Wood Duck Society

Raccoon Food Shelf

By Roger Strand

From Wood Duck Newsgram issue #44, July 2005

Photos by professional wildlife photographer: Ron Bice

AM - Drake and Hen PM - predator Harassing the hen Leaving with dinner Reason for this!!

Out of my mailbox in May, 2005, came a most welcome message from professional wildlife photographer, Ron Bice: “You contacted me with regards to photos I took using a remote camera. These photos are to my knowledge the first of their kind; images of a raccoon attacking a nesting box and killing a hen wood duck. The series was published in the October [2004] issue of Wildfowl magazine… I want to donate the photos to the Wood Duck Society. The series of shots taken in May of 2004 will hopefully be an incentive to other duck enthusiasts to take steps to protect their nesting boxes from predators”.

Ron’s generous offer will illustrate the importance of using a proven method for wood duck box mounting, for years to come. Our recommended solution to the ‘food shelf’ method depicted in the photos above, is to switch to the Wood Duck Society’s Best Practices method found on this website.

A quote from Bellrose and Holm text, Ecology and Management of the Wood Duck: “When constructed to the proper dimensions andsnugly fitted, cone shields provide the best available protection against pole-climbing predators”. It is also worthwhile to remember that experience has shown that the need to mount a box high on a tree is a human notion. Hens readily accept a low, pole-mounted box, and such a box is much easier to protect from mammalian predation. With a side-opening door, there is also no need for a ladder, and monitoring becomes a joy.

Mounting instructions for this method were published in Newsgram #40, March 2004, and can be read or downloaded by clicking on the "Best Practices" link on this page

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Nebraska Wood Duck Project

By Roger Strand

Bluebirds Across Nebraska {BAN} is a dynamic, 1600 member state organization, affiliated with the North American Bluebird Society. The group works to increase the populations of bluebirds and other native cavity nesting birds in Nebraska and nearby states. About two years ago, Steve Eno, BAN’s Executive Director, contacted the Wood Duck Society expressing a need for technical help in writing a grant request to facilitate the development of a wood duck program. BAN’s grant winning efforts were rewarded. They received $15,000 from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund for a three-year project which is now ongoing, and is wrapping up its’ second season.

My wife and I were pleased to represent the Wood Duck Society at BAN’s annual meeting in Beatrice early in April. There seemed to be much interest in our woodie presentation, and I know I learned a great deal about bluebirds. Thanks for the invitation and the genuine hospitality.

The BAN wood duck project encourages interested Nebraskans to apply for participation for 2006. Check out their website:www.bbne.org for details. It works like this: If accepted, 50 new participants each year pay a nominal $20 fee for a wood duck box, pole, predator guard, educational packet, and workshop instructions, along with a WoodDuck Society Newsgram subscription. Records must be kept and reported.

Leland and Elva Osten, from Lincoln, were among the first 50 participants in the project and shared their experience in the groups’ newsletter, The Banner. They pole mounted their box just 50 feet from their sunroom window above a pond and were thrilled to have a hen find it the first season. The hen went on to successfully hatch her clutch of nine eggs. The Ostens even strapped a wireless microphone to the box and enjoyed the egg rolling and other strange sounds, emanating from the box during incubation. They expressed appreciation for their subscription to the Wood Duck Newsgram and stated that it “provided a lot of answers when we had questions.” Leland and Elva signed their report, “from a couple of happy woodduckers.”

Editor’s Note: The Wood Duck Newsgram encourages other Central Flyway woodduckers and our friend from all Flyways to contribute observations and reports for our publication.

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Hooded Merganser and Black Eggs

By Stephen M Straka

In some of the previous issues of the Wood Duck Newsgram, several articles have addressed the anomaly of a single black egg amongst the clutch of Hooded Merganser eggs. {Jeff Bahls- July 2004 and Stephen Straka- November 2004}

For many wood duck lovers throughout the US, competition for the woody nest boxes has grown to include the Hooded Merganser. In the early years of my wood duck observation in Minnesota, the nest boxes were virtually all occupied with Wood Ducks. In the late 90’s, I began to see the Hooded Merganser encroach on the sacred woody duck house. At first, I wasn’t too pleased to have the competition that might limit the number of woodies in my backyard. With each passing season, the Hooded Mergansers have multiplied in my yard and I have grown to appreciate them, even though my first choice will always be the wood duck.

A hen Hooded Merganser and a hen Wood Duck will often fight for a specific nest box. A nest box can literally ‘shake’ when the two birds meet inside a box. I have witnessed both species win battle for a particular nest box, and the winner often incubates a mixed clutch of eggs. [woody and merganser eggs].

