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Outdoors with Larry Dablemont: An odd duck

I watched as a mother wood duck crossed an old road high on a ridge top, closely followed by three ducklings which I am sure had hatched that very day. She was a good quarter-mile from the river, but intent on getting the young ducklings there as quickly as possible.



            Wood ducks are odd ducks, because they nest in hollow trees rather than in a marshy, reed-covered wetland habitat as other puddle ducks do. But what is odder still is the fact that very often, that hollow tree is far from the closest water. Sometimes an old hen will nest close to a pond or river or lake, but often the tree she chooses is on a hillside or ridge, and she has to lead her young ones to water over a good distance of dry land.

            That hollow in a tree might be 20 feet above the ground, sometimes more. The ducklings hatch there and spend no time at all inside the cavity where the mother has laid her eggs. They get dried out, and fluffed up, and then are fixated on the hen, who often is flying in and out, coaxing them to leave the hollow.  They hop up to the entrance and leap out into the great unknown with little hesitation. I have watched them do that, and they actually appear to be trying to use their tiny little wings, but to no avail. It seems they just tumble beak over tail feathers to the woodland floor, and it doesn’t hurt them at all. They have no body weight. 

The hen waits ‘til they all get out, and in the nest cavity above there may be some unhatched eggs left behind. That nest may contain the eggs laid by two different hens, perhaps up to 16 or 18 eggs or even more. Once in North Little Rock, Arkansas, I witnessed a traffic slowdown on a busy thoroughfare while a wood-duck hen hustled at least a dozen little ducklings toward an Arkansas River slough that had to be a half-mile away.

            It was puzzling to see the hen last week being followed by only three ducklings. That’s about the smallest clutch I have ever seen. It could be that some others were lagging back a ways, but usually they are all right with her. Those ducklings which lag behind are usually doomed. When I was a kid on the Big Piney River, I actually saw a wood duck duckling only a day or so old, and slower than his brood-mates, disappear in a massive swirl on the surface made by what I assumed was a bass.

            We hate to look at it this way, but there is so much waste in nature when you are talking about the young of those creatures that are given the ability to reproduce well, like rabbits and mice. But it really isn’t a waste. The young of those species cannot survive in huge numbers. They are meant to be food for the predators, which have to also survive. One group, the eaten, has a high reproductive potential, while the other group, the eaters, have a high biotic (surviving) potential. The creatures which survive well do not produce huge numbers of young, while the creatures which do not survive well produce big numbers of offspring. It seems as if there was a great scheme to it all, doesn’t it?

In our eyes, a weasel pouncing on a young chipmunk, or a raccoon feasting on the eggs he finds in a quail nest, or a hawk pinning a young rabbit to the earth, represents the ugly side of nature. But there is no evil there. All things fight to survive, predator and prey alike. And in the end, where man hadn’t upset things with overwhelming land change, the whole system worked. Not so much anymore. Desirable creatures in the woods or in the water are becoming scarcer, while undesirables, often non-native, seem to be thriving.

            It is likely that those three little ducklings will not all survive. Some mink will eat one perhaps; maybe some gosh-awful looking snapping turtle will pluck another one from the surface of the river. But maybe not…maybe they will all three make it, and I’ll bag one of them this fall as I hunt the river, grown to a beautiful mature drake. And if I do, I will enjoy a wood-duck dinner, making me no less evil than a weasel or a turtle or a water snake.

            While heavy rains doom the quail and turkey chicks, the wood duck ducklings are not at all fazed by a cloudburst like we have been having. A rivulet filled with a torrent of rainwater will not soak the duckling’s feathers. They will just be carried more quickly to the awaiting creek or flowing river where they will thrive and grow. If it had been me doing it, I would have given those same water resistant feathers to the quail and turkey poults! And I would have the mink and the hawk and bobcat eating grass and acorns and berries. I wonder why God didn’t think of those things?

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