The Eagle and the wood ducks


I’ve always looked up to Eagle Scouts, the highest rank in Scouting. I was a Boy Scout once, advancing all the way to the exalted-sounding rank of “Tenderfoot.” For me to be an Eagle, I’d have had to continue through Second Class, First Class, Star and Life (and who knows how many “snipe hunts”). And then I would have to have earned 21 “Merit Badges” requiring a mastery of 21 different skill sets.

Merit Badges include expected outdoor guy stuff like Camping, Swimming, Hiking, Wilderness Survival, Shotgun Shooting (which could also come in handy for Wilderness Survival) and the ever useful Fingerprinting. Apparently in modern Scouting, you never know when you’ll have to “Be Prepared” to book a felon. But they also include some unexpected stuff like Coin Collecting, Dentistry (presumably a nod to Hermey the elf), Chess, and even Cooking.

But to be an Eagle also requires a Community Service Project benefiting an organization other than the Scouts.  And here’s where our story meets the Sangamon River

Last weekend, a few volunteers from the USRC and I went tromping through the bottomland forest led by Zach Williams of Champaign Boy Scout Troop 101. Zach is working to become an Eagle by helping out Wood Ducks. His Eagle Service Project involves constructing, posting and monitoring 12 Wood Duck nest boxes in the riparian corridors along the Sangamon River. 

Like a lot of Scouts, Zach has had the opportunity to spend the night in some somewhat unusual places. These include deep inside Indiana’s Blue Springs Cave, high on a plateau in the New Mexico desert during a lightning storm which ignited a forest fire on the next ridge over (Awesome!), and, in an experience which undoubtedly served as an early inspiration for his future Eagle Service Project, high in a tree house in the Indiana forest. 

Wood Ducks also nest in trees. And they perch in trees. In fact, they are one of the few ducks with claws on their web feet for perching and nesting. They are also unusual because they are often found in heavily wooded swamps, and they eat nuts and berries, with acorns being among their favorite food.  Wood ducks are widely regarded as one of the most beautiful ducks in North America. The Complete Birds of North America describes the male as having “stunning, intricate plumage that renders it distinctive.” The female, like a lot of females (ducks, that is) is merely a “gray brown ghost of the male.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, Wood Ducks were one of the most hunted species. Even though slightly smaller than a mallard, they were hunted for food (why not?), but also for that lovely plumage, which apparently looked just dandy in ladies’ hats. And by the 1900’s most of the Wood Ducks had disappeared from their range and had become nearly extinct due to a combination of habitat loss and overhunting.

But Wood Duck nest box building programs, first begun here in Illinois in the 1930’s, have been integral to restoring their populations to healthy levels. So Zach, with support from the USRC, is out putting up nest boxes in our area. If the Wood Duck hen likes Zach’s boxes, she will build a nest using the cedar shavings Zach put inside and lay 12 to 15 eggs, one a day, and then she’ll incubate the eggs for about 30 days.

At 16, Zach is a sophomore who lives with his parents, presumably with their willing support, for a few more years. But someday soon Zach will leave the nest with plans of becoming a Champaign cop, sadly leaving his parents with an “empty nest”.

But Wood Ducks have no qualms about becoming “empty nesters” too soon. It seems that the next morning after hatching, the hen flies out, leaving her brood in the nest box and after checking for predators, she goes down to the ground beneath the nest and calls them out. These nests can be located in some instances as high as 290 feet off the ground; in the case of Zach’s boxes, it’s about 8. But even though these poor hatchlings born yesterday are too teensy to fly, they must leap out of the nest, falling straight to the ground, never to return to the nest again. And we thought “Tiger Moms” were tough on their kids.

At this point, were Zach a Wood Duck, wildlife experts would give him only a 40% chance of survival in the wild. This assumes, of course, that Zach would not have earned his “Wilderness Survival” Merit Badge, which would undoubtedly increase his chances considerably. But despite these odds, Zach’s Eagle Scout Service Project will certainly help to increase our population of Wood Ducks along the Sangamon River.

Scouting does in fact last a lifetime. Talking to my old buddy Steve on the phone recently, I was telling him about my life on the river and the things I get to do with the USRC, and Steve said “y’know, you’re still just a Boy Scout!”

When standing with young people like Zach, I realize I couldn’t be more proud. 

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, March 7, 2012, by Scott P. Hays

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