Reflections in Nature: Canton man sees ducklings leap

Back in May, I received a call from Wes McNett, who lives eight miles south of Canton, along Route 14. Wes was quite excited and wanted to share the experience he had with everyone.

I’ve known Wes for many years and he is a “dyed-in-the-wool” hunter, hunting and roaming the woods since his youth. After hearing the excitement in his voice, I knew he had something special to tell me.

Wes’ story went like this: He had been out turkey hunting in a favorite area where he had killed turkeys in previous years.

On his third morning of sitting in the same spot, Wes was startled when he heard the sudden fluttering of wings. He quickly turned to see the cause of the noise and saw a female wood duck flying down from a hole in a nearby tree.

The female wood duck was aware of Wes’ presence and tried to keep a distance between them. Wes then watched as nine young ducklings, one after the other, quickly came down from the tree.

Later, Wes made some math calculations, showing that the young ducks fluttered 30 to 35 feet before landing on the ground.

While Wes was trying to get to his camera, the female quickly led her brood through the woods and underbrush, where they disappeared. When I asked Wes if the female had called to the young, he replied that if she did, he hadn’t heard.

Wes told me that Sugar Run Stream was the closest water, about 400 yards away. The stream races down the mountain, not the slow-moving water where one would expect to find a female wood duck raising her young. With this in mind, Wes figured the female probably led her ducklings to the Lycoming Creek, which is a half-mile away.

During duck season many years ago, I stopped at a beaver dam to check hunters and Wes was one of them. One regulation was that a hunter had to use shells with steel shot to hunt ducks. While checking the hunters, I noticed that Wes’ shotgun shells stated that they contained lead shot.

Wes explained to me that he reloaded his shotgun shells with steel shot. In my vehicle, I had a magnet that I used when checking shells to make sure they contained steel shot; however, after a thorough search of my vehicle, I couldn’t find the magnet. I remember saying to myself, “I have to clean this vehicle out.”

When I returned to the hunters, Wes assured me that he was using steel shot and offered to take a shell apart to show me the shot. I declined his offered, believing he was telling me the truth. About a week later, I saw Wes and he had a gift for me, a new magnet.

Wes and his family live in the woods on the side of a mountain, where wildlife is abundant. In the past, he observed a male and female wood duck searching his woods for a good cavity tree.

At first, Wes watched as the male checked out a hole in a particular tree. The male flew away and returned with a female to check out the hole. She went inside, but the tree must not have passed inspection because that particular tree cavity was not used to raise her young.

Actually, male and female wood ducks pair up before leaving their wintering range. This is followed by an intense courtship even before they start north. Ninety percent of hens arriving in the north during the spring already will have mates.

More than 50 percent of the hens that migrate north will go to the same general location in which they were hatched or had nests the previous year. A male probably will not return to its home area but rather follow the hen to hers.

The hen will build a nest in a tree cavity, preferably over water; however, nests can be found over a mile from the nearest water. The conservationists who erect wood duck nesting boxes have greatly helped the population of wood ducks.

The eggs hatch in about 35 days and all on the same day. The hen will brood the young for about 24 hours and then leave the nest to check for danger.

If all is OK, she calls to the young, who respond with peeping calls. Immediately the young begin to jump up toward the nest entrance, where they cling to the walls of the tree or box, and then jump again and again until they reach the entrance. After pausing momentarily, the young (one by one) spring outward to the water or ground below. The jump could be as high as 60 feet; however, the landing is safely made.

After the last duckling leaves the nest, the female will lead her brood to water. If born over water, the hen could continue moving the brood to different impoundments. One hen moved her brood seven times in a 47-day period.

Before ending the phone call, Wes told me that on the same day, he had seen a fawn and also a buck, with the soft velvet antlers above its ears. It surely was a banner day for Wes and one that will be long remembered.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.