Volunteers with Prairie Pothole Conservation Association ready Willmar area wood duck nesting houses
Volunteers with the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association ready wood duck nesting houses for the season starting now.
WILLMAR — A train horn sounded a trumpet-like blast from somewhere in town, and Roger Strand commented with a smile: “We’re in Willmar, Minnesota.”
Strand was standing roughly waist deep in the snow of a cattail slough near the Flags of Honor Memorial on Willmar’s north side at the time, doing what he loves. With help from Troy Heck and Heck’s daughter Jossyn, they were trudging through the deep snow that still surrounded the town’s wetlands to clean out wood duck nesting houses.
They removed the contents found in each, recorded the numbers of eggs that hatched and did not hatch, and refilled the nesting boxes with wood shavings for this year’s occupants.
The three were part of a team of volunteers gathered together last Saturday by the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association. They have taken on this annual chore since at least 1988. They care for 37 wood duck nesting houses located on poles scattered around the waters of Robbins Island, the Flags of Honor Memorial, Ella Avenue, and the High School/Minnesota Department of Transportation grounds.
Strand, a retired surgeon, had much to do with getting all of this started. His own passion for wood ducks is well known. He maintains nearly 100 wood duck houses on his Stoney Ridge Farm near Sibley State Park, which he opens every year for the Prairie Pothole Day event.
It was Strand who first brought Heck to the annual wood duck house cleanup. Heck said he was still too young to drive at the time, but he’s stuck with it ever since. Nodding toward his daughter, he said he is now happy to see a third generation continue the tradition alongside the mentor who introduced him to it all.
Heck had this all figured out at an early age. Put up wood duck houses to produce ducks, and there would be more targets for him when waterfowl season came. Now, tending to the wood duck houses means so much more than the 60-day waterfowl season, said Heck. It more or less helps stretch that experience through the year as he watches the ducks nest, hatch and mature.
The practice of providing wood duck houses dates to the 1980s and earlier when outdoors people realized that wood ducks were losing the nesting cavities they found in dead and dying trees. As people built homes around our waterways and developed lands, those trees disappeared.
A lot has been learned since the first human-built houses went up. LeRoy Dahlke and Tom Hansen, both of the local Prairie Pothole Association, and organizers for the wood duck day, said the first wood duck houses in Robbins Island and other locations were simply nailed to trees. One of those early years, a volunteer was surprised to find a raccoon staring back at him when he opened a wood duck house to clean it out.
It exposed the problem. Raccoons and squirrels had easy access to prey on the eggs in wood duck houses, and they did so.
For these predators, the wood duck houses became what the Golden Arches are for people, Heck explained. They recognized the houses as a quick and easy meal.
Strand and others in the Wood Duck Society realized the problem and promoted the use of cone shaped predator guards and the placement of the houses on poles. It’s become standard practice and is very effective at deterring the predators.
They’ve improved on that model as well. Screening is now added where the cone and pole meet to prevent mice from reaching the boxes and their nesting cavities.
Still, wood ducks face plenty of challenges in raising their broods despite human help. Locally, hooded mergansers compete for the nesting sites too.
Strand has video cameras in some of his wood duck houses. He has watched as merganser and wood duck hens fight over a nesting box. There are also plenty of occasions where a merganser will lay her eggs among the wood duck eggs.
This drama does not go unrecorded. Ever since 1988, members of the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association have kept careful records of what is found in each wood duck house when they are cleaned in the spring. The caps and membranes of wood duck eggs that successfully hatched are waiting in the boxes to be counted.
So too is evidence of nests that failed to produce. The volunteers found unhatched wood duck and merganser eggs during the cleanup a week ago, and kept records of it for each numbered box.
This year’s records are still being tabulated by Dahlke. In 2022, the 37 working boxes showed 222 hatched wood duck eggs and 175 unhatched eggs, according to the records. It was a good year. Two years earlier, in 2020, only 113 hatched.
Yes, Strand is correct. Willmar is well-known for the rumble and the horns of the trains. But thanks to the work of him and others, those who explore the park lands of the community in the days ahead will know Willmar for much softer sounds. Soon, the “ooh-weeks, ooh-weeks” and wheezing “jeeh jiihbs” sounds made by female and male wood ducks busy with nesting and brood rearing chores will fill the air.