Do you want to make sure your wood duck nest box is in the best possible site to used by a wood duck? Once you have built your box(es), follow the tips and information below on finding the right habitat, specific site and maintenance tips from MassWildlife's biological staff who have built, placed and maintained hundreds of boxes across the Bay State for decades.
If you have any questions or problems with wood duck boxes, contact your closest Division of Fisheries and Wildlife District office. Our skilled staff will be happy to assist you. When you do set out nesting boxes, please notify that office of the number and location-our biologists would like to know. They may be able to suggest improvements and help monitor nesting success. We are glad to take the opportunity to help you. Together we can help restore homes for Massachusetts' cavity nesters.
In general, any quiet water, free from excessive disturbances, with emergent aquatic vegetation or shrubs to provide concealment for the broods. Examples of poor locations include ponds surrounded by summer camps, areas where target shooting is common, areas subject to drying up before young can travel to permanent water.
Suitable habitats are:
- Ponds with marshy covers or marshy borders.
- Marshes that contain potholes and other open water areas throughout the summer.
- Slow streams with quiet pools and backwaters that have aquatic cover available.
- Wooded swamps or beaver flowages that hold standing water at least until August.
Placing boxes over water is the preferred location, with the greatest chance of nesting success. Erect box on wooden pole, iron pipe, or other suitable structure out in the open water of a marsh, pond, stream, or swamp. Sometimes isolated dead trees are found standing in the water some distance from dry land. If such a tree is used, the top and limbs should be trimmed to prevent toppling in heavy winds. This type of over-water erection has a higher rate of use by wood ducks, predation is reduced and competition from squirrels is eliminated. Also, ducklings are spared the hazardous overland journey to water.
When the pond or marsh bottom will not permit a pole to be firmly driven into the mud, the only alternative may be to erect nesting boxes on trees along the shoreline. These boxes must be protected with predator guards and many may be taken over by gray squirrels, but they usually require less repairs and last along time. Limbs should be removed allowing wood ducks a clear flight path to the entrance of the box.
Putting Up the Boxes;The Mechanics
Boxes on Poles
- Iron pipe, when available, or iron fence posts have some excellent advantages over wood in that they are not subject to rot or decay. Metal pipes or posts should be 1-1/2 inches in diameter or larger. If using wooden poles, boxes should be placed on cedar or other durable wooden poles with a minimum diameter of 4 inches. The length of pole used is determined by the depth of water and mud in which it is to be erected. A 12 to 14-foot pole is usually long enough.
- The pole and box should be placed in a quiet backwater and not in the direct flow of a stream.
- It normally requires at least two people to set a pole. A cross brace is attached to the pole (biologists use their ice chisel and criss-cross a chain around it and the pole). One person stands on the cross brace and the other uses the brace to twist the pole into the mud.
- The poles or pipes should be driven into the mud far enough to prevent the lifting out or the pushing over of the boxes by ice or flood waters. The boxes should be placed three feet or more above the level of any spring floods.
- The boxes should be spiked to the wooden poles. Iron pipe usually requires the use of "U" bolt clamps. Bolts can be used on metal fence posts or pre-drilled angle iron.
- The front of the nesting box should be placed so that the entrance will be visible from the water areas and travel lanes frequented by wood ducks.
- The box should be placed away from overhanging limbs and from any land an animal such as a raccoon would be able to reach without swimming. Do not place the box and pole in the middle of cattails as it will not be visible to ducks when the cattails grow up.
Boxes on Trees
- Erect on trees of large size, preferably not less than 10 inches or 12 inches in diameter.
- The boxes should be placed 8 or 10 feet above the ground, above the brush line where they are readily visible to the searching ducks.
- The trees should be chosen as close to the water and brood area as possible.
- The boxes may be attached to the tree by spikes.
- The boxes should be equipped with predator guards and the box cover securely fastened down.
Checking & Maintaining Nest Boxes
A wood duck that nests successfully in a nesting box will do so again and again. Thus it is imperative that the boxes be maintained in good shape so that birds that have become dependent on the boxes will not, a few years hence, be forced out when the boxes become fouled or fall into disrepair. Checking and maintaining nest boxes prolongs the life of the box and often provides some interesting evidence of other wildlife use!
Look for the following evidence of wildlife usage:
- Unhatched eggs--Wood duck eggs look like small chicken eggs, hooded merganser eggs look like ping pong balls.
- Down feathers, shell fragments, and papery-looking white membrane are signs of a successful hatch.
- Duck feathers are not evidence of duck usage as tree swallows and starlings bring feathers in to line their nests.
- Be careful when checking your boxes! Wasp and hornets build assorted paper nests and honey bees may build honeycombs.
- Starlings use coarse grasses and feathers when available, sometimes completely filling the box. Since starlings have two broods a year, one nest may be on top of another.
- Grackles build a bowl shaped nest of mud and weeds and frequently use grapevine bark. The nest may be in the box or squeezed into the predator guard.
- Screech owls may winter in a box, usually leaving a lot of bluejay and other bird feathers.
- Squirrels fill the box with leaves.
- Mice may build ball nests of cattail fluff during the winter.
All nests should be checked and cleaned out annually to make the boxes available for duck usage. Do not do this during the nesting period, April to July. Repaire and clean out as necessary. Boxes filled with trash from squirrels or starling nests will not be utilized by wood ducks. Replace nesting litter or saw dust or shavings as necessary and check that the box cover is securely fastened.
Other Useful Tips
- The boxes should be constructed of 1-inch unplanned (rough cut) boards. In Massachusetts, white pine is preferred. The young ducklings have no difficulty in climbing the rough board sides. However, if smooth wood or metal is used in box construction a ladder must be provided to allow the ducklings to climb out of the box. This can be made by attaching a strip of wire screening or shingle running down the inside of the box from the entrance hole to the bottom.
- Add Nesting Material--It is necessary to place about 4 inches of wood shavings or sawdust in the bottom of the box as nesting litter. The female wood duck does not carry in any nesting materials and will not lay eggs on the bare boards. Feed stores usually sell suitable pine flakes or other kennel bedding materials.
- In the beginning, it is best if only a few boxes are erected in any new area at first. Box numbers can be increased when "woodies" are utilizing at least half the boxes.