Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

June 29, 1919. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 54(39): 10-E. Obvious typographic errors changed.

Passing of the Summer Duck - The Loveliest of Them All

By Sandy Griswold.

While on the way up to Gordon some ten days ago, along the picturesque Elkhorn valley, I was both pleased and thrilled at diverse times, at the sight of an old hen mallard or bluewing teal, swimming away, amidst frills of gleaming ripples, on some lilied slough or the backwater from nearby creeks, conveying her family of little ones, tiny fuzzy balls of brown and gold, off from the terrifying rush of the train. At one point, where the train swung round an abrupt turn up close to the scraggly wooded banks of the swollen Elkhorn river, I saw a wood duck dart away from an old blasted cottonwood over-leaning the stream, where she evidently had her nest in some old fox squirrel or flicker's hole, and swooping low over the water a ways, then up into the air and over the bordering trees and off across the alfalfa fields into the blue distance.

I would not have known it was a wood duck, if I had not been familiar with its general shape and the character of its flight, by the mere fact that I had seen it leave the old cottonwood tree, where no other duck that frequents this region ever lights or builds its nest. It was a rare sight and I was fervently thankful it had been once more vouchsafed me.

This leads me to explain that when I first came to Nebraska some thirty odd years ago, the wood duck was comparatively plentiful almost everywhere along our wooded creek and river bottoms, an extremely favorite resort and breeding place, being up among the straggling and unkempt woods about Horseshoe and Stillwater lakes, east of Calhoun. But today the bird is almost extinct or rapidly nearing that unhappy state, although last fall several were bagged up along the Stillwater, and more seen than for several years, and this summer, so Bill Falk writes me, there are several birds nesting in the timber near his old hunting shack. May they live safely through the vicissitudes they must surely encounter - the big horned owl, the goshawk, prowling house cat, and most dangerous of all, the predatory urchin with a gun, and emerge with large families, if they have not already done so, for let me say here that the wood duck is the most exquisite member - especially to iridescent male - of all the wild fowl family, as well as the most delicate and toothsome. He is still found in sparse numbers, I am pleased to state, along most of the wooded summer lakes and streams of this state and Minnesota and Wisconsin.

This duck, commonly called the summer duck, nests in trees and its young never lose the love of the woods. They swim as well as any duck, and after they are a third grown never reascend to the nest, but roost on sheltered waters, like their kindred, yet they are at home amid the trees and most of their daytime feeding is done in the forest. They are fond of small nuts, and as eager for acorns as mallards, and if they can get to beech trees, as they can in Ohio and other eastern states, and a cornfield with equal ease, they will be found among the beeches.

Because of their habits they are not easy ducks to procure with the gun. They are not found frequently on lakes in the daytime, though wild rice will seduce them to the water and keep them there. Generally they are out in the fields or among the nuts, and the hunter who wishes to make a bag of them must find their roosting place. This is always on a lake or sheltered curve of a river, where they can find cover. Once they have selected a roost they will not desert it until cold weather drives them further south.

The mallard will quit roosting water that has been shot over once or twice, but the wood duck keeps coming back until all the members of the flock are killed. If its passway can be found, the place at which the flocks fly in at night and out in the morning, the shooting will be good. It does not decoy, readily, unless decoys of its own species be placed in a cornfield, and even then it acts warily, going around the decoys in the effort to learn all about them. The wood duck is considerably larger than the teal, but not so large as the mallard. In size it nearly approaches the sprig, but is of a better flavor. One the wing it is tireless and very fast, faster probably than any one of the larger ducks. In coming into roost near dark it flies high, generally from 50 to 100 yards up, and does not begin its descent until nearly above the chosen spot.

Then it comes down on a steep slant, rapidly, its wings making a hollow sound, and when it hits the water it throws the spray up nearly to the tops of the rice. Because of its speed and high flight the man on the pass must have a gun that is a natural-born reacher; it must be swung well in advance of the onrushing flyers, and the shot must be bunched.

At a little later season of the year the young birds are deliciously tender, and are easily killed with small shot - 7s being about the best size. And then, after all, considering the rapid manner these beautiful birds are vanishing, it is a pity that the new federal law does not provide for their perpetual protection in this state as it does in many others.

No need of ever being confounded by this bird, should you encounter it. The glossy brilliancy of its soft, dense feathers, the perfect blending of their many hues - of myriads of shades and tintings - makes it one of unequalled and indescribable beauty. Of course, the male mallard is hard to beat in symmetry and exquisite loveliness, but most lovers of the wild fowl award the palm to the summer duck.

There is no duck that visits this latitude, so a majority of the sportsmen think, that can compare with the wood duck in the resistless charm of its coloring. It is very properly and commonly called, as I said before, summer duck, as they are distinctly different from all their engeneres. We always associate the wild fowl, and very naturally so, too, with cold, stormy and inclement weather, for when one comes in fall or spring, it is followed by the other.

But the wood duck comes in the soft, delicious days of April, remains with us, breed and rear their little ones along our singing streams and lapsing lakes, with their maples, willows, alders and linden flowing and bending gracefully over them in the winds of the long summer time.

After the old bird has tumbled her fluffy babies out of the old squirrel hole where they were born, and piloted them to the nearest slough or pond, they love to disport themselves in the shallows, while both the parent birds, watchful and alert for danger, linger near.

The duck seems out of place resting contentedly and at home on a limb of some old cottonwood, yet it is perfectly natural, and the birds' favorite resting place. Some times, but rarely, they build their nest in the roomy crotch of some old Apak of the woods, and raise their young as securely and as safely as they do in the old squirrel or flicker hole.

The flight of the summer duck through the thickest of our bottom land woods, is much swifter than that of mallard or widgeon in the open, and it is in the dusk of evening that they take most of their exercise, darting like opalescent shadows among the darkening trees.

In the low, boggy lagoons, like those about Horseshoe lake, they are generally found in the little open glades, about the piles of drift wood, muskrat houses and half whelmed logs. They are even a greater delicacy than the bluewing teal in the golden days of September, and many is the one I have enjoyed. But never again. I would rather see one wood duck about its old haunts that fall, than kill a dozen mallards, redheads or bluebills, and I can say truthfully, no matter how many opportunities I may yet have presented me, I have killed my last woodduck.

What a picture a pair of these lovely birds would make today up on old Horseshoe, swimming side by side along the flag festooned shore, keeping sharp vigil on the antics of the little yellow balls of babies following in their wake, and at the same time always on the lookout for any of the tidbits that there so plentifully abound.

There tumbles a white miller on to the surface of the lake. They see it, and at a signal from the mother hen, the whole flock scrambles wildly thither, pell mell, amidst flying foam and crystal drops, until the lucky one gobbles it down. Then they settle back into normal placitude again, and swim away in idle happiness.

Now they reach one of those half whelmed old cottonwoods, and as the fluffy children begin to cheep petulantly, as they dart hither and yon in pursuit of the tiny flies and insects their coming has flushed from the prostrate trunk, the parents clamber up on its broad back, and in the topaz sunshine, begin to preen themselves, standing high and vigorously flitting their wings, bringing into view the deep reds and purples of their strong pinions - the dusky heads shaded with green, their milk-white breasts, dainty throats and mottled browns and blacks of their bodies, all shining in one dazzling sheen in the golden flood overlying water, wood and field.