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Throughout our local waterways – from the ACID canal to the Sacramento River – you’ll see ducks. North American Wood Ducks to be exact.
The only North American waterfowl that breed twice in the same season. over the years these colorful birds have faced hard times. With over hunting and loss of habitat, they came close to extinction in the early 20th century. An act of Congress – the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which ended unregulated hunting – and a 1937 program by the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to build artificial nesting structures have helped spur them to a dramatic recovery.
Wood ducks are one of the few duck species that perch in trees. They traditionally build their nest in tree cavities near wetlands. Without these, they and their young chicks are vulnerable to predators such as raccoons, snakes and hawks.
The Rotary Club of Redding has a wood duck nesting box program that’s now in its sixth year. Since 2009, Redding Rotary has installed wood duck nesting boxes on trees and posts all along the Sacramento River. Made of sturdy western red cedar, these handcrafted nesting boxes are visible on the river from above the Diestelhort Bridge to below Anderson, at sites near the Sundial Bridge, near the river at the Wood Duck Slough at the beautiful Henderson Open Space behind Raley’s on Hartnell and even in Palo Cedro.
Randy Smith, who was the Chairman of Redding Rotary’s Environment Committee for 13 years. is a retired physician “with a passion for the outdoors and the creatures that are there.” He says the nesting box program is the key to the wood duck’s recovery.
Without the old riparian forest with its dead snags and giant broken branches, Smith says “the wood duck doesn’t have natural habitat available to it. It needs the boxes for reproduction.” he said.
A mother wood duck lays an egg a day for 15 days. Not given to hiding in leaves and grass, Smith says it needs a large cavity for containing so many young.
With an early spring, the birds arrived a month early, said Smith. So we’re currently in the midst of nesting time.
The mother wood duck manages her eggs by placement in the nest so that they all end up hatching within the same twenty-four hour period. Once hatched, the chicks leave the nest, never to return. But they’re flightless for the first nine weeks of life, so the mother stays with them until they’re ready to fly.
It’s crucial that the area surrounding these nests includes fertile wetlands such as standing or slow-moving freshwater (or sloughs) in wooded areas, wooded swamps, freshwater marshes, streams, small lakes and beaver ponds. The availability of thick cover and an abundance of insects – the exclusive diet of young wood duck chicks – is also important.
Smith originally thought it would be good to place the boxes where the public can see them. Unfortunately, some boxes have been vandalized and destroyed by thrown rocks. So the last few years Smith has put boxes on private property in Redding on the river – such as Henderson Open Space – where they’ll be safe and be a benefit to the public.
“The box program is an example of public stewardship which should be a larger part of everybody’s life,” said Smith.
But the boxes are NOT play things, Smith stressed. “People should leave (them) alone.”
If left alone, the mother wood duck will use the same box for her second brood, around June.
Sometimes things go wrong, said Smith, such as when the boxes get too hot and the mother abandons them. But, he said, 80 percent of the time the boxes are used twice successfully.
Smith is currently the only Rotary member involved in maintaining the 40 wood duck nest boxes. He’s hopeful that other Rotary members will help with the project next year.
They are great birds to have around, Smith said. “The birds aren’t territorial. “You could put a field of 10 boxes on one lot and the birds wouldn’t care,” he said.
“(And) if you’ve got a wood duck, you have a good friend in keeping the insect population down.”
The box program can be extended to anyone who lives on the water in this area. “Anyone can make, place (and) service the boxes,” said Smith
“It’s very simple, it’s very cheap and it’s very rewarding,” he said.
To learn about how to make and place wood duck nesting boxes, go to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website at http://bit.ly/1iJ81m1. Also check out several short videos of “Graduation Day” chicks at http://bit.ly/1iJ81m1.