A Walk in the Woods

September/October Issue of Virginia Wildlife Magazine’s “A Walk in the Woods” (permission to reprint granted by Virginia Wildlife Magazine)

Few North American birds are as striking in appearance as a drake wood duck; the vivid color combinations of this elegantly attired dabbler exceed artistic imagination. Add the gleaming rays of early morning sunlight to accentuate feather iridescence, a stand of flooded oaks, the sparkling reflections from frost-covered aquatic plants and an outdoor canvas comes to life in the minds of all who appreciate waterfowl – no matter whether they prefer the clicking of a camera’s shutter, the smell of gun powder, or trout foolery. Even so, whenever caught up in the excitement of photography, collecting table fare, or tying dry flies and streamers, sportsmen have a tendency to overlook the wood duck’s connection with America’s wildlife conservation history – our nation’s 400-year story of natural resource wealth, its decimation, and the remarkable restoration. 

While the pressures of year-round sustenance and market hunting, plus the loss of millions of acres of wetlands, were responsible for the drastic decline of waterfowl populations during America’s first three centuries, the ax and cross-cut saw initiated the demise of the wood duck. Agricultural-minded settlers cleared vast expanses of hardwood forests for pastures and croplands; and mature trees growing along bottomlands bordering riparian corridors were cut and burned to access rich, floodplain soils. Then, in the 1800s, a strengthening economy and booming railroad industry further whetted this country’s appetite for lumber. Because the wood duck’s breeding range included the whole of Eastern North America, and the birds depended on tree cavities for nesting facilities, the destruction of hardwood habitat sent their numbers into what seemed an irreversible, downward spiral.

Luckily for all who love the outdoors, the late 19th Century marked the beginning of the North American conservation movement. With numerous species of animals decimated, and several already extinct, sportsmen rose to the task. Unlike John Muir’s preservationist mindset, Theodore Roosevelt emphasized intelligent use of natural resources, which was the basis of the benchmark conservation organization he founded in 1887 – the Boone and Crockett Club.

Then, starting with the signing of the Lacey Act in 1900, the future of America’s dwindling wildlife resources caught full attention of the U. S. Congress. In 1916, the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) passed international legislation to protect birds migrating across their respective boundaries. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed again in 1918 which, among other legislative directives, ended the lucrative plume trade and regulated waterfowl hunting; the latter providing full protection to wood ducks. 

In 1934, with the conservation movement escalating, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Jay “Ding” Darling as head of the U. S. Biological Survey (forerunner of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Darling, understanding the need to protect wetlands, proposed the Federal Duck Stamp Act as a means of collecting revenue to support purchases of these  rapidly dwindling environs. Approved on March 16, 1934, the legislation required all waterfowl hunters, over the age of 16, to purchase the stamp annually. An award-winning cartoonist, Darling designed the first stamp, which sold for $1.

There was additional legislation passed that benefited the wood duck, but perhaps none more significant than The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which was introduced to Congress by Senator Key Pittman of Nevada and Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia. Signed in 1937, the Pittman/Robertson Act provided a steady stream of revenue through an innovative, 11-percent, excise tax on firearms and ammunitions. The key to this unprecedented legislation’s success was that monies collected could be used only to support wildlife restoration. 

Because of state and federal legislation, enforcement of the new laws, billions of dollars collected through Pittman/Robertson, wetland preservation, improved wildlife and forest resource management methods, conservation organization funding, and installment of nesting boxes in wetland habitat, our beloved wood duck was back in waterfowl bag limits by 1941. Today, thanks in part to regenerated hardwood buffers along rivers and streams, the poster bird of wildlife conservation remains a common sight across the Commonwealth. 

Sometimes appreciating wildlife not only necessitates a walk in the woods, but retracing our steps back through history!

Please consider a tax deductible donation to the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation.

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