Wood Duck Ecology – The History of the Nest Box

The wood duck (Aix sponsa) is the only duck species to nest in significant numbers in South Carolina. Historically, the species nested in natural cavities created by broken limbs and wood peckers. Due to the loss of hardwood bottomland habitat from extensive logging and heavy hunting pressure from market gunners wood duck populations declined to very low numbers in the early 1900’s.   With the passing of conservation laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Lacey Act, the wood duck was able to start making a comeback from what was considered to be the brink of extinction.

​As early as 1912 nest boxes were as a tool to improve wood duck habitat. The first attempts to improve wood duck nesting habitat by government agencies was in 1937 by placing over 700 nesting structures on National Wildlife Refuges along rivers and swamps in Illinois. Evidence of wood duck use of over half of approximately 700 nest boxes led to the conclusion that nest boxes could be a valuable tool in the management and conservation of the species (Hawkins and Bellrose 1940). These first nest houses were bark covered slab boxes attached directly to trees with no predator guards. They were bulky with a short life span, often receiving less than 15% occupancy by wood ducks (Bellrose 1953). Nest boxes in successive years were constructed with entrance dimensions based on measurements from taken from natural cavities.

​With the observation that predators could be deterred from entering the boxes by adjusting entrance dimensions, further variations on the theme of predator guards were developed. The conical metal guards used by the South Carolina Waterfowl Association’s Wood Duck Production Program were popularized in the early 1970s in the southern United States as a means to prevent rat snakes from entering the boxes. When securely attached to a pole and combined with a properly placed nest box, these guards are considered to offer the best protection available against pole climbing predators (Bellrose and Holm 1994).

​As is readily noticeable with the nesting structures distributed by the South Carolina Waterfowl Association and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the wooden houses with the metal predator guard are the most common nest boxes seen in South Carolina.

 Should you have any questions about the Wood Duck Project, please feel free to contact David Wielicki. His contact information is below.

Office: 803-452-6001 ~ Email: contact@scwa.org


Pricing for SCWA Wood Duck Projects

Funding for the South Carolina Waterfowl Association Wood Duck Production Project is subsidized through local SCWA fundraising chapters. Landowners who wish to have nest boxes installed on their property must also support the project by making a contribution to the South Carolina Waterfowl Association.

Each year SCWA funds the operation of wildlife biologist field crews who install and maintain wood duck nesting boxes across South Carolina. Due to the cost of funding a two person field crew, there is a ten nest box minimum required for any nest box installation or maintenance project conducted by SCWA field crews. Wood Duck nest boxes can be purchased from SCWA and picked up at our Wildlife Education Center. The fees for nest boxes and field crew services are as follows:

Wood Duck Nest Boxes and Components

  1. Cypress Wood Duck Nest Box – $50.00
  2. Galvanized Predator Guard – $25.00
  3. Ten Foot Treated 4 x 4 Post – $10.00
  4. Wood Duck Nest Box Unit (post, guard, box) $80.00

SCWA Field Crew Services 

  1. Wood Duck Nest Box Unit Installation $125.00/unit (Ten nest box unit minimum)
  2. Wood Duck Nest Box Maintenance – $25.00/nest box (Ten nest box unit minimum)

​If you would like to purchase wood duck nest boxes or schedule a maintenance or installation project call the SCWA office at 803-452-6001.

More Ducks For Your Bucks

How To Get More Out Of Your Crops

Whether you are in the Mallard Release Program or just looking to draw in migratory birds, one factor remains constant: wintering waterfowl need a solid diet to offset the energy expenditure of migration and to provide energy to survive the cold winter months.  Ducks on the wintering grounds also need quality food resources during the wintering period to ensure the ducks are in prime condition for courtship, pair bonding, spring migration and the spring breeding season.   The fact is, the condition of habitats during the winter does have an effect on breeding success in the spring.

Look in any biological publication, and most of the ducks we see around here share a similar diet, protein rich invertebrates during the summer, grains, pondweeds, and sedges during the winter. Find out just how healthy your food plot is from the list below, composed of a few commonly planted crops in this area.

 Chufa- aka Tiger nut, rush nut, yellow nutgrass

A crop that’s worth the price. Once an important food crop in ancient Egypt, it is today cultivated in West Africa, Spain, and China. A fast growing perennial sedge that does well in warm climates, moist or wet soil. The small round tubers along the root are 12% protein, high in carbohydrates, and rich in oleic acid. Can be planted up until Aug. 1 in coastal areas.

