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SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Where on earth is Wally's Wood Duck World?

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SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Where on earth is Wally's Wood Duck World?
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- Where on earth is Wally's Wood Duck World?

This is the name of a pheasant hunting spot Thad Lambert and I used to frequent east of Worthington. It was a shallow slough that never had any water in it in the fall, but seemed to be a paradise for a large number of wood ducks in southwest Minnesota during the spring and summer months when it was still wet.

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Spring is wood duck time, and there is no better time to get involved in a little outdoor project to benefit wildlife. Many species of wildlife have very specific needs, and helping them takes lots of money, expertise and time. Fortunately, the wood duck is not one of them. All they need is a water source and a nesting cavity to successfully reproduce.

Everywhere you look around Lake Okabena and the properly-named Mudhole Bay -- now called Sunset Bay for politically-correct reasons -- there are manmade wood duck houses or wood duck boxes.

These ducks are cavity nesters and for centuries have used the hollow cavities in both live and dead trees to lay their eggs. In live trees, nesting locations centered around areas where large limbs were broken off and cavities were created. In dead trees, it was the spots that rotted out and formed cavities that also worked.

Enter modern day man. If the tree is dead, cut it down, and if a limb is broken, get the chainsaw and trim it up so it looks really good. At the end of the day, the wood duck is displaced and homeless. If a tree falls in a lake, it has to be removed because it is unsightly. Think about this, just imagine the predator cover these fallen trees provide to a mother wood duck and her clutch of 10 ducklings swimming as if in tow. Add in the protection of small fish and this is a great piece of habitat everyone loves to hate.

Most of the habitat wood ducks need is being destroyed on many Minnesota lakes and across their normal habitat range. We can offset this habitat loss by erecting some manmade habitat of our own. Nesting boxes come in all shapes and sizes, but they are by no means equally effective. The best nesting box is made of wood, erected close to water and has a predator screen or guard.

Some people make nesting boxes out of plastic or fiberglass tanks and, while they work, they get hotter for the hen when she is incubating the eggs. Eggs laid in boxes without a predator guard are almost always destroyed by raccoons, mink and even mice. Don't get me wrong, most any nesting box is better than no nesting box at all in most cases, but if you place a nesting box in a high predator area without a predator guard, you are almost guaranteeing nest failure.

If there was no box at all, it would force the hen to look elsewhere and she might find a place with a higher chance of success. Building a nesting structure takes a certain amount of time and money, so if you are going to do it, you might as well take the little extra time to do it right and make the outcome the best it can be.

The best wood duck nesting box plans are being printed every week in Outdoor News as part of their wood duck challenge. I have copies in my office at Rall Financial Services and can mail you one if you contact me at rall@knology.net. I cannot put them in the paper due to copyright.

The plans call for a box made of rough, one-side cedar and a little hardware. The total cost of all materials is about $30. At the end of the day, the most important aspects of wood duck nesting boxes is the construction, location and maintenance.

I have boxes up all over Nobles County and all are close to some kind of water source, within one-quarter mile. Ducklings need to walk to this water source for protection from predators. Most wood ducks that don't live to adulthood die in their first few days of life. Where you hang your box will have a great effect on how many ducklings live or die.

The second item is the predator guard. I have mounted boxes on shiny new aluminum conduits and seen mice shimmy right up. You need a metal cone guard that is located just below the box and it has to able to keep out everything that thinks eggs are tasty. The hole in the box also needs to be the right size. Large openings let in all sorts of other animals that can squeeze into the new condo accommodations like owls and other raptors. A wood duck hen can fly straight into an opening no wider than 3½ to 4 inches.

If you put up a box, you should clean it out every spring. Wood ducks bring no nesting material to the box. The box needs a few inches of wood shavings in the bottom and she will add a little down from her breast. Don't fill the box too full. The hen needs to be way down in the box so if a predator makes it to the box, it cannot reach in and kill her. She is safer if there is 18 inches from the opening to the wood shavings.

If you clean the box in the fall, black birds and others invaders like squirrels might fill it with sticks or leaves before spring, making the box useless. Clean them in the spring to make sure they are ready.

Inside the box you will also be adding a screen ladder so the little ducks can use their finger nails (do ducks have fingernails?) to grasp onto and climb their way to freedom at exactly the right time. My mom and I enjoy a Ranger ride with a bag of wood shavings and a few adult beverages of the right temperature as one of our rites of spring.

This is a great project for kids and now is the time to be doing it. It is easy to construct and allows all ages to participate. Contact me for the plans, or get a copy of Outdoor News and make this wood duck project one of your rites of spring. What else is there to do right now anyway?

Scott Rall is The Daily Globe's outdoor columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.

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