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Wood ducks content to spend the night

The light was fading fast on a winter-shortened day, and the frost that never quite melted was already repairing its losses.

My wife came in from the yard and announced, "They're back."

I knew immediately that she meant the wood ducks had returned for another year. I stepped outside and waited. Soon a flock of about a dozen silhouetted birds wheeled over the grove of oaks on the hillside above our house. The disturbed air made a quiet whispering sound as it passed over their wings. They were checking to make sure it was safe to land. One gave a single, soft, mewing call.

They passed over once, twice more. Then they dropped into the oaks, slowing as much as possible and making last-second adjustments as they wove through the branches. Most successfully landed on the larger limbs that spread from the trunks. A few were not as skilled and ended up on the ground. In the dim light, it was difficult to see them as they quickly moved to the base of an oak and clambered up the trunk with quiet wings flapping. In a moment all was silent.

As the last bit of light faded, you would never have known that 30 or more wood ducks had settled in for the night. They would be gone again with the first hint of dawn on the eastern horizon.

This winter they have selected the oaks on my neighbor's property as the place to roost. The last time they chose this grove was three or four years ago. I assume they rotate among sites so predators such as raccoons and great horned owls don't come to view these ducks as a dependable food source.

By day the wood ducks scatter widely. Knowing most of the ponds in the neighborhood and the number of wood ducks I see, I assume they seek out ponds in a three-mile radius, though it could be more. They prefer ponds with islands where they can loaf in safety.

Even more important is the presence of emergent woody vegetation such as willows. Overhanging limbs close to the water will suffice.

At the beginning of the 20th century, wood ducks were a species in trouble. Unregulated hunting had severely reduced their numbers. Hunting regulations and a program to build wood duck boxes and place them along streams and ponds helped them rebound spectacularly. Any visitor to Lithia Park can attest to the success of these conservation efforts. Many Boy Scouts across the country earned Eagle rank leading nesting-box projects. Others besides wood ducks have benefitted. I have seen gray squirrels, chipmunks, flying squirrels, western screech owls, saw-whet owls and starlings call these boxes home.

In the years since the 1950s and 1960s, when most of the boxes were constructed, most have fallen into disrepair or disappeared completely, although a couple remain along Bear Creek. It seems that wood ducks are now doing fine without the assistance.

If you live near a grove of trees, especially oaks, you may want to bundle up on a cold winter evening and venture out when all others have retreated to the warmth of their living room. Listen closely. This may be your year to host the slumber party.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

Lance Coenen submitted this photo of a wood duck on a Grants Pass pond for the 2010 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest. - Courtesy Lance Coenen