 Rice- Oryza sativa

Grains are highly nutritious, with a protein content approaching 14% (13.8%), similar to that of wheat (14.8%). Also has a higher content of amino acids (lysine and methionine), along with essential fatty acids (linolenic and linoleic) than most cereals. Good source of Vitamin B. Drawbacks include difficulty to grow efficiently, as well as in areas where blackbirds are a problem. Valued also for cover and as a substrate and for food for invertebrates which waterfowl also feed on. Seeds mature in 90-100 days.

 Japanese Millet- echinochloa crusgalli var. frumentecea

An excellent crop to drill in or plant where equipment access is limited. May be broadcasted onto exposed mud flats. Millet contains 8.3% protein, along with 25.8% crude fiber. An annual reseeding grass of Asiatic origin that produces heavy seed yields. A tiny seed, approximately 145,000 per pound, are relished by gadwall, mallard, wood duck, and teal. Seeds mature in about 90 days.

 Sorghum- sorghum spp.

An annual small grain crop that is closely related to corn. 9% crude protein, with 2.2% crude fiber. Known for being drought tolerant, with a planting range from April 15 to July 15, or when the soil temperature reaches 65 degrees F.

As with any food plot, perform a soil test from several different areas to be planted to determine fertilization requirements. Weigh your options and use this guide to determine the choice crop for your area, and hopefully they will put more ducks in your area for years to come.

A Guide to Waterfowl Bands

If you had a choice between shooting a nice 8 point whitetail or a banded duck which would you choose?   For me and most avid waterfowl hunters that’s an easy question to answer a banded duck.   Shooting a banded duck is something special that many waterfowl hunters never get to experience in their lifetime.   Only a very small percentage of the waterfowl population is banded and an even smaller percentage of those that are banded get harvested.  This is what makes a banded bird so special.   When most hunters think of banded waterfowl however they immediately think of the shiny silver bands that go around the legs.   This is only one of the many types of bands that are used to mark waterfowl.   Neck collars, nasal markers, colored leg bands, web tags, patagial markers and radio/GPS trackers are other types of  bands  used to mark birds.

​The most common type of band is the silver leg band that most waterfowl hunters are familiar with.   A common misconception with these bands is that the bird was banded in Laurel Maryland because many of the bands say Avise Bird Band Laurel, Maryland. Laurel Maryland is the location of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) headquarters where all of the bird bands are issued from.   From there individuals across the country band the birds and report the data back to the USGS.   In order to get the location of where the bird was banded, how old it is and who banded it you must call the band in at 1-800-327-BAND.   Many hunters, including myself, wear these bands on their call lanyards as a type of trophy just as a deer hunter might ride a nice set of antlers around in his truck.   This type of band is made from aluminum and comes in different sizes depending on the type of bird that is being banded.   The bands range in size from as small as a hummingbird band to as large as a size 14 swan band.   Most hunters are familiar with mallard bands which are a size 7A.   Other common bands are size 5 which are used on blue-wing teal and wood ducks.   Doves, Quail and green-wing teal use a size 4 while Canadian geese use a size 8.   Each year around 350,000 ducks and geese are banded across the United States and Canada.   Of those 350,000 only about 88,000 are recovered each year.   This means that each year less than 0.8% of all ducks and geese are banded and less than 0.2% are recovered.

​The next most familiar band to waterfowl hunters are neck collars.   Neck collars are made of plastic and are normally colored with a series of 3 or 4 letters, numbers or symbols.   The different colored collars typically represent a different region in which the bird was collared.   Orange collars are put on geese that come from the Canadian region of the Mississippi flyway such as Ontario and Manitoba while blue collars are used in the United States portion of the Mississippi flyway.   Other common colors include white (typically Atlantic flyway), green (used in the Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana region) and red (used in the central and pacific flyways).   Collars are used so that researchers can easily see and read the numbers on the collar with a pair of binoculars without capturing or killing the bird.   This makes it easier to track the migration pattern of geese up and down the flyway.


In recent years many studies have been done using various types of radio telemetry and GPS.   These devices are generally attached to neck collars and used in studies where waterfowl travel great distances.   I was fortunate enough to be involved with one of these studies while I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University.   We radio collared several Canadian geese and GPS collared 3 or 4 birds.   The study was used to determine the molt migration patterns of the geese in the spring.   Radio collars are several hundred dollars each while the GPS collars cost thousands of dollars each.   We would track the movements of the geese several times a week both from the ground, by airplane and by satellite.   After several months most of the geese had migrated up towards Hudson Bay in Canada and the graduate student in charge of the study finished his work by airplane in Canada.

