by Rex Burress

Down by the riverside, it was an extraordinary early December morning for bird watching. The light was right, and the birds were active.

Not only did I see my first Barrow's Goldeneye of the season, but there were also mergansers slashing through the air to land noisily among the mixed waterfowl, red-cheeked flickers absorbing the morning sun in the top of a nearly leafless cottonwood, and bustling Buffleheads. The most outstanding sight, however, was a Wood Duck standing on a snag in the river in all his red green white glory!

I was glad I could magnify that beauty ten times with my Leitz lens, and the Wood Duck's spectacular plumage seemed designed more for a carnival clown than a bard, but its colorful presence enhanced an autumnal time of equally uproariously-colored foliage. The array of yellow cottonwood, red pistasche, red-stemmed willow, orange grape, and brown understory, to be topped by the multi-colored Wood Duck, was almost more than your senses could bear.

That the world has Wood Ducks, and nearly nine thousand other bird species, is a boon for the bird lover. A television special researched the curious question of why people like to look at birds - and, even while a bird-watcher lady was being interviewed, she suddenly grabbed her binoculars ot focus on a flying Merlin her group had excitedly discovered. "I needed that one for my list," she apologetically explained. "That was a beauty!"

Wood Ducks are of such a desirable beauty that they have been encouraged to stay in Feather River summer country by the erection of Wood Duck boxes. At Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, Naturalist Debbie Peterson directs a Wood Duck Box Program designed to provide nesting cavities for the birds. The California State Fish and Game facility has over 300 boxes in operation, and sometimes as many as 3,000 eggs are hatched in the spring, according to a hard-working Wood Duck Crew!

As their name implies, Wood Ducks like wood. The tree cavities that they normally nest in - usually in wilder, unlogged wilderness terrains - are scarce in California, and thus the substitution of a "perfect" place for eggs! The effort is made because people like to see Wood Ducks and, when there is a surplus, even hunters like to bag a few. A male Wood Duck is considered to make a fine piece of taxidermy, plus they are edible, to the dismay of some bird defenders. A harvest of the surplus is considered good conservation by wildlife management authorities.

Not all is perfect in the Wood Duck box world, however. Expert birder John Grow, a Naturalist Aide for the Lake Oroville California State Parks during the summer of 2000, who is also a member of the Bidwell Bar Association, gave me a story about his job of checking Wood Duck boxes in the Oroville Wildlife Area.

"Nearly ten boxes of some forty were damaged by vandals," he explained, "and many had other occupants inside, including the rather bothersome predaceous ringtail." Such things as bee colonies, Barn Owls, Western Screech-Owls, gray squirrels, and opossums also claim those boxes.

John went on to say that some nesting Wood Duck hens had been killed by ringtails and, in one box, a ringtail dashed out as they were checking and ran up into the tree. If you haven't seen a ringtail, they are wiry little nocturnal mammals with a long, bushy, ringed tail and a black mask over their eyes much like a raccoon. They have previously been called "Ringtail Cats."

When I worked as Refuge Naturalist at the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge, part of my animal-keeping duties in the 1960s included caring for a pair of ringtails. They were cute creatures, and very shy, hiding in their hollow-log home most of the day but romping around the cage at night. With patience, they can become tamed, and early Feather River gold miners encouraged them to stay around their cabins to catch mice and called them "Miner's Cats."

The pair at the Rotary Nature Center in Oakland was finally given to a man who took them to his cabin home near Death Valley, and he later reported that they would romp around the cabin and sit on his lap, even though they had freedom to leave. The Rotary Nature Center does have, by the way, a symbolic Wood Duck box placed on one of the duck islands, and I will be curious as to who uses it. House Sparrows are a good bet. Wood Ducks only rarely visit Lake Merritt.

One other Wood Duck box suddenly came up missing when John's crew went to check boxes in the Oroville Wildlife Area - in fact, the entire tree that the box had been attached to was missing! It turned out that beaver had gnawed down that very tree, either in ignorance of the Wood Duck box, or maybe because they were making a statement! Chances are, though, that the particular tree was selected merely by chance - beavers up and down the river gnaw randomly on handy cottonwood, including a choice tree near Bedrock Park! To a beaver, it is "gnaw what you need!" I'm not sure they are concerned with aesthetics!

If you walk to the Long Bar Monument along the Diversion Pool pond at the end of Burma Road near Oroville, you will see one of those Wood Duck boxes placed on a tree leaning out over the inlet. In this wild isolation, John Grow said, Wood Ducks nested last year and produced a brood of young.

Wood Ducks, as well as other wild inhabitants, love that natural wild zone of the California State Parks at Long Bar. When you look around at the forest growing along the houseless habitat where only the hiker, biker, equestrian, and canoeist occasionally venture, you feel amazement that wild animals can endure the climatic extremes as well as a certain loneliness. They are self sufficient and require no maintenance and undoubtedly prefer to be left alone, but the observation of these wilderness occupants is one of the greater privileges of the nature lover's life.

Even though the colorful male Wood Duck plumage and the artistic arrangement of the wildflower's glorious petals are adornments targeted for other purposes than mere visual appreciation, it is perhaps man's greatest gift to be able to see those sexual excesses and call them beautiful. For the Wood Duck and the wildflower, what we call beauty is a functional design for their survival. For mankind, that conception of beauty is aesthetic fuel for the soul. May we always have Wood Ducks to adorn planet Earth!

© 2000 Rex Burress
December 3, 2000