It would be impossible to guess how many Georgia duck hunts have been salvaged by the high-pitched, unmistakable squeal of approaching wood ducks. A duck hunt in Georgia is often a wood-duck-only affair.
Countless are the times — crazy as it seems — that I’ve gotten up at a ridiculous hour, driven too many miles, trudged through black woods in waders to a beaver swamp, and stood in water so cold if it wasn’t already frozen, it was getting thick. The work and wait is for a blur of feathers from a few wood ducks screaming by at speeds not meant to be caught by a shotgun load of steel; a flurried few shots, and then a return trip to the house.
Sure, there are many mornings spent staring at a blue January sky, hoping against hope that a miracle flight of mallards would magically appear. After a few hours of watching migrating robins and otherwise empty skies, it’s time to head home, hopefully with a limit of two woodies.
Thank goodness for wood ducks. They taste just fine — better than a fat mallard in my opinion — and Georgia is blessed with both a healthy resident population of woodies and a migration of northern wood ducks that choose to winter in our great state over their far-away summer homes in New York, Pennsylvania, and even as far north as the Canadian provinces.
“A lot of the wood ducks that we see in Georgia in the winters are migratory,” said Greg Balkcom, the waterfowl biologist for Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division (WRD). “I think that surprises some hunters, who think most wood ducks are resident birds.”
Country folks from the South often call a wood duck a “summer duck,” simply because they are commonly seen throughout the summer when all the other duck species have migrated north.
Based on direct recoveries of wood-duck bands, home-grown Georgia birds make up only about 17 percent of the annual wood-duck harvest in the state. The rest are migrants, coming from all over the eastern United States and Canada. During the winter, the vast majority of wood ducks found in Georgia’s swamps came from other states.
“We get most of them from up and down the Atlantic flyway, but wood ducks banded in every state in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways have turned up in Georgia.”
Greg referenced a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service map that estimates wintering numbers of wood ducks.
“You can really see the importance of the coastal plain of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and the Mississippi Valley. It’s like every wood duck in the world is going to those couple of spots.
“One thing I found interesting in our in-state banding efforts is that wood ducks banded below the Fall Line are harvested really close to where they are banded. They just don’t go anywhere. But of our wood ducks banded above the Fall Line, about a third of those take off and move, and they’re headed toward the Mississippi Valley. Those that move from above the Fall Line head through Alabama over to Mississippi and Louisiana and even as far as Texas.”
What is it about the Fall Line that makes ducks born above it head west, and ducks born below it stay put?
“Maybe that’s the historical freeze line, or maybe it’s just the change in topography that once you get below the Fall Line the river floodplains get really wide, there’s a lot more bottomland oaks down through that way, a lot more acorns,” Greg said. “In the Piedmont and the mountains, the creek drains and the river drains are steeper and narrower, and aside from a few beaver ponds, there’s not that good, big, wide river floodplain to spend the wintertime in. Some of those pick up — a very few — and go to south Georgia. But most of those from up that way, I think they’re falling right in with those birds that are coming from far up the east coast and are just all sweeping down toward the Mississippi Valley. For the last 10,000 years there’s been more of that wide, river floodplain in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere, and that’s just where they’ve always headed.”
With much of Georgia being chewed up by development, you might think that wood-duck numbers here are taking a hit, but Greg said our woodies are doing just fine.
“Remember, a lot of the wood ducks taken during the wintertime are Coastal Plain birds. Even though Atlanta and the Piedmont are getting demolished (by development), a lot of the Coastal Plain is still in fair shape, especially some of the big swamps. Down in the Altamaha River swamp and down the Savannah River below Augusta, it gets nice and wide, and it’s not as developed. As far as wintering birds go, the habitat in Georgia is in the Coastal Plain. Where most of those wintering wood ducks go, it’s in pretty good shape for now.”
The long-term trend, based on estimates from the Fish and Wildlife Service, is a slightly increasing wood-duck population in the northern part of the Atlantic flyway, and a stable population in the southern part of the flyway.
“If you’re talking about the breeding population of wood ducks in Georgia, there are places where the habitats for the breeding population is going down. But there again we have a bunch of folks putting up duck boxes and doing what they can do, and I think that mitigates some of the habitat loss. Wood ducks seem to be doing all right for now.
“On our state management areas we’re producing over 10,000 ducklings a year, plus what all these other private folks are doing. So there’s lots and lots of wood ducks being produced in the state.”
Since there seems to be no shortage of wood ducks in Georgia, and since that’s about all Georgia duck hunters have to look forward too, some hunters have asked, “Why not raise the limit?”
For now, the answer is that waterfowl biologists just don’t know enough about wood-duck populations to raise the limit. Since so many migratory wood ducks end up in Georgia, a mistake in raising the limits could have far-reaching impacts on the breeding populations in other states.
“There is no real good way to get a population index on wood ducks, because you don’t see them from aerial surveys like you can other waterfowl,” said Greg.
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is beginning to get better wood-duck population estimates using a variety of population-assessment methods such as band returns, Christmas bird counts, and breeding duck counts. In the future, it is possible that wood-duck limits could be variable based on seasonal population estimates, which is how limits are set each year for other species of ducks.
For now, two wood ducks suits me just fine — not a morning to remember in Arkansas, but in Georgia a pair of woodies in the bag is good for this duck hunter’s heart.
Author’s Note: Wood-duck boxes can have a direct, positive impact on populations. Dr. Morgan Smith of Fitzgerald makes the best wood-duck boxes I’ve ever come across, and he’s developed an even better predator-guard and attachment system. After 16 years of retirement, Dr. Smith began practicing medicine again part-time, but he is still making boxes. He also wrote an excellent book, “Attracting Nesting Wood Ducks to Your Property.” Dr. Smith can be reached at (229) 423-2356.