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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 22, 2003 - Issue 81


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Iktomi and the Ducks, or Why Ducks Have Red Eyes

As told by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)
TipiOne day Iktomi sat hungry within his teepee. Suddenly he rushed out, dragging after him his blanket. Quickly spreading it on the ground, he tore up dry tall grass with both his hands and tossed it fast into the blanket.

Tying all the four corners together in a knot, he threw the light bundle of grass over his shoulder. Snatching up a slender willow stick with his free left hand, he started off with a hop and a leap. From side to side bounced, the bundle on his back, as he ran light-footed over the uneven ground.

Soon he came to the edge of the great level land. On the hilltop he paused for breath. With wicked smacks of his dry parched lips, as if tasting some tender meat, he looked straight into space toward the marshy river bottom. With a thin palm shading his eyes from the western sun, he peered far away into the lowlands, munching his own cheeks all the while.

"Ah-ha!" grunted he, satisfied with what he saw. A group of wild ducks were dancing and feasting in the marshes. With wings outspread, tip to tip, they moved up and down in a large circle. Within the ring, around a small drum, sat the chosen singers, nodding their heads and blinking their eyes.

They sang in unison a merry dance-song, and beat a lively tattoo on the drum.

Following a winding footpath near by, came a bent figure of a Lakota brave. He bore on his back a very large bundle. With a willow cane he propped himself up as he staggered along beneath his burden.

Duck"Ho! who is there?" called out a curious old duck, still bobbing up and down in the circular dance. Hereupon the drummers stretched their necks till they strangled their song for a look at the stranger passing by.

"Ho, Iktomi! Old fellow, pray tell us what you carry in your blanket. Do not hurry off! Stop! halt!" urged one of the singers.

"Stop! stay! Show us what is in your blanket!" cried out other voices.

"My friends, I must not spoil your dance. Oh, you would not care to see if you only knew what is in my blanket. Sing on! dance on! I must not show you what I carry on my back," answered Iktomi, nudging his own sides with his elbows.

This reply broke up the ring entirely. Now all the ducks crowded about Iktomi. "We must see what you carry! We must know what is in your blanket!" they shouted in both his ears. Some even brushed their wings against the mysterious bundle.

Nudging himself again, wily Iktomi said, "My friends, 't is only a pack of songs I carry in my

"Oh, then let us hear your songs!" cried the curious ducks.

At length Iktomi consented to sing his songs. With delight all the ducks flapped their wings and cried together, "Hoye! hoye!"

Iktomi, with great care, laid down his bundle on the ground. "I will build first a round straw house, for I never sing my songs in the open air," said he.

CampfireQuickly he bent green willow sticks, planting both ends of each pole into the earth. These he covered thick with reeds and grasses. Soon the straw hut was ready. One by one the fat ducks waddled in through a small opening, which was the only entranceway. Beside the door Iktomi stood smiling, as the ducks, eying his bundle of songs, strutted into the hut.

In a strange low voice Iktomi began his queer old tunes. All the ducks sat round-eyed in a circle about the mysterious singer. It was dim in that straw hut, for Iktomi had not forgot to cover up the small entrance way. All of a sudden his song burst into full voice. As the startled ducks sat uneasily on the ground, Iktomi changed his tune into a minor strain. These were the words he sang:

"Istokmus wacipo, tuwayatunwanpi kinhan ista nishashapi kta," which is, "With eyes closed you must dance. He who dares to open his eyes, forever red eyes shall have."

Up rose the circle of seated ducks and holding their wings close against their sides began to dance to the rhythm of Iktomi's song and drum. With eyes closed they did dance! Iktomi ceased to beat his drum. He began to sing louder and faster. He seemed to be moving about in the center of the ring.

Ducks in a row

No duck dared blink a wink. Each one shut his eyes very tight and danced even harder. Up and down! Shifting to the right of them they hopped round and round in that blind dance. It was a difficult dance for the curious folk.

At length one of the dancers could close his eyes no longer! It was a Skiska who peeped the least tiny blink at Iktomi within the center of the circle. "Oh! oh!" squawked he in awful terror! "Run! fly! Iktomi is twisting your heads and breaking your necks! Run out and fly! fly!" he cried. Hereupon the ducks opened their eyes.

Little DuckThere beside Iktomi's bundle of songs lay half of their crowd - flat on their backs. Out they flew through the opening Skiska had made as he rushed forth with his alarm. But as they soared high into the blue sky they cried to one another: "Oh! your eyes are red-red!" "And yours are red-red!" For the warning words of the magic minor strain had proven true.

Print and Color your own Wood Duck Picture
Wood Duck

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Wood Duck (Aix Sponsa)

Wood Duck Drake (male)The Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) is the only native species of perching duck in North America. A member of the Anatidae family of ducks, geese, and swans, the "woody" sports sharp claws for gripping snags and clambering out of its tree-cavity nest.

The spectacular male's colorful, iridescent breeding plumage of whites, darks, and burgundies and his sleek crest are the explanation for the species name sponsa, which means "betrothed." In other words, he's dressed as if he's ready to be married. The female is cryptically colored, but can be identified easily by a teardrop-shaped white patch around the eye. The male's alternate, eclipse plumage is drab like the female's, but his bill retains its bright mix of colors in orange, black, and white.

In flight, the long square tail and light outer vanes of the primary flight feathers are distinctive. In one writer's words, the vanes look as if they have been sprayed with aluminum paint.

