Just Ducky Waterfront Rentals

These aren’t your typical landlord duties
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Marshall Hudson walks across a frozen pond to repair a duck nesting box. Photo by Marshall Hudson

We drill a hole through the ice, measure the thickness, and conclude it is safe enough to support us. Dragging plastic sleds loaded with tools and supplies, we head out across the pond to the distant corners and marshy coves. Every year, we say we’ll get started on this project sooner, but every year spring sneaks up on us, and we end up scurrying to get this late-winter chore done before the melting ice becomes unsafe. For the umpteenth year in a row, my friend Bob and I are inventorying and maintaining some 40 wild duck boxes on ponds, meadows and beaver flowage throughout the area. This task is probably not something thought about by most people, but those solitary nesting boxes sticking up out of the water didn’t get there by themselves.

In the late winter or early spring, Bob and I build or repair duck boxes, haul them out onto the ice, and install them. Some of the waterbodies are remote, and access is by snowmobile if the ice is thick enough, snowshoes if it isn’t. If a properly positioned dead snag on the marsh can be found, the box is then nailed to it. More frequently, though, we drill and chip a hole through the ice, then pound a long metal post down through ice, water and feet of muck into solid ground. The nesting box is then bolted to the post, and sawdust or shavings inserted for bedding. We write the year and our initials on the box and sometimes include a message like “now available,” “free rent” or “ducks welcome.”

There is no financial compensation for this work, and I haven’t yet received a thank-you note from any family of ducks expressing gratitude for our efforts. The reward is in the experience itself, or in seeing a pair of migrating ducks take up residency at ice-out, followed by fuzzy little ducklings paddling the pond later in the season.

We reach the first box and I thump it on all sides testing for soundness. A rotting panel is discovered and replaced with precut spare parts we brought with us. To better imitate the natural conditions of a hollow tree, no preservatives are used when constructing these boxes. This means the untreated wood constantly exposed to sun, wind, rain and snow will rot fast. The boxes don’t last very many years and need replacing or repairing often. I pry open the inspection door and peek inside. A handful of unhatched eggs, now rotten and smelly, remain from last season. Perhaps unfertile or perhaps abandoned for some reason, this nest wasn’t successful. We count the eggs and identify them as hooded mergansers in the yearly inventory. I clean out the nest remnants, insert fresh shavings, and reseal the box. Hopefully, there will be better luck in the coming spring.

At the next box, we find only the shell fragments left behind from a successful hatch. The color and texture of the fragments indicate a wood duck family had resided here. Bob and I remember passing by this pond last spring and seeing a colorful but doofus-looking male wood duck on the pond. Wood duck drakes are easily identified as they look like they were cobbled together out of spare parts that don’t fit. Apparently, this wood duck and mate liked our free rental housing and took advantage of it. Cleaning the duff out of the box, I find a shed snakeskin and wonder how it got in there.

Naturally occurring cavity trees suitable for nesting can be rare, so installing these man-made nesting opportunities increases the likelihood of wildlife on the pond.

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Bob and a Boy Scout helper clean out and spread new wood shavings in one of the duck houses. Photo by Marshall Hudson

Selecting the right spot to install a duck box is part art, part science, and part lucky guess. Boxes need to be positioned so that baby ducklings fall directly into the water when they first leave home. They also need to be in sheltered areas away from north winds, driving rain, fast water, human activity and easy predator access.

Continuity and tenacity are key in the yearly inspection process as boxes that remain unused for more than three or four years need to be relocated. Boxes affixed to dead snags are checked, and any that are getting rickety are removed before the tree topples. Some boxes are successful for many years and then suddenly cease all activity when changes in water levels, food supplies or other environmental impacts revise the duck’s idea about our dreamy lakefront rental house offering.

Some years Bob and I have been joined by Boy Scouts or Conservation Commission members interested in participating in the process. Generally, they don’t come back the following year, which is a problem when you are trying to promote continuity and tenacity. Repairing and resetting duck boxes in the winter elements, on ice that is past its prime, can be physically challenging and is not for everyone. But for those who enjoy being outside in the winter working with nature, it is a rewarding way to spend the day. You never know what surprise will be found at the next box, and it can be like opening presents or hunting for hidden treasure.

Moving to the next box, Bob opens the cleanout door and discovers a pair of field mice glaring back at us. They too have decided this wind sheltered, dry, predator-resistant, waterfront real estate would make a fine home. I inform them that a pair of mallards have already made reservations for this room, and they shall have to vacate. The mice refuse to leave, so I serve them with an eviction notice and tell them I’m doing them a favor as the ice will soon melt and they’ll be left stranded and hungry. They scamper away looking ticked off. Wasps also seem to think these boxes are installed for their benefit as old hives are frequently encountered. In the dead of winter, finding one of these hives isn’t much of a concern, but I’d suggest you don’t want to canoe up to one of these boxes in the summer, bang on it, and then peek inside.

With the sun shining brightly and the temperature rising, we check, clean, inventory and repair the final nesting box. Hopefully, some spring migrating ducks will appreciate our winter efforts and move in. Finished now for another year, we gather our tools, trek back across the pond, and get off the ice without any breakthrough mishaps. But next year we are going get started sooner.

Categories: What Do You Know