One of the few waterfowl species to reproduce in the Palmetto State is arguably among the most beautiful in the world.

Wood ducks — aka “Carolina duck,” “Summer duck” or “woodies” — are a masterpiece of nature.

Males are adorned with an iridescent green, crested head divided with white stripes, a chestnut brown breast punctuated with white dots, and a distinctive red eye. While females are less colorful, their beauty draws from an elegant profile and white pattern around the eye.

All this is familiar to some South Carolinians, particularly those who live next to a pond, lake or creek who install wood duck nesting boxes, protected from snakes and raccoons by predator guards.

Condo cleanup time

Even though it’s still early winter, now is the time for Lowcountry residents in appropriate settings to install wood duck boxes and for those who have existing ones to clean out old nesting material, which may include broken eggs and parasites, and add fresh material, usually wood shavings.

Wood ducks will start moving into boxes later this month.

Mount Pleasant resident Robert Darby has been doing both on about 1,400 acres he owns in Dorchester County in recent days.

For nearly a dozen years, Darby has been taking advantage of a program by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources that provides wood duck nesting boxes and baffles to people who apply for them in late fall.

Between the boxes that existed on the property and the DNR boxes, Darby has about a two dozen protected boxes on his land that he plans to clean out. He’s putting up four new boxes from DNR and two that he purchased at Wild Birds Unlimited on Wednesday.

“This is my way of giving back,” says Darby, who also hunts wood ducks.

But people who want to attract and host wood ducks don’t have to own large tracts in the country to do so.

Ginny Sass lives in Hobcaw Point subdivision in Mount Pleasant and put up a wood duck box adjacent to Molasses Creek nearly four years ago.

“They (wood ducks) took to it immediately,” says Sass, noting that she knows several neighbors who also have the boxes that are regularly used.

“They are so cute,” says Sass. “When they take a break from nesting, they’ll sit on top of my bluebird (nesting box) and just stare at their box, much to the displeasure of my bluebirds.”

The owners the Wild Birds Unlimited locations, Danielle Motley in Mount Pleasant and Christina Fifer in West Ashley, both stock wood duck nesting boxes and typically sell about a dozen each year.

A helping hand

While wood ducks have never been listed as a threatened or endangered species in modern times, the combination of overhunting, clearcutting forests and removal of beavers and beaver ponds nearly drove the species to extinction by the early 20th century.

Wood ducks were saved from the fates of the extinct passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker due to protections from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and later the use of nesting boxes.

Before the latter, wood ducks made their homes in the cavities of old and dead trees.

Dean Harrigal, waterfowl biologist with DNR, says the nesting box efforts remain an important part of keeping the wood duck population intact.

Harrigal estimates that the department has provided about 36,000 boxes and predator guards to South Carolina property owners since 1980.

He describes the effort as being similar to “citizen’s science” but with a habitat twist. Still, it requires thoughtful placement of the boxes.

While DNR’s application process for nesting boxes has passed for this winter, the next one starts in September. Boxes are available commercially (Wild Birds sells its boxes for $58) and plans to build your own are widely available online, such as http://dnr.sc.gov/news/Yr2007/jan22/jan22_box.html

Follow the parameters

“The biggest mistake people make is putting them in subdivision and retention ponds that are in the wide open,” says Harrigal of the often manicured locations. “It (the area for the boxes) needs to be a little raggedy along the edge.”

The general formula, Harrigal says, is about 60 percent open water and 40 percent cover, which needs to be around the box but not necessarily hanging over the box. That’s because predators, such as snakes, raccoons and squirrels, have been known to drop in on boxes from above.

Regardless, no box should be installed without a conically-shaped predator guard, or baffle.

“A wood duck box without a predator guard is a death sentence for a hen on her nest,” says Harrigal.

A flight path in and out of the box needs to be relatively clear. Vegetation such as cattail, button bush and overhanging myrtles can provide cover for baby ducks.

Even with the man-made obstacles, those ducklings already face a number of threats from predators, which also include birds of prey, alligators, snapping turtles and even largemouth bass.

“Out of about 15 eggs (laid by the hen), maybe three will reach flight stage,” says Harrigal.

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.

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