Pay it Back: Four Walls and a Roof for Wood Ducks
Updated: Mar 2
The wood duck is a splendid bird. Navigating a waterway, its head gently bobs in rhythm with its paddling feet. The drake has plumage so flashy, iridescent and distinctive that its Latin name, Aix sponsa, roughly translates to “waterfowl in a wedding dress.”
Wood ducks fly in squadrons of 4 or 5, bodies hurtling forward at great speed like tiny fighter jets. When at rest, which seems infrequent, they roost in the limbs and hollows of trees in swampy bottoms, overlooking their drowned domain.
For all of these reasons, and their deliciousness besides, wood ducks are among the most prized trophies for waterfowlers. Their swiftness, their beauty, their maddening inaccessibility deep in the hearts of marshy forests make them a difficult but rewarding bird to hunt. But many of these qualities also made them vulnerable.
Especially the loss of their flooded bottom habitat, which we humans have deemed useless, unproductive land unless remedied by the destructive forces of ditching, draining and logging, caused ornithologist George Bird Grinnell to write in 1901 that wood ducks “are becoming very scarce and are likely to be exterminated before long.”
At 14, I didn’t know any of this backstory. I just knew that for several months after the onset of true fall, my father, Scott Livie, alongside some of his closest and handiest hunting companions, as well as my sister and me, gathered to build wood duck boxes. Following plans, we assembled about 20 of these roughly two-foot tall, one-foot wide cedar boxes. They had a round hole in the front about the size of a cat door and a gently sloping roof that shed water. There were piles of sawdust when the boxes were complete, and a pile of stout wooden posts, about 15” high, that would elevate the boxes securely above the soft bottom of our stream’s forested banks.
When my father, an avid waterfowler, purchased our property on a tributary of Morgan Creek in Kent County, he saw few wood ducks but a lot of potential. It had 30 acres of sloping hillsides and stream oxbows, covered in stands of old oaks, beeches, sweet gum and black gum — excellent wood duck habitat, at least in theory. So, my father decided try what a growing number of conservation-minded hunters with the right sort of habitat were also doing. He gathered a team of like-minded friends, acquired plans and some cedar, and set to making his own wood duck nesting boxes over the course of a few weekends.
From the outset, conservation and waterfowling may seem at odds. The very act of killing isn’t conserving — it’s reducing. But modern sport hunting, far removed from its pre-1917 Migratory Bird Treaty Act commercial hunting days, is really about restraint. Bag limits are low, as are the days each year for duck season, and stringently enforced.
Moratoriums may be established on certain species once their populations decline, sometimes for years on end. It makes sense from a sport-hunting perspective that if you love hunting a kind of bird, you do what you can to make sure there will be plenty to pursue for years to come. For my father, who loved the challenge and skill of hunting wood ducks, tucked out of sight in the underbrush of a marshy Chesapeake wetland, it was the embodiment of the strong, conservation-minded hunting ethics he’d known and practiced his entire life.
He was in good company. The same year my father sent away for plans and constructed our nesting boxes, another Kent County landowner, Cliff Brown, noticed three dilapidated wood duck boxes on his property. Intrigued, he started on tinker on the design, improving and refining. Eventually, he reached out to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to build more, laying the foundation for what would ultimately become the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative.
Launched in 1994, to date this entirely volunteer-powered effort has seen more than a hundred organizations working together to build, install and monitor 1,800 wood duck nesting boxes statewide. Unsurprisingly, one of the earliest partners was Ducks Unlimited, representing committed conservation hunters like my dad. The state’s wood duck population, in turn, has stabilized as the duck boxes have proliferated, all thanks to the passionate grassroots efforts of conservation organizations and property owners across Maryland.
My father died in 2006, before he really got to see the impact of his 20-odd wood duck boxes. In fact, in his last days, he was still scheming about ways to attract more birds and improve their habitat on our land, describing the buttonbush shrubs he wanted to plant along the streambed so the wood duck hens would have a place to safely rear their fledglings. Although he didn’t live to see it, his efforts weren’t in vain.
Today, my home overlooks that same property, and my father’s wood duck boxes stand sentinel above that bottomland. From my deck, I can count at least four boxes — silvered with age now, but still warm and dry inside for the families of nesting wood ducks that return every year.
Dozens of them roost in the limbs of the beeches that overhand the stream, startling into swift, brilliant flight at the least disturbance. In the fall, scores of wood ducks prog for wild rice on the low banks. A technicolor miracle, our brightly-feathered little population thrives — a testament to the efforts of just one conservation hunter among many, building boxes of cedar and hope on a little tributary of Morgan Creek.