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home : columns : ron kuecker
July 11, 2020

5/6/2020 10:37:00 AM
Seeing and enjoying our wonderful wood ducks

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

I'm thinking most of us have heard house noises. That's those sounds that surprise us like the popping of the joints from wood frame houses on cold nights or; a branch full of ice suddenly hitting the roof. And, nothing is as surprising as a finch hitting the picture window.
A week ago it was a different noise heard in my house. A few others have told me of their same experiences but this was new to me.
It sounded very different and is hard to describe. Maybe best said as a combination of scratched and rubbing. It came from the area of my fireplace and was only occasional. I thought, oh no, and went to bed.
The next morning I knew it was time to confront the noise. By now it was easy to conclude a wood duck hen had entered my chimney, and descended to the damper but couldn't get back out. The scratching was the claws that are present on the webbed feet, unique to tree ducks. The rubbing was the wings against the damper and the chimney walls.
It was time to open the damper and see if she could get out of her predicament by herself. It only took a few minutes and she dropped down into the fire chamber. Now what?
My fishing landing nets were all at the cabin. I called Bob Hanson to see if borrowing one of his was possible. He said sure and did even better, a minnow net about two-foot square with openings less inclined to get tangled around a wild woody.
I looked in through the fireplace door windows and saw something not like a wood duck. It didn't have the white Nike like swoosh around the eyes, no white-bellied feathers and, in general, seemed bigger than a wood duck.
Later the realization hit me. The windows had made her look bigger and the soot that covered her body made her look darker and covered up the white feathers around her eyes. After capturing her it was easy to see she was a pretty forlorn mess.
The wayward woody
As I sat there holding her on my lap it came to me just how small she really was. Her weight was well below the pound or so they usually weigh. My De-Liar scale was at the cabin too, an old Moon's Locker Plant scale. I use it to get to the truth regarding fish weigh-ins. No reason to struggle with the truth here, she probably weighed three-fourths of a pound.
Well how did she end up in my fireplace? My backyard is an old farm grove on the north side of Windom, a few hundred yards from Perkins Creek and a 15-minute float to the Des Moines River.
An historically great place for wood ducks.
Even before the two wood duck boxes I mounted on the remaining maple trees, woodies had nested there for a longtime. This year I have two confirmed nest usages in my backyard, one in a manmade box. The other in a tree hole, naturally made.
It is my thought that the young hen I released that morning had been hatched in my yard one year ago. The well-known homing instinct had brought her back and she began looking for a nest site of her own. Others had all been taken so she pioneered for one of her own.
The fact she chose to go down the chimney surely indicated a yearling bird nesting for the first time. There will be no young of hers homing to a chimney!
What a past year
Now think about the past year for that small bird that seems so much larger when free and flying.
Her mother, and I think she is back nesting nearby, laid her eggs in April, then 28 days later hatched them along with a dozen or so others. They probably picked through their shells one day, then plunged to the ground when their hen called to them.
The jump, as it is called, is a phenomenon I have seen many times on video but never in person. It usually takes place midday, 10 to 2 being most common. That is chosen intentionally by momma duck to avoid night, dawn and dusk periods of predator hunting.
She followed her mom to Perkins Creek where they searched for bugs. Then they bobbed to the Des Moines River and its back waters for more food searching.
Being one of the lucky ducklings, she avoided hawks, owls, snapping turtles, even northern pike. Mink and raccoons also like little ducks.
She got her flight feathers about six weeks later and strengthened them every day in her search for food with her mother and brood mates. As she got older they checked out the year's acorn crop and learned about corn and beans left behind by harvesting.
Toward the end of September, when duck hunting started and the urge to move south became strong, she left with a flock. Down through Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas they flew to spend their winter in Louisiana or Mississippi.
Then the brood spread out in spring, found mates of their own and migrated quickly back to Minnesota. They found Windom, she returned to my backyard. Then, foolishly, she went down my chimney.
I sure hope she's still living after flying away from my deck that morning. Enjoy those wood ducks while you can. Looking is open year-around.

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