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A trio of Wood Ducks stays relatively hidden in the marsh area at the Eden Mill Nature in Center.
A trio of Wood Ducks stays relatively hidden in the marsh area at the Eden Mill Nature in Center. (Courtesy of Frank Marsden / Baltimore Sun)

If you've never seen a wood duck, that might be exactly how the wood duck prefers it. The colorful species, whose males display a lustrous purplish-green crest and red eyes, tries hard to keep its beauty under wraps.

But Maryland wildlife lovers have spent the last decade or so working to boost the numbers of the enigmatic "woody," successfully bringing many more of the birds into the state.

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Volunteers have stayed busy putting up wood duck boxes, as part of the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative, to attract the birds and encourage them to keep coming back to local waterways.

One of Harford County's main environmental education sites is the latest to join the effort. Eden Mill Nature Center in Pylesville has put out a call for volunteers, including student and Scouting groups, to revitalize the duck nesting program on the far side of Deer Creek.

This spring marks the second year the nature center is working to assemble more duck houses, in time for the wood ducks' annual migration, "so that this once endangered animal can continue to flourish in a world where wild habitat is increasingly being challenged by the exploits of modern man," according to an email the organization sent out.

The East Coast's wood duck population declined in the late 19th century from hunting and habitat loss, but the bird has since made a comeback thanks to "thousands of nest boxes" and seems to be expanding its range north and west, according to the National Audubon Society. The birds favor shallow inland lakes, ponds, slow rivers and swamps, often in shady areas.

"Wood ducks are a cavity nester," Eden Mill's Frank Marsden said, explaining they "need mature, standing timber" to nest in but "Harford County has a young forest, believe it or not."

Many of the area's waterways were deforested during the Civil War for the war effort, he said.

"With the lack of cavities and the wood duck numbers were just declining to almost nothing, a lot of the groups got together – the Izaak Walton League, the state has a program," Marsden said. Although Scout groups and other programs put out some duck boxes over the last 25 years, "we never had a concentrated effort."

Two years ago, Eden Mill decided to start inventorying the duck boxes and putting more energy into maintaining them. The organizers have 15 boxes up, spread out along the water, and are considering four more, Marsden said.

The boxes "have to be wood, have to be a certain size," he said. They sit on poles ranging from 10 to 75 feet in height. Wire is stapled to the doors, because a baby wood duck has a nail on its foot that it uses to climb into the house, Marsden said.

A cone-like enclosure near the bottom of the pole keeps predators like raccoons, minks or snakes away. That fencing also needs to be checked to make sure vines or bushes have not grown up around it, he said.

A box, which organizers try to make out of cedar, costs $30 to $40, plus the cost of replacing wood chips inside, he said.

Eden Mill had 22 people show up on a recent Saturday to help replace the boxes and build a few new ones. Because woodies "are very shy birds," the boxes "are going to be in areas of the park where we don't allow the public to go."

Spreading their wings

One man who has helped inspire efforts like Eden Mill's is Cliff Brown. The executive director of the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative, he started out as the new owner of a farm on the Eastern Shore 27 years ago.

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Brown noticed plenty of dilapidated duck boxes throughout Kent County and asked if he could fix them up. The state's Department of Natural Resources eventually got interested in his efforts, and Brown began replicating his woody promotion methods statewide in 2004.

Before the initiative, wood ducks "were going to hell in a handbasket," Brown said. In 2014, his group counted about 8,000 statewide, including 800 to 1,000 annually in Harford County, he said.

Besides Eden Mill, projects to keep up the duck boxes have popped up in sites like Swan Harbor and along the Gunpowder River, he said, as well as at Harford Glen.

Brown believes the bird is "Maryland's last indigenous waterfowl," and although they were known to be around before, the state initiative has presented a good opportunity for environmental education in general.

Wood ducks "readily respond to nesting programs," Brown explained. Also, about 13 percent of the boxes' users are other birds, including Carolina wrens, bluebirds and a small duck called the hooded merganser.

'A fascinating bird'

At Eden Mill, the box-building and maintenance effort has paid off, with Marsden seeing evidence of wood ducks last year. Eden Mill saw three to four clutches, of about 15 to 20 ducks each. Marsden noted that only a third to half of the baby ducks will make it to adulthood, with the rest falling prey to snapping turtles, minks or foxes.

This year, the ducks are expected to make their appearance in April or May, but Marsden warned they move fast.

Babies leave the box within a day of hatching. Wood ducks also have an unusual habit resembling baby sitting, he said, in which one female will stay near the nest and have as many as three clutches of babies following her around while the other babies' parents are gone.

"Wood ducks represent animals whose habitat has been going," Marsden said, noting their numbers were rapidly declining. "They are a fascinating bird."

Besides just giving people more chances to enjoy a lesser-known waterfowl, the wood duck initiative is having a few side effects. A screech owl, for example, used one of the boxes for nesting last year, Marsden said.

"Our goal is to increase the numbers," he said, "and hopefully get a native population."

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