Rock Hall man named a Field & Stream conservation hero

Twenty-five thousand ducklings can't be wrong.

That's how many baby ducks — give or take a flock — that Cliff Brown and his all-volunteer Maryland Wood Duck Initiative helped peck their way into the world. The network builds and manages 1,900 wood duck nesting boxes on 75 sites statewide.

Outdoors magazine Field & Stream calls Brown the "Nest Protector" and named him a finalist for its 2012 Hero of Conservation award. It has also given his group a $5,000 grant. The Rock Hall resident is featured in the October issue, and he and five other recipients will be honored Thursday at a reception at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington.

"He's the ultimate volunteer warrior. He generated his team from a foundation of one," said Paul Peditto, head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' wildlife and heritage program. "He got government involved. He got landowners involved. He got Scouts and school kids and wounded veterans involved."

Brown, 63, said the exposure he's getting from the Field & Stream honor will help with volunteer recruitment and the money will be used to buy more materials.

The wood duck is among the most colorful ducks in North America. The scientific name, Aix sponsa, means "waterbird in bridal dress." In the fall, the male develops green, blue and purple plumage with a white stripe that runs from the base of his bill to the back of his neck. He sports a cream-colored vest and a tie of white feathers around his neck. His eyes are red, and his red-and-white bill is black-tipped with a daub of yellow near its base. The hen is brown with cream-colored markings.

But wood ducks are in trouble. The Maryland population fell from a high of 52,964 in 1994 to a low of 8,944 in 2009. Federal surveys put the population this year at 11,933.

Hunting and development took their toll on the entire Atlantic population in the late 19th century. Federal hunting laws enacted in the early 20th century protected the remaining wood ducks, but little was done to save the ducks' prime habitat — wetlands and woodlands along waterways and lakes.

Starting in the 1930s, biologists began installing wooden nesting boxes — which simulate tree cavities — along the Maine-to-Florida migratory corridor.

Brown became interested in wood ducks in 1993, when he discovered three decrepit duck boxes on his property. A tinkerer by nature, he began experimenting to figure out how to make the boxes more inviting and better able to protect hens and their eggs from predators such as snakes and raccoons.

Brown, soft-spoken, with a wry sense of humor, said the simple part of the plan always has been "to make more ducks."

The best way to do that, he discovered, is counterintuitive: Instead of building massive wood duck box subdivisions, he spaced the boxes to give ducks more territory and reduce nest abandonment.

"It was an eight-year learning curve," he said.

DNR money allowed Brown to put into practice on a larger scale what he had learned. In 2005, he began recruiting people to build cedar nesting boxes and cone-shaped protective baffles and place them on poles in prime nesting areas. The volunteers monitor the progress of their ducks and clean and repair the boxes when the season is over.

Loch Raven and Liberty reservoirs in Baltimore County are home to more than 100 boxes. A similar number dot the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and Natural Area between Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

Brown's next step is to convert his knowledge into a "best practices" blueprint and video that can be downloaded by anyone interested in wood duck conservation. That library of information would make the organization "the 7-Eleven of wood ducks," he said, adding, "You just walk in and get what you need."

Brown's triumph, Peditto said, was persuading private landowners to embrace the program.

"When a landowner goes from no interest to placing boxes, to monitoring boxes, to raising ducklings, the next logical step is you have a landowner who wants to protect that wetland as a whole," Peditto said. "When you can get people excited about a species and they stay involved, that's a real feat."

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