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Waterfowl enthusiast's best season is just ahead

Clint Shiller and his two-year-old son, Corbin, of Granite Falls assemble a wood duck house during the Kandiyohi County Youth Wood Duck Box Building Day held Saturday at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center. The building of an all cedar wood duck nest box was sponsored by the Prairie Pothole Chapter of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

NEW LONDON -- October could never come soon enough for Dr. Roger Strand, a life-long waterfowl hunter.

He still looks forward to October, but now it's April that can't come soon enough.

As happens to so many hunters, he's become just as passionate about learning about his prey and promoting their well-being as he is about pursuing them in autumn.

Dr. Strand has become a nationally-recognized expert on wood ducks, especially when it comes to building and maintaining nesting boxes for the colorful birds.

That's what makes April so special. "The wood ducks come back here as soon as there is a little swath of open water,'' said Strand.

He will be ready. Strand and volunteers with the Prairie Pothole chapter of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association hosted their annual wood duck building session at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center last Saturday. Each year he makes it a point to interest more young people in building and maintaining the nesting boxes that are so important to the birds.

The birds will normally nest in natural cavities found in trees, but there aren't nearly enough to go around. Putting up constructed boxes serves the same need and helps the ducks.

Strand, a retired surgeon, said he has been maintaining wood duck boxes for 52 years now. He has 100 that he monitors himself, many of them located on his Stoney Ridge farm near New London.

And, he can be credited for helping launch some of Kandiyohi County's most "visible'' wood duck housing projects. Webcams are located in wood duck houses maintained at the Prairie Woods Elementary School in New London, as well as at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and Sibley State Park.

He reports that all 10 boxes at the Prairie Woods Elementary successfully produced chicks last year, a first in the 14-year history of maintaining the housing project by students there.

Now is the time to clean out the wood duck boxes, if you haven't done so already. Strand said he has had wood duck eggs as early as the first week of April.

The wood duck houses can be erected as soon as the ground thaws enough to allow pounding a pole into it. The boxes should only be placed on poles driven into the ground with predator shields placed on them.

Never put a box on a tree. Boxes in trees are easy targets for raccoons, squirrels, mink and other predators, he explained. It's also needlessly risky to climb the trees or put step ladders on ice-covered ground to reach them, he added.

Although the birds arrive in early April, they can lay eggs as late as Memorial Day weekend. "It's never too late to erect them,'' said Strand.

Interest in wood ducks seems to be growing around the country, and large-scale efforts to build and maintain houses are occurring in all four of the continent's wood duck flyways, said Strand.

The birds are notoriously secretive and it is hard to know what we'd like to about their population, but banding studies suggest their numbers are holding steady, he said.

He recommends putting wood duck houses up on short poles; short enough so that a youngster can stand atop an upturned five-gallon pail and open the side door occasionally to see the clutch of eggs inside.

Strand and others do a lot of their learning with the prying eye of the webcam, and what they've learned is as interesting as surprising. Wood duck boxes often hold the eggs of more than one hen, and it's not because one of the birds is dumping her burden on the other.

The hens fight for the opportunity to hatch the eggs. That seems to be nature's way of giving the chicks that will hatch the best opportunity for survival. It's usually the older, stronger and presumably wiser of the fighting hens that will win the nesting battle, he explained.

"There lots of fun things to learn about the ducks,'' said Strand.

To learn more, or download plans to make a wood duck house, visit the website:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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