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The Wood Duck is a common bird of riparian habitats, wooded swamps, and freshwater marshes. It is also the most successful of the seven species of North American ducks that regularly nest in natural cavities. This species’ body and eyes appear well adapted to the wooded habitat it favors: its slim body allows use of Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) cavities for nesting, and its large eyes help individuals avoid branches on flights through the tree canopy.
Early ornithologists in North America reported robust populations of Wood Ducks until late in the nineteenth century, after which numbers began to decline, especially near large cities, owing to overharvest, deforestation, and loss of wetland habitats. Many ornithologists believed this species would become extinct by the early decades of the twentieth century, but because of healthy populations in remote swamps, numbers were never as low as predicted. Once the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 with Canada was enacted, this species was protected from legal harvest until 1941 and populations staged a remarkable comeback. This increase has continued until the present day. Use of nest boxes, expanding beaver (Castor canadensis) populations that create favored wetland habitat, and restrictive harvests are all thought to have contributed significantly to the recovery of the Wood Duck in North America. Forested habitats in many areas of eastern North America have also recovered, contributing to the increasing availability of natural nesting cavities.
This species is much sought by hunters, comprising about ten percent of the annual duck harvest in the U.S. It ranks first in harvest in the Atlantic flyway and fourth in harvest in the Mississippi flyway.