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Those Yankee Girls

Bayou-Diversity (16 February 2020) I cannot choose just one favorite bird that inhabits Louisiana swamps. You must allow me several. However, in the avian guild no species embodies the essence of a southern swamp more than the wood duck. Considered by many to be the most beautiful of North American waterfowl, wood ducks have been revered for centuries. Native Americans in the lower Mississippi Valley commonly depicted wood ducks on pottery and ceremonial pipes. The first Europeans here noticed the wood duck, and Cabeza de Vaca may have been the first to describe the species in his account of a bird he called the “royal drake” in 1527.

In my youth I knew this species by the colloquial name “squealer” until wildlife biology professors convinced me of the value of using accepted taxonomic labels if I wished to advance in my chosen field of work. Their repertoire of squeals and whistles can be heard year round as resident birds are augmented by northern migrants beginning in late autumn. A long term banding program in the D’Arbonne Swamp has revealed fascinating information about their life history. In late summer, biologists deploy rocket nets at baited sites to capture local wood ducks before northern birds arrive. The netted birds are tagged with numbered, aluminum bands and released. Data accrue when the banded birds are later shot by hunters (who report the harvest specifics to a national database) or recaptured by banders. Not surprisingly, most wood ducks banded in the D’Arbonne Swamp are recovered in Louisiana with many others showing up in Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas. Some, however, are reported from most states in the eastern half of the U.S. and several Canadian provinces as well. A closer look at the data reveals that all wood ducks reported from locations farther north are males. Because the birds pair up here in the swamp on their wintering grounds, this means that if a local Louisiana-born male chooses a Yankee mate while she is here for the winter, he will follow her home in the spring to breed there, be it Ohio or Ontario. As a biologist though, I’m not quite sure what this says about the local boys (or the Yankee girls). ©KO


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