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Living the Wild Life

More wood ducks are in our area. Here’s how to make them feel at home.

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A commotion beneath a willow on the edge of a canal exploded as a male wood duck tried escaping from an angry male as it was trying to protect its significant other. I could see the hen watching as the two males chased each other across the top of the water. As soon as the would-be suitor was gone, the winner flapped its wings, displaying the beautiful royal blue on its back.

This happened several times that day in late March as the wood ducks were developing their relationship as a couple. By early April, individuals had become partners, and most of the migrants had moved north to find new territories and hopefully breeding partners for themselves. The last few years, I have been noticing an increase of these beautiful ducks sticking around the local rivers, canals and ponds, probably because of an increase of nests being put out for them.

ducks and heron
Two male wood ducks feed next to a great blue heron north of Rexburg near the Henrys Fork. | Bill Schiess,

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game and interested individuals have put out nest boxes. This has encouraged these beautiful ducks to spend their summer raising their kids here.

When the first wood ducks began migrating through the Upper Snake River Valley, a friend of mine called and asked how he could keep some of them near his place. I told him to put out some nests for them. He had about four pairs on his pond, so he found a box nest pattern on the internet, built four of them and hung them up. Last week, we checked the boxes because he had seen them flying through the trees and roosting in the mature cottonwoods.

wood duck nest
A wood duck nest waiting for a pair to use it to raise the family. | Bill Schiess,

As we checked the four boxes, we found that one of the nests had already been visited several times. My friend also counted at least five pairs of woodies and two pairs of hooded mergansers on his pond, as well as several other ducks.

Friday morning, I spent three hours at my friend’s pond watching the ducks, eagles, geese, turkeys and a host of other smaller birds. I watched as four pairs of wood ducks frolicked in the water along with two males that appeared to be unattached. I watched them land in trees about 200 yards from me, too far for good pictures, but they kept coming back after the eagles had left. It was a great time.

Wood ducks, hooded mergansers and buffleheads are three species of ducks that live in the upper valley that like to nest in cavities. Even though we have trees like old mature cottonwoods that become hollow as they age, we do not have animals or birds that create big enough holes in them to use for nesting. Areas that have pileated woodpeckers can support more cavity-nesting waterfowl than we can here because of the size of holes that they create.

Wood ducks love man-made nests made from either plastic or wood and these nests have helped woodies survive over the years. In most areas where they can find suitable nests, they will raise two broods a year, with an average of 12 ducklings in each brood. If the nests are close enough to each other, the hens practice “brood parasitism” by laying extra eggs in another pair’s nests.

duck colors
A male wood duck shows the beautiful color of his back as he dries his feathers after a fight with another male. | Bill Schiess,

If one desires to build some nests for them, there are a lot of sites on the internet with plans for them, but the size should be about 10 by 12 inches, about 24 inches deep, with a 4-by-3-inch entrance hole for them to fly into. The boxes should be placed on a tree about 10 to 12 feet above the ground with mesh wire on the inside below the hole for the ducklings to climb out a day after they are hatched. Nests should be placed no farther than an eighth of a mile from water.

They have specialized equipment to live in the trees. They have claws on the end of their toes so they can hold on to limbs and the edge of the nest box. They also have wide tails and strong wings to maneuver through the trees at high speeds.

My friend and I will be observing his nests closely as we want to see how successful they are at keeping these stunning birds nearby.

Have a great time in the outdoors as you watch the migrations of shorebirds and songbirds migrate here. Only about half of the migrations have shown up.

Living the Wild Life is brought to you by The Healing Sanctuary.