or dying trees as worthless and removed them before they could become hazardous (or develop a nest cavity).

Sportsmen revere wood ducks for several reasons. At the top of the list is because they are as tasty as they are beautiful! So when the population decline became apparent, across the Midwest government conservation agencies, individuals, scout troops and sportsmen’s clubs started building wood duck boxes. For a few dollars worth of lumber and nails, “artificial” nesting cavities began populating woodlands, tree lines and even backyards in towns and cities.

The wood ducks responded - slowly at first, but it seemed with each generation, more and more nesting pairs found the wood duck boxes acceptable. In some areas such as recreation areas and wildlife areas replete with artificial nest structures almost every box gets used and many produce two broods per year. I had a box just outside my kitchen window which produced an early nest and as soon as those ducklings hatched and left, another pair moved moved-in to start their own family. One year three broods were produced.

Wood ducks aren’t picky about how close to water their nest is located. The closer the better, of course, the little duckling’s the trip from the tree to the lake, pond or stream where they will grow-up is among the most hazardous adventures of their life. I’ve heard of successful nests a mile or more from water.

There’s still time for you to construct and install a wood duck box outside your kitchen window or other location. There are dozens of websites with construction plans and other details.