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Several decades ago the future seemed grim for the wood duck. Once plentiful, this handsome pond bird became so rare that it seemed likely it would become extinct. By 1918 shooting it was outlawed in Canada and the U.S.
But strangely enough, the hunting gun was not the decimator of the wood duck. Rather, it was the victim of the logger's ax and the advance of civilization. Unlike other ducks the bird nests in the cavities of great old trees. As these disappeared the wood duck disappeared too—until sportsmen and conservationists began cooperating in a housing project unique in the history of wildlife restoration.
An unknown wildfowl biologist had made a significant discovery: wood ducks would nest in artificial homes placed in trees. Soon a few man-made duck dwellings were erected in several states as experimental projects. Like free-loading relations, the colorful ducks moved in, often in preference to natural den-sites in hollow trees. Eventually fish and game departments (such as Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Iowa, Indiana) authorized statewide programs that scattered thousands of boxlike duck houses across the country.
The first models were made from bark-covered slabs. Plenty of woodies applied, but a bumper crop of predators were close behind, so production of ducklings wasn't too encouraging.
Coons and possums were easy to handle. Biologists merely cut a smaller entrance, one that was form-fitting for an average hen. Squirrels were a little more difficult. All sorts of flanges and deflectors nailed to the box failed to discourage them, so the houses were finally erected over water, preferably on a metal post or pipe.
Game technicians in Ohio experimented with multiple housing units and found them effective on headwater lakes and small ponds. But the latest in deluxe apartments is one recently developed in Illinois by biologists Louis Ellebrecht and Frank Bellrose. They added a wooden floor and a raccoon-proof entrance to a 24-inch section of 12-inch galvanized cold-air pipe. The roof is an inverted metal cone. Average cost: $50.
While conservation agencies worked to perfect the boxes, sportsmen across the country built the newest models and distributed them wholesale. A typical club in Ironton, Ohio purchased scrap lumber and nails. Students in high-school manual arts classes assembled them. Then, on off-season Sundays, work parties spotted them on lakes, ponds and streams.
Results have been amazing, for the return of wood ducks has been as steady as their decline once was. In 1941, 15 states enjoyed the first open season in 23 years. A year later it was extended to most other states.
In the past decade, woodies have become accustomed to civilization. Now they've contracted America's new mania for settlement living. Broods were raised for seven consecutive years in a box less than 50 feet from a farm in Indiana. Other females living beside farm ponds have been undismayed by fishermen around them.
Welcome back, woodies.