​Nasal markers are another type of band used by researchers to mark individual birds.   They are typically made of plastic and are used widely in local breeding surveys.   These markers typically have only two letters or numbers on them since the populations that are being studied are small.   The two pieces of plastic are attached together with a wire or a piece of string through the nasal cavity.   Since many ducks do not have nasal walls this is a non-invasive procedure.   At the end of the study the ducks are recaptured and the bands taken off but obviously not all of them can be captured all of the time.   I personally have not taken a bird with a nasal marker or know of anyone who has taken one.   Since the connection between the plastic is either wire or string it is likely that many of the markers fall out within a year of being put in place.   Now you may ask if these markers effect the survival of the ducks and the answer is no.   Many studies have been done to look at the survival of ducks with these markers and it has been found that the survival rate non-marked ducks is the same as marked ducks.

​Colored leg bands are used much in the same way as neck collars are used.   They are larger than the average metal leg band but smaller than a neck collar.   They have a series of 2 or 3 letters and numbers on them which is read easily from a distance.   They are made of plastic and many times break off after only a few years.   Snow geese are the most common waterfowl that have these types of bands but they are used on ducks and Canadian geese as well.   Since snow geese breed in large numbers in the boreal regions of Canada, colored leg bands are much easier to read than other types of markers.   Red, yellow and black are common colors used for these types of leg bands.

​Web tags are used on waterfowl that are too young to receive traditional leg bands.   Many studies that track growth and survival of ducklings use web tags to track the birds.   Putting a leg band on a duckling can be very dangerous.   Using a band that is to big will increase the chances of the duckling getting caught up in vegetation or debris which will in turn increase the mortality rate.   On the other hand putting a band on that is to small will physically damage the bird when its leg outgrows the band.   For these reasons a small metal clip is put into the webbing of the feet which has a number on one side to identify the bird and initials on the other to identify the bander.   If the bird is recaptured as an adult a metal leg band will be added to accompany the web tag.

​The last type of band used is a patagial tag.   This tag is attached to the wing of a bird usually at the main joint in the wing.   Although most of them are made of plastic there are some that are made of aluminum.   The ones made of plastic are very visible and are commonly used on birds of prey but are also used on swans.   Metal patagial tags are used in some types of waterfowl but are not very common.   Typically only diving ducks are tagged with patagial tags and many studies have shown that these types of tags have a negative effect on ducks.

As you can see there is much more to banding than just the typical metal leg band.   Each type of band has a specific use and therefore is utilized in different situations.   Whatever the type of band they are all very important in studying the movements and migration patterns of waterfowl.   Any time you see a bird with a band on it be sure to report it to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) center by calling 1-800-327-BAND or go to their website at  www.usgs.gov.   The next time you go hunting and the dog brings your duck or goose back, be sure to check not just for a leg band but for all types of markers.

Receding Wetlands

We Can Do Something About Our Receding Wetlands

Conservation Groups Work Together


 More and more wetlands across South Carolina are being restored and enhanced because of conservation groups such as the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the partnerships that they form with other groups to accomplish their goals. SCWA and NRCS have joined SCWA’s Wood Duck Production Project and the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program in a partnership to broaden and enhance their goals to restore as many wetlands as possible each year.

​SCWA Waterfowl Biologists believe this partnership will be a great success, With the demand for hard timber fiber increasing, there is less and less natural habitat available for breeding wood ducks. Whereas wetlands many years ago were drained for agricultural purposes, the NRCS provides a service to the landowners to re-establish these once existing wetlands. Such reestablished wetlands are excellent sites for the Wood Duck Production Project, because they provide food sources as well as good brood rearing habitat. Wood duck nesting units installed on these sites not only provide the hens with quality nesting cavities, but also several other species of cavity nesting birds such as Carolina wrens, warblers, great crested flycatchers, eastern bluebirds, and hooded mergansers.

​This partnership began this spring of 2003 with several projects in Bamberg and Dillon Counties. Some of the projects consisted of removing drainage tiles that were installed years ago to drain low water pockets in fields. Other projects received a more advanced restoration that included dikes with water control structures used for planting food for waterfowl to be flooded in the winter. All of the projects received a suitable number of nest boxes according to acreage and density of plant growth.

​Over the past 20 years the Wetland Reserve Program has become the most popular and ecologically successful voluntary incentive-based wetland restoration program in U.S. history. The funding for this program is made available by the Commodity Credit Corporation and then implemented by NRCS.

​NRCS provides financial assistance for landowners in the form of easement payments and restoration cost-share assistance. The lands that are enrolled mostly consist of flood prone restorable agricultural wetlands. However, many types of drained or altered swamps have been enrolled in WRP. If a landowner wishes to participate in some kind of wetland restoration project, he/she should call their local USDA/NRCS office and ask about the Wetland Reserve Program. The landowner would then receive a questionnaire referring to certain aspects of their land. Then, upon approval (based on land value), which will be determined through NRCS, the project is underway.

