WOOD DUCKS (Aix sponsa) are beautiful birds with a distinctive multi-colored plumage. For that reason alone, many decades ago, when fashion dictated that women wore hats, colorful feathers from this bird were in great demand. Wood duck populations fell as the supply stream was fulfilled. By 1904, very few Wood Ducks remained. Thankfully the crisis situation for this species, and others, benefited from a change in standards and a realization by conservationists and hunters that a turn-around in attitudes was long overdue.
Today, Wood Ducks numbers are over 44 million in the USA and Canada, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife census data from 2009. Many waterfowl species, actually four out of five, get their start in life in the lakes and marshes of Canada. Then they migrate through the United States to warmer winter climes each fall.
One portion of the duck hunter's contribution to conservation is specifically set aside for waterfowl. Every waterfowler must have a federal migratory bird stamp in addition to an equivalent state stamp. Duck stamp revenue is used to buy or lease wetlands for waterfowl. The hunter's contributions go way beyond ducks because the lands dedicated for ducks or geese provide habitat for a wide variety of non-game critters, migratory and resident.
Green Mountain eighth-grader Cole Langenbau, prepares to release a newly hatched young Wood Duck. Langenbau was assisting Iowa DNR personnel with preseason capture and banding of up to 200 of the birds in central Iowa. The purpose of marking the ducks is to assess population trernds, migration routes, harvest rates and longevity of the species. Recent studies have shown that Wood Ducks banded in Marshall County have been recovered by hunters in 22 states.
In 1937, hunters banded together to form an organization called Ducks Unlimited (DU), a private organization dedicated to the betterment of waterfowl and waterfowling in of North America. DU funds have built or restored millions of acres of prime waterfowl nesting habitat including shoreline areas along the Gulf States. The ongoing work of DU is one component of cooperative ventures with all the states to make places for waterfowl to feed, rest and reproduce.
For Wood Ducks, they have a good friend with the Marshall County Conservation Board. More than 150 nest boxes have been set at public and private sites. Private pond, lake or wetland owners can get wood duck nest canister boxes in the late winter for a small donation by calling Mike Stegmann at 752-5490. The nest boxes are constructed from two used Freon canisters. It makes a long lasting home for woodies. Other critters may use the nest box too, such as Hooded Mergansers, Screech Owls, Wrens or Starlings. It is a fun thing to do and in some little way, assisting the Wood Duck by providing nesting cavities for their 7 to 15 eggs.
AUGUST ROADSIDE COUNT data is in. Information was collected from more than 200 standard 30 mile routes to help paint a picture of population trends for pheasants, rabbits, quail and gray partridge going into the fall of 2011. There was a small gain in pheasants in parts of southern Iowa and a loss in northern Iowa. The location more likely to have pheasants is northwest, central and north-central Iowa.
The reality of the numbers shows a low number of pheasants overall. In fact, the survey results showed an average of 6.8 birds for each of the 30 mile standard survey miles, down from 10.8 birds per route last year. The drop in pheasant numbers is not limited to Iowa. South Dakota pheasants are down 46 percent, Minnesota is down 64 percent and Nebraska is down 20 percent. "The last five years has been frustrating for Iowa hunters and the department," said Todd Boggenschlutz, upland wildlife research biologist for the DNR. "Plain and simple, we have lost hens and nests consecutively each of the last five years because of unprecedented weather patterns for Iowa."
Weather and habitat are the two main factors determining abundance and distribution of upland game in Iowa. Habitat changes are gradual over long periods of time. To realize this, just look back at a typical farming operation and compare 1940 to 1950 to 1960 and so on through the decades to 2010. Farms that were small and diverse are now large and mono-cropped between corn and soybeans. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres that were enrolled over the last 20 years have expired contracts. Iowa has lost CRP lands of more than 2,500 square miles, the equivalent of a strip of land 8 miles wide stretching from Council Bluffs to Davenport!
What will it take for pheasant numbers to increase noticeably? Mild winters top the list. Iowa has received more than 30 inches of snow each year for the last 5 years. In more than 50 years of roadside count data, there has never been five years in a row of that much snow. We've had breaks during past decades in the snow fall amounts that allowed wildlife improved chances to survive. The previous string of bad winters was 1982, 1983 and 1984.
Warm dry spring weather is next on the list. We do need rain in April and May. If the combination of warm spring weather and moderate to small rain events happens, birds can adjust. Too much rain and cooler weather is bad for nesting hen pheasants. Key elements are nesting success and brood survival. If the weather should cooperate, that would be a big help.
WILD TURKEYS are making it. This scribe has seen several broods of half-grown young of the year following their hen. It is good to see. It is also good to know that the drive to survive is ingrained in wildlife species of all kinds. For mankind, allowing a wide variety of habitats to flourish will help wildlife big and small make it through the coming winter.
Here are a couple of upcoming events hosted by Marshall County Conservation in the next few weeks:
Junior Conservationist Grades 6-8 Are you ready to "Explore S'More"? Throughout the school year we'll have local and out of town adventures. Pre-registration and permission slip required. Starting on Sept. 21 from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. "Catching On" We'll venture to a local pond to go fishing and also tag monarch butterflies on their migration to Mexico. Pre-registration by Sept. 16 by calling 752-5490.
Prairie Heritage Days will be held on Sept. 24 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Grimes Farm (2359 - 233rd Street). Join us as we celebrate Oktemberfest and participate in pioneer crafts and skills: candle dipping, rope making, cider pressing, buffalo chip throw and more.
Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.