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Scott Rall: The best thing for a kid and a duck

BY SCOTT RALL

The Globe outdoors columnist

We were forecasted to get another big snow and blow this week.  If my memory is correct this will make it about the 300th one we have had this winter. It is getting harder to wake up every morning and pump up the optimism when we have only seen the sun one time in the past two months.

They tell me spring is coming and I do believe it, but stubbornly slow it is.

If you have a few more days of bad weather and want to spend those inside days doing something positive, why not make a wood duck box? We have all seen them and rarely, if ever, do you see any activity around them. But a lot of activity there actually is.

I have 12 boxes on one wildlife property and 16 on the other, and each season they have about 80 percent occupancy -- even if I have never seen a duck sticking her head out of the hole or glimpsed the old man sitting on top keeping watch.

Wood duck populations were very low decades ago and their savior has been the man-made hollow cavity called a wood duck box.

In nature the cavity nester would find a hollow tree and make a go of it. If you live around a lake that has any development, a hollow tree is only good for one thing. That one thing is to cut it down and chop it up for firewood. Natural cavities, for all practical purposes, don’t exist on many lakes in Minnesota anymore.

Wood ducks are not the only ducks that use cavities like this. Mergansers and other cavity nesters will take you up on your housing offer if allowed to.

As with anything, how and where you erect your man-made condo has a great deal to do with how high the success rates will be with that structure.

Screwing a duck box to a tree will almost always end in failure.  Coons and other nest predators just climb up the tree and harass the hen until she leaves, and then they reach in and steal the eggs. The structures need to be placed where ground predators cannot reach them.

This is done by using a predator guard of some type. The most effective type looks like a great big upside-down funnel. It is a cone attached to the pole/post in a way that makes climbing it impossible. There are other methods folks have tried, like placing a section of PVC pipe over the pole, thinking it would be too slippery for a coon to climb successfully. My inspections show coon footprints all the way to the top and up to the nesting structure.

If you are going to do it, please do it right. I have plans available for both the nesting box and the predator guards, and all you have to do is contact me at scottarall@gmail.com and I will mail you a set.

Another thing the human helper needs to do is ensure the pole or post is strong enough to keep the box from shaking in the wind.  The first ones I put up 20 years ago went on what I thought were strong posts. I was wrong. After one of those 45-mph days I checked the box and inside all of the eggs were broken.  We called it the scrambled egg duck box.

I took them down until I could put my fingers on stronger posts.

Just because you can put a nesting box two miles from the nearest water and still get a duck to nest in it does not mean you should do so. I have seen people do this. The ducklings have to walk over land after leaving the nest. Imagine a hen wood duck parading 10 ducklings on that kind of gauntlet. There is almost no possible way that brood would survive.

Location of your box should be within one-fourth of a mile from water. Once erected they need to be checked every spring to remove any debris and wet contents inside.  

A wood duck does not bring any nesting material to the site.  You should fill it with fresh wood shaving, not sawdust, every early spring.  Sawdust gets wet and stays wet. Shavings work much better.

All the hen does is pull some down from her breast to cover the eggs when she leaves, so they won’t freeze. Pretty cool, in my opinion.

The wet, muddy and rainy days of spring offer the best opportunity to grab a kid and build a duck box. If you choose to address this activity with a purchased box, I saw some good ones at the Runnings store in Worthington for about $40.  This is about what the materials would be if you purchased them to build one.

Put a smile on a kid’s face this weekend and share your time with them.  It is the best thing that can ever happen to a kid and the wood duck is not far behind.

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