Sunday, January 18, 2009

Duck Boxes

It was the coolest job ever! I'm talking about being a wildlife manager on the Pennsylvania Game Commission game lands in Greene County, PA. My main position there was to design and implement a Wood Duck Nesting Box Program. This sounded daunting, especially considering I needed to do this over the entire 7,200 acre game lands, but it was some of the most fun that I have ever had.

Part of the game lands.

With the assistance of Larry, a longtime employee there, we were able to scout out and locate nest box sites for wood ducks. Apparently, about 10 years before, someone had tried to start a wood duck program on the gamelands and they had scattered next boxes all over the game land, many of which were in some awkward places, and their whereabouts recorded only with a vague description (such as "On Whitely Creek"). Well, Whitely Creek runs through about 20 miles of gameland, so you can see my dilemma.

Putting up duck boxes on Whitely Creek. Notice the ladder, which I carried all over, and which was used to cross the creek!

Soon, I realized that it would be much easier if we just put up new boxes rather than locating old ones. This made sense to Larry as well, considering most of the old boxes we found were in bad disrepair, packed full of leaves (courtesy of squirrels), or were filled with field mice. Once field mice have set up residence in a wood duck box, it is pretty much gone because you can never get the pee smell out of them. With a new plan in mind we asked our boss, Dave, if we could enlist the convict work crew to build duck boxes for us. Dave told us sure, so with an armed gunman watching over us, we demostrated to the convicts what we wanted done, and gave them run of the power tools. I was kind of hesistant tp be surrounded by convicts wielding saws, hammers, screwdrivers, etc. but you know, they were a good bunch of guys. Most of them were just happy about getting out of the pokey on work release. I got tickled at them because everytime I'd ask them to do something, they jump right to it and say, "Yes, Sir". Of course, with an armed gunman lording over you, a person will do alot of things they normally wouldn't. After a few days, Dave turned over the convict work crew over to me, and I supervised them. I got to know many of them and they were genuinely a good bunch of guys, they had just been dealt a bad hand.

A wood duck box. The convict work crew made over 500 of these for my project.

After we got the duck boxes, I done some research on wood duck habitat and scouted out prime habitat all over the gamelands. Larry and I cruised all over on our trusty gamelands steed, and soon placed and recorded all of our wood duck boxes. I found that wood duck boxes facing water and in the general direction of East, had the greatest success rate. I also found that wood shavings from a local woodworker worked better as bedding in the boxes than did sawdust. The woodworker was only too happy to give us the sawdust, it kept him from having to dispose of them.

My trusty steed!

One of the drawbacks of placing my duck boxes was having to climb trees that stretched out over a creek. I'd hang on with one hand, and pound up the box with the other. I learned to be an acrobat, but sometimes I'd take along the convict work crew to do this. Was that wrong of me?lol. This type of box placement was beneficial for the success of the project though since this was wood duck habitat, and this also reduced the predator rate for the ducklings.

A wood duck box along Whitely Creek.

Also during my tenure at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, I waded through the wetlands and constructed mallard nest structures, I built and placed huge bat colony boxes (again with the help of convict labor), and I assisted with a controlled burn of the warm-season grass fields on the game lands. Being a fire-bug at heart, it done my soul good to see the 50-foot high flames racing across a field of dry grass. Burning is necessary for warm-season grasses to thrive, and when the grass is on the fields, it provides habitat for numerous wildlife species. The warm-season grass was also a major money maker for the gamelands since switchgrass seed was harvested annually and sold to grass seed wholesalers all over the region.

Part of the game lands.

My time at the game lands was short-lived. Budget cuts made my position non-existent, so I didn't get to witness the results of my wood duck program. I kept in contact with Dave though, and he told me that my wood duck program was a complete and total success. The following fall, there were wood ducks everywhere, and hunter success was around 95%! Before my plan was enacted, hunter success was around 20%, so it was a considerable improvement. Dave told me that my plan was being implemented on other gameland sites all over the state of Pennsylvania. I am very proud of that fact, even though I couldn't be the one doing it, but I still consider myself very lucky to have had this experience. It was truly the best job ever. Perhaps the future will take me back to the game lands, or somewhere like it. Who knows? I remain ever hopeful as we watch a new President take the reigns of power.


Janet, said...

That sounds like a great job for an outdoors person. There have been times when we could have given you lots of sawdust and shavings.

tipper said...

Sounds like one of those experiences of a life time. Great that you at least got to find out how well the boxes worked-sad you got cut.

Jason Burns said...

You need to get your ass out of Charleston and back in the park system where you belong.