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Wood Duck Box and Bluebird Box Spring Maintenance

Wood duck box in wet weather pond ready for nesting.

The outdoor calendar wanes some during February, especially if we get the typical wet weather that the Lowcountry is experiencing in 2020. Duck season ended with a whimper and wood ducks might have been the only species in the bag for wing shooters. Waterfowlers and birdwatchers can make a difference for wildlife by taking time now to maintain nesting boxes that benefit woodies and bluebirds. There is always a sense of adventure when cleaning out existing bird boxes, and each year adds a new tale to tell.
Lots of projects can be accomplished using boot leather, sweat equity and by hitching an implement up to a tractor, but erecting and maintaining wood ducks boxes requires a more specialized approach. In most cases, the woodland manager must don hip boots or waders to access a wood duck box. A stepladder, work gloves and a five-gallon bucket with wood shavings must be hauled into the woods before wading out into the flooded area that is prime wood duck habitat.
Setting up the ladder next to the wood duck box seems simple, but Lowcountry soils can become mushy when flooded and testing some weight on the first step to check for the sink-in factor is always important. It is not advisable to get three steps up on the ladder only to find that the back right leg is going to sink 10-inches and tip you over because the Lowcountry waters in February are very cold. While it’s possible to get soaking wet by accident, a combination of caution and experience can diminish such chances. Precarious is a good way to describe when you are standing atop a ladder in the swamp about to open the top of a wood duck box to reach down inside it and clean it out.
Any wood ducks that used the nest box last spring have long since moved out, but what if anything might have moved in since then? Wasps and wasp nests are always a concern to the wood duck box manager, but choosing a cold weather day to complete the chore is a good way to ensure that these stinging insects are sluggish. Some carry a can of insect spray with them to treat for any insects encountered, but acquiring a stick along the way can often serve to clear away any wasp nest, whether active or abandoned.
In my annual efforts to practice what I preach, I can report a different type of insect found in one wood duck box during recent maintenance. Sometimes more than one year can go by without being cleaned out, and when I approached an older wood duck box, I noticed pine straw and debris draping out of the entrance hole. Upon opening the top of the box, I saw a large network of dirt dobber nests. I probably broke off two pounds of dried mud catacombs to toss into the water below, which felt like a new record for natural material accumulation. At the very bottom of the box, as I cleaned out the old nesting wood chips, I found an old egg and down feathers, which are a sure sign that the woodies had been in this box too.
After opening the box and cleaning out any old bedding material, add enough fresh pine shavings or cedar shavings to cover the bottom of the box and then some. Remember that the bedding will compress some when utilized and that the hen woodies will add her own down to feather the nest. Wood ducks begin to nest anytime from late February into Spring, so now is the time to hit the reset button on nesting boxes. Don’t forget that bluebirds are also early nesters, and this is also the time to clean out bluebird boxes. Bluebirds want their nest boxes empty for nesting, so this usually only requires a routine wipe out using one hand.
If you don’t have any wood duck boxes on your property yet, now is a great time to locate the pocosins, depressions, and bays of the Lowcountry that hold water during winter. Identify likely places to erect a wood duck box in the future, because these same places are likely to flood again in each year of wet weather. The incubation period for wood duck eggs lasts about one month, so the window for wet weather ponds providing habitat for wood duck reproduction is fairly short.
Placement of a bluebird box is fairly straightforward since they like open areas with the entrance hole facing towards the open area. Both wood ducks and bluebirds require more nesting sites. In my experience, a nesting box seldom goes unused, and in the long run, they become more productive. Bluebird boxes especially tend to be used by other bird species, since bluebirds nest early and once their chicks fledge the nest, the space is readily available.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis
Jeff Dennis, Contributor (394 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com