March 10, 2020
On a crisp, early fall morning, I heard the distinct high-pitched squeal and then observed a colorful wood duck drake rocket past my location along a wooded river corridor. It was the first one I had seen in that area—ever.
The river was a ribbon of water that snaked through a maze of mature timber, and at a wide pool I had erected a wood duck nesting box the previous winter. When I opened and checked the nest box later that fall, I found shards of eggshells and fluffy duck down. Success! A wood duck had laid eggs and reared young there.
The return of the wood duck to America’s landscape is much like that of the wild turkey. This bird species was once thought to be headed to extinction until hunters, our nation’s true conservationists, took notice and provided a helping hand—or make that a helping home.
Build the Right Box
Plans for building wood duck nesting boxes are available online from state game agencies and conservation groups (see sidebar). With proper tools, sawing and assembly generally take about an hour. Cedar lumber lasts longer in the elements but exterior plywood can also be used.
Nesting box construction is not complicated, but there are several key features every box should have in order to attract and benefit wood ducks. The entrance cavity opening should be about 3 inches high and 4 inches wide, and elliptically shaped. Be sure to rough up the inside surface of the front panel under the entrance hole so small ducks can cling on and climb out. I use a sharp wood chisel to cut small notches and form bumps in the wood for climbing points. This is better than adding wire or screen that could trap or injure birds if it loosens. Wood duck nesting boxes need to be cleaned annually, so create an opening door—normally a hinged side panel—for easy access.
Local conservation clubs and Boy Scout Troops often build and sell nest boxes as fundraising projects. I have bought boxes as kits and ones that were already assembled. Many state game departments sell kits or complete boxes as well. There are also several sources on online where you can purchase wood duck boxes with prices starting at $50.
Pick a Prime Spot
As I discovered, erecting a wood duck nesting box or house can bring woodies to your favorite hunting ground or waterway—even if you haven’t seen them there before. (Wood ducks are widely distributed across the U.S. in areas that offer wooded riparian habitat.) Hang boxes by the end of February in most regions so they’re in place for spring nesting. Keep in mind some basic guidelines for success. Among the most critical are building (or buying) the right home, and selecting the right location along or near water.
The nest box does not have to hang directly over water, but it should be within 20 to 100 yards of a pond, lake or river. Avoid placing the box too close to adjacent trees that could give critters, such as raccoons, a way to jump onto it. Also consider removing any overhanging limbs that could provide an easy route for predators. (Always obtain landowner permission before hanging boxes or trimming trees.)
Securely hang nest boxes 6 to 12 feet above ground with the entrance facing east or south to prevent rain from the west from entering the opening. The opening should not have tree limbs and other obstacles nearby that would prevent a duck from flying into the entrance. When erecting the box, tilt the front slightly forward at the top so that small ducks find it easier to get out, but do not tilt the box so much that a mature duck has difficulty entering.
As you select a box site, determine how you will install a predator guard. If you decide to place the nest box directly onto a tree, you can make a guard with several wraps of flexible roof flashing (tin or aluminum) around the tree. Those small, plastic roll-up sled sheets that kids use for sliding in the snow can also work. Attach this material so it will expand as the tree grows and does not become a girdle that kills the tree. You can also place a nest box on a wooden 4-by-4 post, but this method definitely needs a cone-shaped guard. One of the best systems I have found is attaching the box to a metal pole driven into the ground; round metal poles are difficult for most nest raiders to climb.
After the box is hung, place a couple inches of clean wood shavings in the bottom to encourage nesting. You can obtain an inexpensive bag of shavings in the pet section of most chain stores.
Check It Annually
Wood duck houses are not a hang-it-and-forget-it project if you want results. When you place a box, note the location and be certain you can access the box to open it for cleaning and required maintenance. You need to visit it each year to change the nesting material, inspect the box and check the critter guard.
It is best to clean out old egg pieces, duck down, and possibly squirrel or bees’ nests in the fall or by early February because wood ducks return early from their southern winter waters. After cleaning, remember to put fresh wood shavings in the box. When cleaning boxes recently I found sizeable wasp nests and a large number of ants—all were ejected. Squirrels and crows sometimes move in, and I push those intruders and their nests out also.
During my recent checks of nest boxes along the river I mentioned earlier, I found that three of six boxes had held ducks and hatched chicks the previous spring. With wood ducks it seems that if you build it (and maintain it), they will come.
Build or Buy?
There are many online sources of information on building and placing wood duck nesting boxes. For detailed plans, search “nest box” at any of the following sites:
Plans are also available from:
If you don’t have the time or tools to build a box, you can purchase durable plastic duck boxes made from recycled milk jugs for $44.95 at cattailproducts.com. These boxes are easy to install and care for, and they last many years.