The artifact shown here is a stuffed, male wood duck. This bird has a unique shape among ducks. It has a boxy, crested head and a thin neck, unlike most ducks. It also has a long, broad tail when compared to other duck species. The male wood duck is known for its gloss, green heads cut with white stripes. Female wood ducks are a grey-brown with a speckled breast.

Wood ducks' preferred habitats include swamps, bottomland forests, freshwater marshes, beaver ponds, and rivers, creeks, and ponds. They eat seeds, fruits, and insects. If aquatic food sources are not available, then wood ducks might scavenge the land for acorns and nuts from forests or grain from fields.

A breeding pair of wood ducks will look for a nesting cavity. They usually do this in the early morning and look for a tree that is more than a foot and often close to two feet in diameter. The hollow of the tree can be anywhere from two to 60 feet high. When the pair finds a potential hollow tree, the male stands outside while the female goes in and inspects the cavity.

Although the tree might be up to two feet in diameter, the nest cavity itself can be much smaller. The cavity can have an opening as small as four inches, which helps keep predators out, but they can be as large as the width of the tree. Most cavities are about two feet deep, but some can reach a depth of 15 feet. In the latter, the young ducklings use their clawed feet to climb out of the nest.

The case that this wood duck is kept in was donated by Frederic Leopold, younger brother to famed conservationist Aldo Leopold. He worked for his family’s furniture company, but Frederic was a conservationist in his own right. He was particularly concerned with the survival of the wood duck, which had been threatened with extinction.

Frederic spent nearly 40 years studying the nesting and mating habits of the wood duck. He published “A Study of Nesting Wood Ducks in Iowa” in the scientific journal, The Condor, in 1951. Frederic also designed wood duck houses. Although not as well known as his brother, Frederic received an Honorary Doctor of Science from Iowa Wesleyan University for his conservation work.

Due to market hunting and the destruction of the bottomland hardwood forests, the wood duck became extremely scarce by the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. In fact, they were probably one of the most hunted waterfowl species during this period. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918 prohibited the hunting of wood ducks. This act, in conjunction with the work of conservationists like Frederic Leopold, helped re-establish the wood duck population.

The North American Breeding Surveys from 1966 to 2015 show a continual increase in the wood duck population, and other surveys show that there has been a steady population increase in the Mississippi flyway since the 1960s. This wood duck is currently on display in the River Corridor of the Heritage Center Museum.

“Out of the Attic” features artifacts from the collection of the Des Moines County Historical Society. For more information, to ask questions or to offer comments or suggestions, call (319) 752-7449 or email dmchs@dmchs.org.