Hooded Merganser eggs are about one and a half the size of a woody egg. The eggs are ‘whiter’ and ‘rounder’ than a wood duck egg. The hen will lay her eggs approximately one- every day and a half, unlike the wood duck who lays her eggs daily. The Merganser hens are virtually the same size as the woody hen and the clutches are similar, usually 12 to 14 eggs for a mature hen. Diets are somewhat different since the merganser is a diving duck that feeds on small fish, frogs and invertebrates.

The increase in Hooded Mergansers in wood duck nest boxes, boxes that are frequently monitored, has resulted in the finding of an occasional dark gray or nearly black egg amongst the white eggs. Speculation about the black egg and its’ origin always invite unresolved, but interesting theory. We do seem to agree that it is probably the first egg laid. We know it is an outer layer that is imbedded in the eggshell and will not wash off. The eggs usually hatch out with the other eggs, so it is not detrimental. We also have heard from ornithologists who say this is not a new phenomenon. It has been witnessed many years previous.

I have had the opportunity of having black eggs in one of my Merganser nest boxes for two years in a row. This year, the black egg was darker than the egg last year and there seemed to be a progression from dark to light, in the first four eggs laid.

If you have any experiences, comments or theories to add, please email us with your ideas.

Below is a picture of this years 'black egg' anomaly. The first four eggs from R/L get lighter. The clutch has since hatched and 13 of 14 eggs resulted in ducklings- the black eggs included.

Photo by Stephen Straka

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Mystery of Duckweed in a Duck House

By Don [the duckman] Helmeke [reprinted from Newsgram issue #36]

One of the most enjoyable aspects of our wood duck hobby is finding surprises in our duck boxes. For the past 30 years, every nesting season has provided me with at least one new wood duck behavior to add to my list of observations.

About ten years ago, during a mid-day duck house inspection, I encountered an unattended clutch of eggs nearly covered with with wet duckweed. [Duckweed is the smallest of flowering plants, occurring in several sizes and shapes, all of them eaten by wood ducks as the tiny morsels float together to form green carpets on quiet ponds].

The presence of soaking wet down around the perimeter and the warmth of the clutch told me that incubation was underway. But why so wet? And where was the hen? [ Mid day incubation "breaks" are unusual until just before hatching, and I knew this clutch to be early in incubation]. And since we know that hen woodies don't bring anything but their down in to a nest cavity or box, what the heck was with all that duckweed?

As I walked away from the box, a hen landed in the box entrance and popped inside. After only ten minutes, she exited [seemingly undisturbed] and flew off in the direction of a small marsh covered with duckweed.

Given that it was an exceptionally hot spring day, 97 degrees, the answers to my mystery seemed to be at hand. Incubating female woodies respond to excessive nest box temperatures and high relative humidity in a variety of ways. Some hens poke their heads up near, or out of the box entrance and "pant" with the bill agape, much like a hot canine. Others may actually leave the clutch uncovered and exit the box during the hottest hours of the day, returning at varying intervals.

Individual hens that engage in this "coming and going" behavior usually go to water and return to the nest with their feathers wet. If the pond happens to be covered with duckweed, the hen is more likely to transport some on her feathers each time she returns to her clutch.

Thus, the mystery of my wet, duckweed covered clutch was solved, sort of. Since all her eggs hatched and all the ducklings excited the box, I assume that the instinctive behavior of this hen, in response to suspected high heat in her duck box, contributed to her eventual success.

And the duckweed? A moistening/cooling agent? A complete coincidence? Oh, the fun of discovery and the mystery of unanswered questions! Be sure to share your wood duck observations through this website or through the Wood Duck Newsgram. Click on the contact us link to access us.

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Effects of Fish on Waterfowl Populations

By Roger Strand

A vibrant algae pond with a hidden hen Hooded Merganser
in the center of the picture, facing left, just behind the tall weeds.

Reprinted from Wood Duck Newsgram No.26 March 1999

Fish in waterfowl marshes: Waterfowl managers’ perspective. Stephen Bouffard and Mark Hanson. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 1997, 25(1):146-157

The authors review information from a wide range of disciplines concerning the direct and indirect effects of fish on waterfowl populations in marshes.

They conclude that introduced fish may reduce the suitability of aquatic habitats for other vertebrates (including wood ducks). This occurs directly through predation and competition for food and indirectly through complex influences on the aquatic community. These indirect effects combine to degrade the wetland by increasing turbidity and decreasing the health and presence of submerged aquatic vegetation and associated invertebrates

The authors are actively involved in ongoing research in this field, but they contend (1997) that additional research is not necessary to justify immediate modification of current fish management practices on public wetlands dedicated to waterfowl production.

