Now that spring is finally here, my mind is quickly switching over to matters of housing. With the late onset of this delightful season, I have been scurrying to make sure my houses are in order -- bird houses that is.
If you haven't done so already, clean out all bird houses and nesting boxes. Repair, replace or even reposition houses if they have not been used for several years. Don't forget that wood duck boxes need fresh cedar shavings, small wood chips or sawdust.
Although I'm familiar with many nesting structures and have four wood duck boxes, six songbird houses and a couple of small ledge-type platforms, I'm intrigued by nesting boxes placed in ponds or bodies of water.
Whenever I travel and see one I'm curious to know if it's being used. Often I snap a photo for future reference. One day I want to build some and see for myself how well they work and which birds might inhabit these artificial homes.
A number of years ago a reader sent me information on how to construct a duck house that has been proven to be safe from predators and farmer's tractors. Biologists on the 50,000-acre Delta Marsh in Manitoba researched different sizes and shapes of nesting structures in the early 90s. With an extraordinary 87 percent nesting success rate, the circular hay-and-wire mesh "Hen House" design was the winner.
Compared to the dismal 15 percent nesting success with typical "on-the-ground" duck nests, the Hen House could be the answer to helping mallards make a recovery on the prairies and other areas where ducks nest in face of tremendous predation. On the prairies the mallard's nesting densities can exceed 10 pairs per square mile. Predators such as fox, skunks, raccoons and hawks have taken a toll on an ever-shrinking population. Nest success rates are down to 10 percent in some areas -- a level at which populations cannot sustain themselves.
NCTRY-HEN HOUSE SUNSET
While the Hen House style is the subject of this column, I would think similar styles are comparatively successful. Selecting the appropriate habitat, placing and maintaining the structure are also key, so let's consider those aspects as well.
The Hen House should be placed over water and in standing emergent vegetation such as cattails or bulrushes no farther than 20 yards from open water. The house be approximately 3 feet above water. Do not place it on dry land.
Position the house perpendicular to prevailing winds, which in Minnesota is west-northwest. This helps prevent nesting material from blowing out and the hen's scent from being spread over a wide area.
Because ducks do not carry grass to their nest, the Hen House requires annual maintenance to assure adequate nesting materials and cover. The house itself should last many years.
Based on Delta Waterfowl research, if mallards are in your area and you properly erect and place the Hen House, nearly nine in 10 will be used with 90 percent nesting success rates.
Hen Houses can be ordered from Delta Waterfowl for around $25. It is considered a contribution to the organization and is 100 percent deductible. Delta research biologists also identified the importance of privately-owned prairie potholes and launched, through the Delta Waterfowl organization, the Adopt-A-Pothole and Hen House programs.
Plans for other styles of wildlife houses and nesting units are available at the library, on the Internet and in books such as the DNR's "Woodworking for Wildlife" by Carrol Henderson. Many conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Izaak Walton and the National Wildlife Federation provide plans and suggestions for building and successful placing of the structures.
While we may assist waterfowl and birds by furnishing housing structures, it will be fruitless unless we protect their habitat. Without sufficient habitat wildlife is doomed. That is my Earth Day message.
Speaking of which, why not celebrate its 31st anniversary by building a house for birds, butterflies or bats or helping clean up a local park or natural area? At the same time dedicate yourself to caring more for the environment and making every day Earth Day.
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