The wood ducks sat, preened and made no special effort to come ashore and feed as daylight started to fade.
When duck constitution matters
A warm tale of banding woodies on a cold night.
If you do it right, you don't have to heat up ducks in your pickup.
It was my first year of banding wood ducks and while I never got it all right, years of experience and sage advice from others helped me correct some of the flaws we made that night.
My sidekick, Craig Kopacek, and I were out on a cold September 30th trying to add a few ducks to our tally. We had banded 72 woodies at this same site two weeks earlier.
After years of trapping and relocating turkeys, we had the gear and some of the knowhow we needed for duck banding. Our turkey net was folded into a rocket box and we had piled cut grass over the box to hide it. A load of corn dumped six steps in front of that grass pile served as bait. We had not overcome the problem of getting the ducks to feed far enough onto land to keep the net and everything under it dry. We knew our net would shoot out about 70 feet but the box was only 50 feet from the shoreline. Therefore, the rockets and about 20 feet of net would arc over the water.
When we had launched our nets two weeks earlier, our plan worked well. We donned hip boots, waded out and rescued the ducks that bobbed up under the net. Most of them laid there quietly with just the top of their beaks sticking out of the water. Some dove a couple times and a few of those escaped. There were no casualties. We banded and released them.
So, we came back to try our luck again. Craig and I set up a blind concealed a hundred feet away and we waited until about 15 wood ducks arrived and eventually swam to shore near the bait. Then we watched, but the ducks did not come out of the water to feed. They just sat and preened at the pond's edge.
Dusk made no special effort to wait for man or duck. A silvery sheen on the water contrasted more sharply as the skies darkened and few ducks came ashore. We whispered about our options and decided to take a shot because the ducks would soon depart for a roost site. Since these ducks were quite a distance from the rocket box, we thought they might outfly the net.
The net launched with a loud boom in the diminishing light and the rockets spewed long red tails. The net had outrun 12 ducks and they bobbed up under it. Craig quickly waded out and pulled ducks from under the net. I sat on a chair in the headlights of the truck banding them and recording numbers.
Everything went well until we came to the last two ducks. They, of course, had been under the net in the water the longest. Somehow that duck magic that keeps all the water out so their down feathers remain dry had been compromised. These two were thoroughly wet and cold.
We could have just banded them and let them go, but we had made them susceptible to cold and predation, and that concerned us. I turned on the heater in the truck and the vent soon blew a strong stream of hot air to the passenger side floorboard.
The concept of letting a wild wood duck loose in the truck cab didn't seem too bright, but I placed one in the stream of hot air. When I let it go, the duck pressed its way closer to the air vent and made no attempt to escape. Soon the second duck was there beside it warming and drying in the air flow.
We had to make a decision about what to do with them before we left the site. I decided to fill the rocket box with loose grass and place the ducks inside. The plywood box was about 30 by 30 inches and 12 inches high with an open front.
We placed the two ducks in the back of the box behind the loose grass. They seemed content and did not struggle at all. I imagined if a raccoon happened by and figured out the situation, it would have a good chance of catching a boxed meal.
We arrived to pick up our stuff the next morning a bit anxious about the potential outcome. We found a little tunnel leading out through the grass from inside the box and two large morning constitutions were deposited in front of the box. The ducks had held it all night to keep the odor level low in their roost box, and had fared well.
Technical literature can describe the probability of mortality during such a capture. It's a statistic, but I will always remember the two beautiful wood ducks that did not contribute to that data by surviving.
Our report from that day contained no information other than the band numbers. All these years later, I still have an indelible image of those two special wood ducks on the floorboard of the pickup snuggling close as the warm air flowed from the heat duct.
Al Cornell retired in December 2008 after more than 25 years service as a DNR wildlife technician.