In their conclusion, they emphasize that marshes, especially those purchased with duck stamp monies, should not be managed for both water-birds and fish.

State DNR fish stocking programs and ongoing heavy influence of bait fish propagation by private minnow dealers present a concern for those interested in waterfowl propagation. Take careful note.

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Art Hawkins involved in erecting first Wood Duck houses

[Reprinted from July 2004 'Wood Duck Newsgram']

The first recorded use of artificial nesting structures for wood ducks took place in 1937 when the U.S. Biological Survey [now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] erected 486 bark-covered slab wooden boxes at the Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge in central Illinois.

Over the next two years, Art Hawkins and the renowned wood duck expert, Frank Bellrose erected 700 rough cut cypress boxes throughout Illinois.

More than half were used by woodies, revealing the great management potential of the boxes. Since those pioneering efforts, thousands of wood duck boxes have been built and erected by a diversity of people and groups, from wildlife agencies to conservation-minded private citizens.

Hawkins recalls a raccoon that single-handedly tried to wipe out the entire wood duck colony. "One day I caught that raccoon coming out of a box and I beat him with a switch," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "We never had any trouble with him after that.

{Below, Art Hawkins and his lovely wife Betty. Art at 91 years young, is the senior member of the 'Society'.}

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Walter J. Breckenridge

The Wood Duck Society's Logo, as seen in the upper left corner of this page, was drawn by Walter J Breckenridge.

Walter was widely recognized as one of Minnesota's foremost ornithologists. "Breck" as he was known by friends, became interested in wildlife while in grade school where he learned taxidermy. Years later came a BA degree at the University of Iowa and MA and Ph. D degrees at the University of Minnesota. He prepared wildlife exhibits at the University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History for 20 years and then became museum director for the next 20 years

Breck's talent as an artist was recognized as early as 1932 when his watercolors appeared with those of Fuertes, Jaques, Sutton, and other artists in Robert's "Birds of Minnesota." His work has been recognized in such important shows as the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Birds in Art Exhibitions in Wausau, Wisconsin. In 1980, his watercolor of wood ducks went from Leigh Yawkey to a select showing at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Breck retired in 1970, and enjoyed direct contact with many of his wild subjects at his three-acre "mini-wilderness" along the Mississippi River north of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Walter was on the original Board of Directors for the Wood Duck Society. He contributed for many years until physical conditions forced him to step aside. Even so, he continued to attend the annual society meetings at the Wargo Nature Center, in Lino Lakes, Minnesota. Walter Breckenridge, a renowned naturalist and longtime Wood Duck Society board member, passed away on May 25th, 2003. Never to be forgotten, he will always be cherished for his contributions to this society, his friendships, and his kind words for all.

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Art Hawkins

Senior Director passes away on March 9th, 2006


By Stephen M Straka

Our beloved friend, mentor and senior director on the board of the Wood Duck Society, Art Hawkins, passed away on March 9th, 2006 at the age of 92 while walking his beloved trails along the shores of Lake Amelia. In 2005, Art graciously spent the time to send me his autobiography at my request. I have carefully put his notes in chronological order with only minor edits. Thank you Art.

Art Hawkins was born in Batavia, NY on June 15th, 1913. Art was schooled there and had a newspaper route as a young boy. He spent his spare time hunting, fishing, trapping and camping.In 1931, Art attended Cornell University, majoring in forestry and field biology. During his spare time while at Cornell, Art worked on the NY State Ruffed grouse study and spent one summer on a biological survey of the Tionesta Forest in Pennsylvania. In 1934, after graduation, he worked for the NY Conservation Department on a stream survey of the Mohawk-Hudson watershed. Art later started grad school in fisheries at Cornell, but left after the first term when offered an assistantship at the University of Wisconsin, under Aldo Leopold.

By 1937, Art obtained his MS degree under Professor Leopold with studies of several game birds, while managing the Faville Grove Experimental Wildlife area, where Leopold students gained farm and wildlife experience. From 1938-41, Art joined the Illinois Natural History Survey [ INHS ] as a leader of a new section on wildlife experimental areas with assistant, Frank Bellrose. His section soon was modified to a study of ducks and their food habits on the Illinois River Valley. This is where Art Hawkins became seriously involved with wood ducks. Art and Frank Bellrose were perhaps the first individuals to make a major study of fall migration and the hunter harvest on a large scale. The research area was the Illinois River and Mississippi River, where it borders Illinois.

