March 08, 2022
With the off-season blues hitting hard like a sucker punch to the gut, many hunters are starting to seek unique ways to stay engaged in their fowl lifestyle during the long wait for opening day. While Old Man Winter has most of us locked up indoors for the next few months, there is one popular seasonal pastime that is both fun and rewarding, in the form of building, installing, and maintaining wood duck boxes.
With populations stretching across North America, there is ample opportunity for most of us to get involved in wildlife conservation right in our own communities. Placing nesting boxes is ideal for a private landowner looking to connect with the natural world in a deeper way. Anyone else interested can connect with their state wildlife agency or local Ducks Unlimited (DU) or Delta Waterfowl chapter to get involved, or simply reach out to their municipality to find public ground to install a box.
Click here for plans to build your own box. Keep in mind, rough cut lumber works best for newly hatched chicks to use their toenails to climb up to the opening for their one-time-only jump out.
Installing a Wood Duck Nesting Box
Choosing the right location to install your box is not rocket science, but take a few minutes to consider placing it in the most opportune location. The secret sauce, according to John Mlcuch, wildlife technician with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, is a combination of proximity to water (not necessarily above water) but also in a place that you can get to in the winter to clean and maintain.
“Wood ducks are cavity nesters and seek out holes and openings inside trees to lay and incubate their eggs,” Mlcuch said. “When looking for a tree for your box, find one that is relatively close to the water’s edge because the hen and her brood will leave the box shortly after hatching and make their way into the wetland. Too far a distance and the birds will be at risk for predation and other hazards. Silver maples and ash trees in the floodplain surrounding a marsh can be a great place to look.”
While it’s certainly advantageous to place boxes in known nesting locations, it is possible to bring in new birds. Placing nesting boxes can provide birds with additional protection (safer than what Mother Nature can sometimes provide) and increase their chances for nesting success and survival.
It's ok to place several boxes in an area but give them enough separation or face the openings in opposite directions to avoid crowding. You don’t need to face the opening of the box toward water, but it’s helpful to face it in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds to avoid rain and snow from blowing in. Also, take a quick look to make sure there isn’t an easy way to for a predator to climb or jump onto the box tree, or float up to it in during periods of high water.
Predator guards made of sheet metal or flashing are wrapped around the tree at a downward angle to keep racoons and other nest-raiders at bay. Unable to grip and climb up, over, or around, the smooth, flat surface works to well to thwart most opportunistic predators.
Maintaining a Wood Duck Nesting Box
With waterfowl enjoying their southern vacations and frozen wetlands to walk on, winter is the best to return to boxes for cleaning and maintenance before birds return to nest. Although uncommon, there are times when other wildlife such as squirrels, owls, or mice will take up interim residence in boxes, so open them slowly and carefully.
General maintenance practices include opening the boxes and removing the previous season’s nesting debris, relocating a box to a new tree (if needed), replacing any damaged components, cutting/clearing away fallen limbs (predator access), and putting down a fresh bed of plain wood shavings.
Mlcuch mentions how everyone enjoys installing boxes, but the ongoing maintenance is critical, which does require a commitment. “If we didn’t clean them out, they would eventually become unusable. If not properly maintained, not only do they become a disservice to the birds, but they start to look bad too.”
Birds of a Feather
Not exclusive to wood ducks, other cavity nesting waterfowl such as goldeneye and hooded mergansers will often take advantage of these artificial cavities. You may not see them using your box, but you’ll know if a goldeneye has nested by their green eggs, or hoodies with their snow-white egg, as opposed to the tan color of the wood duck. While you may see a single species utilizing their own box, there are times when hens “do not put all their eggs in one basket” and drop off eggs into existing nests leaving the primary hen to raise not only their own chicks, but the young of their relatives as well.
Looking for a way to stay active and engaged this winter? Installing and maintaining wood duck boxes are a fun way to introduce kids to the outdoors and can be a fun family activity. Nesting boxes an ideal for Scouts and other youth groups to connect with their community and provide an important conservation service. So, lace up your boots, grab your tools and supplies, load up the sled, and head out to your local wetland this winter to commit to waterfowl and wetland conservation.