The Wood Duck has a diet similar to that of dabbling ducks like Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and Green-winged Teal (A. crecca): primarily invertebrates during the breeding season (especially among prelaying and egg-laying females) and predominantly plant life (especially duckweed) the rest of the year. Acorns and fruit are also taken.

Wood Duck Hen (female)The birds are intermediate in size between Mallards and teal: males weigh about 680 g and females about 460 g.

The most commonly-heard vocalization is the rising "hoo-eek" call given by the female.

Of the the bird's behavior, A. C. Bent writes in 1923:

No duck is so expert as the wood duck in threading its way through the interlacing branches of the forest, at which its skill has been compared with that of the passenger pigeon. I have stood on the shore of a woodland pond in the darkening twilight of a summer evening and watched these ducks come in to roost; on swift and silent wings they would glide like meteors through the tree tops, twisting, turning, and dodging, until it was almost too dark for me to see them.

Pair formation generally occurs in the fall, before southward migration in October and November. Come spring, the birds occupy two separate ranges: (a) in the west, from California to British Columbia, Montana, and Alberta; and (b) most of the territory east of the hundredth meridian from Texas to Florida and from Manitoba to the Maritimes. The breeding season begins anywhere from early March (in the southern end of the range) to early May (in the north). Most females return to the previous year's breeding ground, typically a wooded swamp.

While the male looks on, the female selects a cavity in a dead tree, with a 4-inch opening 3 to 60 feet off the ground. The cavity is sometimes a reused hole from a larger woodpecker; a man-made nest box of wood or plastic (lined with wood chips) may also be used. The nest is sometimes directly over water, but it may be as far as a mile away. Except for their own down, the birds add no additional material to the nest.

The hen lays a clutch of 8 to 10 fairly glossy, creamy-white, 2-inch long eggs (sometimes as few as 6 or as many as 15), at the rate of one per day. Once all of the eggs are laid, she alone begins a 28-32 day incubation.

Wood Duck ChickThe chicks hatch, downy and precocial, within hours of one another. (That is, they are not the naked, helpless, altricial nestlings typical of songbird species.) The next day, the female leaves the nest and gives soft "kuk kuk kuk" calls. In response, the chicks, already equipped with clawed feet, climb out of the cavity and drop to the ground below. The hen and the young immediately set out for water, which provides food and protection from land-based predators. Once on the water, ducklings face natural enemies like large pickerel, pike, and snapping turtles.

A. C. Bent writes that the young can climb out of a natural cavity three feet deep or more. He also gives anecdotal evidence that the hen carries the young from the nest, either in her bill or on her back -- such reports are now generally discredited.

Already somewhat independent at the age of 2 weeks, the ducklings can fly by 8 or 10 weeks. In warmer areas, in about 10% of the cases, the female will go on to produce a second brood.

Shortly after breeding, males begin to molt into "eclipse" plumage, a trait that Wood Ducks share with most other North American ducks. They exchange their bright nuptial colors for dull, cryptic ones, and they lose their fancy crests. The primary and secondary flight feathers are shed, and the drakes are flightless for about three weeks.

In August, the birds may disperse several hundred miles in all directions before September starts the courtship cycle again. As they migrate south, they retreat from Canada, the northern tier of the U.S., and the Appalachians; winter expands their range into Mexico.

On average, the birds return to breed for one season. Bellrose and Holm estimate the mean life span at 1.52 years, a bit more for males, and a bit less for females.

Wood Duck Hen and ChicksLike many Anatidae species, the Wood Duck is a non-obligate intraspecific brood parasite. That is, a female may lay some or all of her eggs in the nest of another Wood Duck, to be incubated by the other duck. "Dump-nest" clutches of up to 50 eggs can result. It may not be possible for the hen whose nest has been so parasitized (the host) to successfully incubate all the eggs, and thus some may not hatch. There is evidence that dumping behavior increases as nests are more conspicuously placed and are spaced more closely together.

An interesting partial explanation for why intraspecific parasitism has evolved among duck species rests on the bird's site tenacity (philopatry) in its choice of nesting territory. Sisters or mothers and daughters tend to nest in the same area, and therefore may tend to parasitize one another. This would reduce the evolutionary cost of being parasitized, because the host would be brooding young that carry genes very similar to the host's. If hosts are indeed parasitized by close relatives, I might speculate that this behavior is similar to the cooperative nesting behavior shown by the Florida Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma c. coerulescens).

Due to over-hunting, the draining of wetlands, and forest fragmentation, the "bridal duck" was threatened with extinction at the start of the 20th century. In 1918, the federal government closed the hunting season for this bird for 23 years. A mid-century program showed that the species responds positively to artificial nest boxes, but the overall effect of nest boxes on population size is still not well understood. By the 1960s, the population had recovered to an estimated 3 million individuals.

Hepp and Bellrose cite the following priority topics for further research:

  • establishing methods for estimating population size over large geographic areas, in order to evaluate the effects of habitat changes;
  • identifying effects of forest management practices on natural tree cavity abundance;
  • continuing long-term studies of marked Wood Ducks to learn about reproductive ecology and population biology.

Despite favorable population trends, the loss of suitable habitat, due to continued development and a growing human population, remains a concern: the fate of the Wood Duck, perhaps the most beautiful native North American duck, is far from secure.

Listen to the Wood Duck's Call:
Wood Duck Call

Build a Wood Duck Nest Box
Nest boxes should be constructed of a weather-resistant wood; cedar or cypress is often recommended. The wood can be painted, stained, or treated, but only on the outside surface. The entrance hole should have a 4-inch diameter or be an oval that is 3 inches high and 4 inches wide.

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