Art entered the military in 1941. His job in the military, classified in veterinary service, was to help develop a milk-shed for Amarillo Field and four other Air Corps bases. In doing so, Art dealt with ranchers and farmers in five states at their ranches and farms. He kept notes on waterfowl and other birds, as he traveled. This permitted him to publish a report on the birds of west Texas, a report on waterfowl that was sent to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and various other records departments. The reports are now housed at Texas Tech University at Lubbock, Texas.

In 1945, after being discharged from the service, Art returned to the Illinois Natural History Survey. In May of 1946, Art received a better offer from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and moved to Madison, Wisconsin to share an office with Professor Leopold. Almost immediately, he left for Manitoba, Canada with his family, where they were based at the Delta Waterfowl Research Station. For eight summers in a row, they spent April-September in Canada, where he headed the waterfowl work in Manitoba, including surveys, bandings, etc.

Arts’ job changed again in 1954 from ‘Mississippi Flyway Biologist’, to Asst. Supervisor of Game Management in Region 3 based in Minneapolis, MN. However, the new job still took him to Canada for surveys and banding. In 1956, another job change to ‘Mississippi Flyway Representative’ for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a position created when the ‘Flyway Councils’ evolved. In this job, Art worked closely with the state waterfowl biologists in the fourteen states of the flyway and participated on all flyway council and technical section meetings, including the regulations-settings process in Washington DC.

In 1972, Art officially retired, but only on a part-time basis [39hrs/wk instead of 40 hrs/wk] until the book “Flyways”, which he helped edit, was complete. During this semi- retirement period, he was given many special assignments including a tie-in with Texas A&M to help supervise graduate students in their Redhead duck studies in Texas, Montana and Manitoba. He also was involved in an oil spill which endangered ducks wintering on the Laguna Madre and various other assignments in Canada.

In Art’s full retirement, he kept up to date on various conservation issues, especially as related to migratory birds. Beyond official duties, dating back to the first Earth Day, in 1970, he helped organize a church program called EPIC [Environmental Programs in Churches] which tried to enlarge the mission of churches into Earth Day type actions. It was actually quite successful, but as the Earth Day fire dimmed, so did EPIC. In the last four years [2001-2004] the MN DNR had employed Art part-time, to monitor a failing heron/egret colony on Peltier Lake in MN. He was also involved in an ‘ad-hoc’ group called CDHP, [Concerned Duck Hunters Panel] which is working hard to get more conservative hunting regulations. Last, but not least, Art Hawkins is highly responsible for the Wood Duck Society’s existence today and from day-one, has been one of the most respected Directors on the board. His charisma, strength and knowledge will always be an inspiration to everyone who knew him.

The last paragraph in Art’s autobiography represents a testimony to his vision and respect for others:

“My experience with wood ducks in particular, after nearly 50 years of having boxes on our place, turns up something new almost annually, greatly augmented by my association with other wood duckers. That’s why the Newsgram [Wood Duck Newsgram] and more recently the internet, are so important. It opens up a whole new vista. While traveling around the country while working for the Service [USFWS] I had the opportunity to visit quite a few wood duck projects and of course, learned from that experience. I owe much of what I’ve learned about woodies to Frank Bellrose, of course, and also Frederic Leopold and Ray Cunningham, both fountains of information.”

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Harvey K. Nelson


The Wood Duck Society sadly reports that one of our prestigious and longtime Directors, Harvey K. Nelson passed away on Friday February 19, 2010.

Harvey, a native Minnesotan, resided in Bloomington, MN. Active in many organizations besides the WDS, he was currently a consultant to the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. Harvey was an avid fisherman and duck hunter. He had special interests in canvasbacks, wood ducks and Canada geese.

Harvey retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992 after 42 years. He had a Bachelor of Science degree in Fish and Wildlife Management from the University of Minnesota, a Master of Science degree in Natural Resources Conservation from Michigan State University, a Doctor of Science degree from North Dakota State University and was a graduate of the Federal Executive Institute at Charlottesville, VA.

During his 42 years at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he held positions ranging from field biologist, refuge manager, first Director of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center at Jamestown, ND, to senior executive positions as Assistant Director, USFWS in Washington D.C. Harvey was also a Regional Director of the North Central Region, Minneapolis, MN; and first Director of the North American North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

Harvey’s love and passion of wildlife was a driving force in his life and career. His activism, endless energy and enthusiasm for the good of nature and the environment made him a pillar in our society.

Thank you Harvey, for your dedication, sharing of knowledge and your friendship.