By Bob Humphrey
Looking for a project to break up the winter doldrums? Not sure if you want to stay indoors or go outside? You can do both. Building wood duck nest boxes is a great indoor-outdoor winter activity that also benefits wildlife. You can build the boxes inside on a cold snowy or rainy day. Then when the weather clears, go out and install them.
You’ll need a set of plans and instructions, which are available online at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center website: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/woodduck/wdnbox.htm
Use some type of weather-resistant wood. Cedar or cypress are recommended. In northern areas, rough-cut hemlock is often available at local mills or lumber yards. You can paint or stain the wood, though it’s not necessary. If you do, stain only the outside surface.
The aforementioned plans show you how to minimize waste by cutting individual pieces out of a single board. Use 1-inch, rough-cut boards. If you plan on making several boxes, which most folks do, save your first box components to use as a pattern.
You’ll also need something to mount the box on, which can be either a metal or wood post. And you’ll need a galvanized sheet metal predator guard that you’ll eventually place 6 to 12 inches below the bottom of the box.
Cut individual pieces according to plans. In the front, make either a round 4-inch diameter or oval 3-inch high and 4-inch wide entrance hole.
The newly-hatched ducklings will need a ladder to exit the box, which can be fashioned in one of several ways. One is to attach a 3-inch wide strip of 1/4-inch mesh hardware cloth inside, under the entrance - be sure to fold the cut edges back to avoid injury to the ducklings. A second is to make shallow, “ladder” cuts across the board. A third is to simply roughen up the wood surface under the hole with a chisel.
Fasten the parts together as shown in the plans. Then add a 3-inch layer of coarse sawdust to the box to serve as nesting material and help prevent the eggs from rolling around. And make sure the lid or one side of the box is removable to facilitate monitoring and cleaning.
Now it’s time to put the boxes out. In the south, you may still be able to reach areas by boat or canoe. In the north, the ground and the water are frozen, making it easier to reach installation sites by ATV. Load up the bed of your Rhino with nest boxes and head out for the day.
Mike Checkett of Ducks Unlimited recommends placing boxes in obscure places on trees well within the woods. “Boxes that are in plain site (on poles in the middle of wetland) often are invaded by many wood ducks and used as dump nests,” he says. “These boxes rarely have good hatch success because the female cannot incubate all the eggs and most will addle (die).” He also recommends putting boxes where they’re easy to maintain.
Checkett says a good wetland site for wood ducks should have three characteristics:
1. Approximately half the wetland should be open water, with the remainder in green plant cover.
2. A supply of animal foods, such as insects and other invertebrates. These are critical, especially for ducklings less than 4 weeks old.
3. Water that will remain until the ducklings are able to fly – 8 to 10 weeks.
Checkett also reminds us: “If you plan to make the commitment to put up wood duck nest boxes be sure to realize it is a commitment. Wood duck boxes left unattended or improperly placed will become unused by wood ducks or worse, can become death traps to hens and ducklings. However, a bit of thought and care can improve nest box occupancy and duckling production.”