These colorful ducks of forested wetlands were over-harvested for food and feathers throughout the nineteenth century. The Wood Duck’s steep decline was hastened by the draining of wetlands for development and harvesting of mature timber. Although this species is still hunted, bird-protection laws, hunting restrictions, and the use of nest boxes have helped it rebound.
Wood Duck Basics
Range: Wood Ducks are permanent residents in much of their southern and northwestern breeding range; they migrate south from more northern breeding grounds.
Field marks: Breeding males have a purple-green iridescent head, long crest, red eyes, and ornate white stripes on the head, neck, and body. Females are gray-brown with white patches around the eyes. Wood Ducks average twenty inches long with a twenty-seven-inch wingspan and are recognizable in flight by long, rectangle-shaped tails (which they use as a woodpecker-like prop when clinging to their nest trees). Although most often seen on water, these sharp-clawed ducks can fly through forests and perch on trees.
Voice: The male’s whistles are a rising and falling jeeb. The female’s whistle calls of oo-eeek, oo-eek are often made when the duck is disturbed or taking flight.
Feeding: The omnivorous Wood Duck feeds in water or on land, eating nuts, seeds, fruits, and aquatic insects. Wood Ducks can be found in fields eating corn and in forests feeding on acorns, a favorite food.
Egg-laying can begin in late January in the South. In the North, birds return when the ice melts; egg-laying begins soon afterward. Inspect and clean Wood Duck nest boxes before and after breeding season.
Nesting habits: Wood Ducks seek out hollow trees, old woodpecker holes, or nest boxes for nesting. Females select the nest site. Males guard females until eggs are near hatching. Southern Wood Ducks can produce two broods per year.
Eggs: Typically six to fifteen white, tan, or olive eggs. Unusually large clutches—as many as forty eggs—consist of eggs deposited or “dumped” by other Wood Duck hens, Hooded Mergansers, or Common Goldeneyes.
Egg laying: One per day.
Incubation: Twenty-eight days. More if large clutch. Females incubate and tend young.
Days to Fledge: One day after hatching, on “Jump Day,” a mother Wood Duck calls to the young below the nest box. Chicks then leap and glide from nest to the ground or into water, sometimes dozens of feet down. The female leads ducklings to water to swim and feed. Flight occurs at two months.
In the 1980s, the late Don Helmeke, a Minnesota outdoorsman and conservationist, worked long and thoughtfully on Wood Duck nest box plans. His design has withstood the test of time. Its success at creating a “safe haven” for nesting birds led to its recommendation by both the Minnesota Waterfowl Association and the Wood Duck Society. “It’s a woodworking design that makes sense,” says Wood Duck Society director Roger Strand. “The low height—just 6 feet from the ground—and Don’s side opening makes for easy, ladder-free nest checking and less disturbance to the hen.” Another bonus: “Kids can get nose-to-nose with eggs, which creates a fun learning experience.”
• One 1”x10”x10’ cypress (used here) or cedar
• One 1x12x13” cypress (used here) or cedar
• Thirty-five to forty 2” exterior-grade deck screws
• One galvanized screen door “propeller” latch
• One 4x12” wire mesh (1/4”) or metal lathe (for fledgling exit ladder)
1. Cut out all the pieces according to the drawing linked here.
2. Mark the entrance (an elliptical hole 3” high x 4” wide) and cut it out. Attach the 4x12” metal mesh to interior of the front piece with a staple gun about 1” below the entry hole. Be certain there are no sharp edges protruding, which can hurt the adults and youngsters alike.
3. Start attaching front and back pieces to side and floor, as shown. Check angle at top of side to ensure proper roof alignment. Install floor and recess it 1/2” from bottom edges. Drain holes are not used in this design.
4. Make a 45-degree angle cut in second side, 6” from the bottom. The longer piece will be a pivoted door. The angle keeps out water when door is closed. Test-fit these pieces. Affix smaller side piece through front and back. Screw into floor.
5. Sand the edges on the top portion of the door so it will operate nicely. Mark the location using a square 1” down from the top of the front piece and transfer the mark to the opposite side. Put the door in so that it closes tightly with the 45-degree cut. Drill the holes for the pivot screws, install two deck screws, and see how it works. Adjust if needed.
6. Using a wood rasp, make a finger groove so that the door can be opened easily. Install the “propeller closure.” Refer to the drawing.
7. Install the roof. Overhang is largest on front, 3/4” off the back, and 1” on each side. Predrill and screw the roof into place. Be certain to not screw into the door side of the box.
8. A 3/4” strip of wood serves as a mounting support. The nest box can be hung onto a pre-positioned lag screw through the keyhole.
9. Wood Ducks will welcome a kerf cut ladder or a rough surface made by a rasp, just below the entry hole.
Wooded swamps, marshes, streams, beaver ponds, and small lakes are ideal. Place the nest box where entry flyway is clear, in or near fresh water, but away from trees. If placed on land, face the entry hole toward water.
Nesting materials: Add four inches of wood chips. The hen makes a cup-like depression for the eggs and lines the nest with her own soft down feathers.
Mounting: Place nest boxes on sturdy polessuch as eight-foot-long metal highway signposts or four-by-four-inch wooden posts with a predator cone below the nest box. Space nest boxes fifty feet apart.
Height: On land, place nest box six feet high. In water, place nest box three feet above historic high water levels.