Feathers Fit For A King

Tom Poland

Posted 11/29/23

By Tom Poland
A Southern Writer

The exquisite male wood duck, Aix sponsa. (©Robert C Clark)

I wanted to hunt birds when a boy. Problem was no one would take me hunting. Dad tried but hunting wasn’t in his blood. And so my hunting adventures lay between the covers of magazines and books where I hunted amid daydreams of quail, deer, and ducks. Well, that’s not quite true. A boy in my class told epic hunting tales. His uncle had a hunting preserve in a place called Blackjack. I hunted vicariously through my classmate raconteur.

Carl was his name, and my chief memories of Carl are his spinning out his Chevelle at Burgess’s Beer Joint, my shooting him in the chest with an arrow—a Coca Cola cap crimped around a bamboo shaft—and his tales of deer and wood ducks.

One tall tale from Carl. A man he knew shot a buck. Laying his rifle in the deer’s antlers, he prepared to field dress it. Problem was the bullet had grazed its skull. Lo and behold the deer leaped up and bolted into the woods, the man’s rifle along for the ride, never to be seen again.

Some of Carl’s stories about hunting birds puzzled me owing to his drawl. In talking about birds he hunted, he mentioned dove and quail, loosely adding, “Some are ducks.” Or so I thought.

Many years later I saw just how majestic a summer duck is. I wrote a script about wood ducks and filmed newly hatched ducklings leaping 40 feet from a tree cavity. The yellow balls of fluff bounced upon Mother Earth like tennis balls. When all had landed, the hen lined them up like a Paris Island drill sergeant and marched them to the nearby pond.

Long after I decamped from South Carolina Wildlife, Photographer Robert Clark and I included the male wood duck in our Carolina bay book. “In the 1720s,” I wrote, “naturalist-illustrator Mark Catesby painted plants and animals strange to him, an Englishman, among them, frogs in exotic stripes of yellow and green, swallowtail butterflies, and wood ducks that nested in trees.”

If for no other reason, Catesby would have painted the male wood duck due to its fine plumage. Of the more beautiful birds in North America, I believe the male wood duck reigns over the painted bunting, scarlet tanager, and elegant trogon, a bird south of the border that visits the states. The wood duck, how gorgeous. Known also as the Carolina duck, you can’t miss this tree-perching dabbler’s whistle and whistling flight.

Know that from the late 1800s to the early 1900s this magnificent bird faced extinction. Thank sportsmen and wildlife management for saving it. You can help too. If you own wetlands, fresh water marsh, or beaver ponds, put up some predator-resistant nesting boxes. Natural tree cavities are scarce.

I never hunted much. Wish I had. It just wasn’t in the cards. Some of you faithful readers are shaking your head in the affirmative right now. You read of my boyhood love affair with Outdoor Life. Through its pages I hunted in a place called Dreamland, though many a dearly departed squirrel of the 1960s would squawk, “It was damn real to us.”

As for shooting Carl with that flimsy arrow? Today I’d be sentenced to psychological counseling. Truth be told, Carl held a BB gun at the time. “It was self defense, your honor.” Childhood innocents Carl and I were playing Cowboys and Indians. That would land us in sensitivity training today. But it’s true. I shot Carl, but I did not shoot the sheriff, and I don’t think I could have shot a drake wood duck either, not with its feathers fit for a king. It was just too pretty. Pretty as a picture.

Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net

Email Tom about most anything at at tompol@earthlink.net 

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