“Weee-e-e-e-k, weee-e-e-e-k, weee-e-e-e-k!” whistles the female of a species of waterfowl considered by many as our most beautifully feathered Minnesota duck, if not the most colorful of all wild birds. I’m writing about the wood duck, of course, a most unique and beloved bird that will soon be migrating back to the Northland to breed and nest near shallow lakes, ponds and wooded rivers and streams.
Most everyone will agree that observing wood ducks, often called “woodies,” within their natural habitat is delightful.
The medium-sized ducks, about 20 inches in length and about a pound-and-a-half in weight are, as their name so aptly implies, a duck of the trees.
Nevertheless, the birds are as at home swimming about flooded oxbows as they are perched in canopies of oak trees.
Every spring throughout Minnesota — anywhere where good wood duck habitat exists — the abundant wood duck seeks suitable breeding and nesting sites in order to rear the next generation.
And perhaps what sets them apart from so many of their kind is the fact that wood ducks — unlike other common species of waterfowl such as mallard and teal that nests on the ground — chooses holes inside of trees and artificial nest boxes for nesting.
Wood ducks are cavity nesters. Needless to say, trees are essential for not only sources of food, but most important, for nesting.
Natural occurring cavities, and those excavated by woodpeckers and other species of wildlife, are absolutely critical for wood duck survival. Without appropriate and abundant cavities, the wood duck would not exist.
It’s precisely the lack of cavities from unrestrained logging activities and development, as well as unregulated hunting, which led to the near extinction of the wood duck in the early 1900s. Today, thanks to forestry management practices that consider wildlife requirements as well as regulated hunting seasons to restrict harvest, the wood duck is now one of the most plentiful species of waterfowl in North America.
Moreover, the construction and placement of tens of thousands of human-made artificial nest boxes by conservation minded citizens and biologists throughout the wood duck’s breeding range has helped to achieve one of this country’s first wildlife success stories.
Like building bluebird houses and other wildlife nest boxes, constructing, installing and monitoring wood duck houses has proven to be a hobby that benefits both humans and ducks alike.
I write “ducks” because the wood duck is not the only species of waterfowl that will accept artificial nest boxes.
Hooded mergansers, common mergansers, buffleheads and common golden-eyes are other duck species that will readily utilize nest boxes.
We also benefit from the satisfaction of performing conservation measures that are, well, difficult to measure.
A well-made structure placed on a tree or pole where wood ducks inhabit is a practice that often leads to a lifelong addiction.
During my days managing the former Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary near Warren, I built and installed many wood duck houses as additions to the already substantial number that existed prior to my tenure.
These days, by late winter and very early spring on my property northeast of Itasca State Park, just before the arrival of the first pair of woodies, cleaning the assortment of houses I’ve installed over the years provides me an opportunity to take stock of the condition of the structures, and to assess placement of perhaps an additional box or two.
My annual checks of each of the artificial nest boxes, which will commence in the next weekend or two, will undoubtedly reveal some important and interesting discoveries.
Maybe one of the boxes had American kestrels nesting inside last summer. Or I’ll learn how many boxes were occupied by hooded mergansers versus wood ducks. And I’ll find out how many boxes contained gray squirrels, how many boxes are housing flying squirrels and how many boxes were not used by any creatures at all.
Indeed, when it comes to duck occupancy, the presence of egg membranes will be a sure sign that those clutches hatched successfully.
Soon after cleaning my wood duck houses of old nesting material and debris and replaced with clean beds of wood shavings, all that’s left to do is wait to see who comes.
As soon as female wood ducks arrive, they will quickly begin their searches for suitable cavities followed closely by male wood ducks.
Once courting and breeding is completed, an egg a day will be laid until 10 to 15 eggs have accumulated in the bottom of the nest cavity.
After an incubation period of about a month, the ducklings will hatch and remain inside the cavity for about a day.
Then, as improbable as it seems — especially if the nesting cavity is high in a tree — each duckling climbs out of the nest-hole and launches fearlessly into the air.
Vocalizations from the hen coupled with a strong desire to leave the nest and begin feeding, helps encourage each duckling’s exodus.
Moreover, fluffy down feathers and webbed feet that seem to act as makeshift parachutes soften the impact onto earth, logs or water. After all of her ducklings have reached the lower floor, the hen leads them to the brooding pond, where the youngsters soon learn how to chase and capture insects and forage for other goodies.
The cavity nesting woodie is a wonderful member of all that is wild in the woods. Leaving for warmer climates each autumn, but returning early each spring, their presence in the trees, our nest boxes, water and sky is yet one more thing to look forward to as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.