I like boxes. Far and away my favorite childhood play item was any sort of very large cardboard box. These could become anything from space ships to wilderness cabins to high-speed snow sleds. As an adult, I have enjoyed making boxes, from beehives to music boxes to cute little presentation boxes. I recently got in trouble with some of the latter, which held a clever mechanism to pop out a big fake spider when the top was opened.

This creative theme resurfaced when a particular person uncovered some evidence and issued a warning about some April Fools’ Day issues. When I serendipitously received a couple of metal containers, intended for candy, it seemed only appropriate to give this person a small bit of payback for her Paul Revere activities.

The two identical tins were left on my desk, figuring she would be in and be unable to resist seeing what they held. As luck would have it, this missed the target entirely but had a profound impact on a couple of others, who could not resist the temptation either. I fear this could have a severe impact on my quality of life, or lack of same, in the future.

Of course, it could just be that for some reason boxes are destined to become vexing for the next few cycles. I am having no end of trouble with my bluebird boxes. In spite of the existence of more than two dozen nest boxes in the immediate vicinity of my house, the bluebirds are fighting incessantly over one particular box at the end of the driveway that never raised a single brood because of the number of house sparrows in the area.

Thinking some of the older boxes might become more appealing with some upgrades, I put on new roofs and even removed a couple of doors that were showing some splintering around the entrance holes. Before I could get new doors made for these four boxes, every one of them harbored a robin nest. I have never had that sort of problem before.

This spring, I also put up a couple of wood duck boxes that my son made for me. One of these shows promise of actually having a wood duck take up residence. I had my doubts because the first time I checked it, there was, prophetically, a rather large snake in residence. I took this offender quite a distance away and now a pair of wood ducks are going back and forth into the hole. The other box appears occupied by a screech owl and I have no spirit for trying to evict that family.

Actually, wood duck boxes have become quite the topic for inquiry and comment this year, but with a theme almost exactly opposite of the last couple of seasons. I have been surprised at the number of people, availing themselves of the observation deck and walking trails at a local Fish and Wildlife Management Area, who felt compelled to complain about the ugly wooden boxes “marring the pristine wetland area,” in the words of one person. This year, the situation is quite the opposite with a dozen or so folks inquiring about what happened to the duck boxes.

The object of the attention, the wood duck, our most colorful native waterfowl species, is also quite a comeback story. During the 19th century, its numbers dropped to the point some science writers declared it doomed for extinction. Then a group of hunters, with their intimate knowledge of wildlife, solved the problem. Wood ducks are cavity nesters, laying their eggs in holes in trees, the higher the better, sometimes a mile from water. The tiny hatchlings must first leap to the ground (the highest recorded nest required the babies to drop 269 feet!) then follow the mother to the waterway where they will get their first meal.

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Unfortunately, these nest sites occurred in old, often dead, gnarly trees. “Scientific” management of woodlots had removed all such non-productive trees, removing at the same time any chance of the wood ducks nesting successfully. After studying the sites the ducks chose, a nest box was designed and the rest is history. The wood ducks loved the new accommodations and populations skyrocketed back to former levels. The wood duck, known in some localities as the summer duck, woodie, or tree duck, is now a common sight throughout much of the United States.

They are quite patriotic and seldom leave the country. Wood ducks breed throughout most of the continental United States and sometimes southern Canada. The birds all migrate to the south in the winter but the range overlaps. Thus birds that raised their broods in New England may fly to Chesapeake Bay to winter while the summer residents of Maryland travel to Florida or sometimes Cuba. They are excellent flyers and may average 60 to 70 miles per day on migration.

In January and February, while still in the wintering areas, the birds begin to pair off. Much like humans, the female seems to have complete control of the process. Once the pair-bond is established, the male obediently follows the female and when she decides to migrate, he tags along.

There is an important biological reason for this. In the mid-1800s a fellow named Alexander Wilson, now known as the “Father of American Ornithology,” was observing wood duck behavior and noted that females seemed to return to the same nesting site throughout their life. Since the pairing takes place in the wintering area, the drakes can come from anywhere. Therefore, the ducklings hatched in a particular area will most likely have a father from a completely different area each year. This ensures genetic diversity and lack of in-breeding. It does, however, mean the nest boxes have to be up and waiting when the woodies return in the spring.

Building and setting up wood duck boxes is simple. Use rough lumber, not smooth material. Ducklings must have sufficient grip to climb out of the box after hatching. Make the box about 2 feet high with a floor space of about 9 inches square. The opening should be an oblong hole 3 inches high by 4 inches wide and should be located about 5 to 6 inches below the top of the box. When a nest site is chosen, both the drake and the duck will scramble in through the entrance hole as much as 30 times a day for a week or so.

In the wild, this scrubs off wood chips that fall to the bottom of the cavity and form a cushion on which to brood the eggs. To mimic this, put a couple of inches of wood shavings in the box. Mount it on the side of a tree or, better yet, on a metal pole in or near a marshy area. Make sure the opening of the box is at least 5 feet above the surface of the water or 10 feet above the ground. Do not put the boxes closer together than about 30 feet or several females will sometimes all lay their eggs in a single box. Do not put any finish on the boxes and do not be horribly disappointed if you have no “tenants” the first year. They prefer boxes with a weathered look. Just remember, once established the birds may continue to return to the nest site for generations.

Now if I can just figure out a way to safely return to work — in this generation. ...

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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