​If you have an area that you think may support wood ducks and would like to learn more about obtaining wood duck nesting structures, please call SCWA Waterfowl Biologist and Executive Director, David Wielicki at (803-452-6001). If you are not already a cooperator of the Wood Duck Production Project, please call to find out more about becoming involved with the largest wood duck project in the nation.

via South Carolina Waterfowl Association.

Managing for the Wood Duck – Guidelines to Maximize Your Habitat

Depending on whom you ask, you might be told that as long as you have woods and water, you’ll have wood ducks. While this may be true, it is important to follow some guidelines to maximize your habitat’s carrying capacity for the wood duck.

​Nest box programs of some type have been utilized for nearly a century to help restore original wood duck numbers that were threatened by habitat depletion and market hunting. Because of these programs, wood ducks now use a wide range of wetland habitats for breeding. Since wood ducks are a forest-inhabiting species, wooded sites should be selected for management programs when available.

​Areas selected for breeding wood ducks should include both plant and animal food resources. Plant foods are necessary for fat deposition prior to egg laying and as an energy source for the incubating females and breeding males. Invertebrates are the primary source of protein and minerals for eggs. Wood ducks typically utilize a 6-month period for laying eggs, beginning as early as February and as late as July.managing-WD-box

​Those wishing to manage for wood ducks should consider the following points in making general assessments of food resources and quality of foraging habitats. Wood ducks utilize a wide variety of foods and therefore probably do not select specific plant or invertebrate prey species. Because of this, diversity and abundance of plant and invertebrate foods in wetlands is critical. Vegetative structures such as leaves and stems should not be considered in assessing plant food availability. Instead, seeds of plants are optimal for the wood duck, such as acorns. Because wood ducks are predominantly surface feeders, foraging areas should be shallow, contain large amounts of shallow water edges, or have substrates for invertebrates near the surface. Aquatic plants can provide both seeds and substrates. Man made impoundments should maximize the amount of shallow water edge by increasing the irregularity of wetland margins or by constructing islands.

​While size of the managed area does matter, if adequate food is available, larger numbers of birds can use the area. Nesting cavities in the form of dead trees or nesting units can help to boost numbers as well. One last thing to remember is the location of managed areas. Potential disturbances should be minimized. Breeding success and attainment of the wood duck’s high reproductive potential requires not only food resources but also disturbance free habitats. Wood ducks are particularly sensitive to human disturbance. To minimize this threat, managed sites should either be developed in areas of low human activity or closed to use during the breeding season.

Are We Harvesting Too Many Wood Ducks?

David J. Wielicki

David J. Wielicki

For the past two hunting seasons I have noticed a substantial decrease in the number of wood ducks wintering in the Lake Marion area.  Other hunters across South Carolina have also noticed a general decline in the number of wood ducks wintering on private impoundments and public wetland areas across the state despite excellent wetland conditions.  The decrease in wintering wood duck numbers has some biologists and hunters wondering if a 3 bird wood duck bag limit may be too high to maintain in years of low wood duck production.

Low precipitation across the Southeast and the Atlantic coast two years ago resulted in poor wetland conditions during the wood duck breeding season.  This had a negative impact on wood duck nesting success and recruitment of young into the population.  Last year wetland conditions improved across the area.  Nest success in SCWA nest box projects also improved dramatically.  However, myself and many other hunters did not see a noticeable increase in wintering wood duck populations.  During the 2014 breeding season wetland conditions have been good to excellent in some areas and should result in a good wood duck hatch with increased wintering populations.

Although low wintering wood duck numbers over the past two years could be a local phenomenon, low numbers this winter would add to my concern over wood duck populations.  Despite my concern, as a waterfowl biologist I know that local observations have limited value in making waterfowl management decisions.  In order to determine if we are harvesting too many wood ducks during waterfowl season increased banding of young wood ducks is needed across the Southeastern and Atlantic states.  A  strong annual banding effort is the only way to provide the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with the data needed to determine if annual survival rates are too low to support a 3 bird wood duck limit.

I have expressed my concerns with USFWS Atlantic Flyway Biologist, Paul Padding, who assured me the USFWS plans to closely monitor the effect of harvest on wood duck populations.  The wood duck is the number one duck harvested in South Carolina.   Last year’s estimated harvest was 72,050 wood ducks which is down from the previous year’s estimated harvest of 116,308 birds.   For the past 28 years, SCWA has built, distributed and installed over 22,500 wood duck nest boxes that have hatched over 900,000 wood ducks.  Your Association will continue to work diligently to increase wood duck populations and to support sound harvest management decisions that will conserve our wood duck populations for future generations.  I look forward to keeping every SCWA member informed on this important waterfowl management issue.