Citizen Science & Wood Duck Boxes

The wooded wetland forest around my home supports a variety of cavity nesting birds. The wood duck (Aix Sponsa), in particular, is a bird that searches out excavations or openings in trees where she can lay her eggs. (so do mergansers, buffleheads and goldeneyes)  Due to habitat loss and because the forest is young there is a “housing shortage” that does not offer adequate nesting location in old large trees.  To assist the wood duck in finding shelter we continue to build and install many boxes.  With the help of local scouts looking for Eagle Scout projects and NJ Fish and Wildlife I’ve installed boxes where they may be best utilized including along the Passaic and Rockaway rivers.

When we open boxes after the nesting season is complete there are a variety of surprises to find.  Its common to have mice living in the substrate at the bottom, wasps building nests under the top of the box, screech owls in the winter months (and their pellets) and potentially even a flying squirrel although I haven’t experienced that yet myself. We hope to find shell membranes, pieces of eggshell, feather down and any other evidence of nesting or use of the box by Wood ducks. All findings are of note and are kept recorded in a journal with the box #.  We also record the gps mark of each box, date of each observation, hole orientation, hole size, box height from water or land, if climbing wire is installed on the inner cover, and if a predator guard is installed.

While habitat protection is ideal as a primary means of conservation of these cavity nesters, there currently exists limited shelter availability. When artificial nest boxes are placed in the best locations according to our citizen science research, the nest box monitor can effectively increase the population of a species.

David & Screech Owl
2007 Wood Duck Box Cleaning – Grey Screech Owl found

Best practices for Wood Duck Boxes  – Improvements Based on these Duck Box Plans

Tools needed: hand saw, drill and 1/2″ speed bit, 1/8″ and 1/16″ twist drill bits, coated deck screws, 6d or 8d finishing nails rust after only 2-3 years, coping saw , screwdriver, pencil, ruler.

  • Drill 1/16″ pilot holes for all screws to prevent splitting, Do not tighten screws until flush as that will split the wood.
  • Measure and cut your wood to produce the six pieces. Number the pieces as shown.
  • Drill five 1/2″ drainage holes in the floor. Attach the floor by fastening one screw through the back and one through the side.
  • Draw the entry hole on the front using a pencil (4 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ oval). Drill a 1/2″ starter hole and cut out the entry hole using a coping saw.  Door need not be rounded but mounted 1/4″ down from the top which provides a 1/4″ slot at the top for clearance and a 1/4″ overhang on the bottom for ease of opening.
  • Score the inside face of the front using a saw. The horizontal kerfing slots will provide toeholds when the ducklings climb out.
  • Fasten the door 1/4″ from the top with one screw from the front and one from the back. The two screws form the hinge and allow the door to open. Pin the door shut with a Phillips or Flathead screw from the front.
  • Don’t forget to put a 4-6 inch layer of wood shavings in the box for nesting material.
  • Best choice for wood is cedar. If it comes with a rough finish, face it inside.

I’ve continued to work with scouts to build boxes and recently mounted a few at South Mountain Reservation within Essex County. To do so I used my tree climber for deer management and went 15+ feet up a tree and screwed the box into the tree with 1/4 in.-20 x 4 in. Zinc Plated Hex Bolts with washers or galvanized construction screws.

Material list for mounting: Climber, Harness, Rope, Drill, Drill bits (including star and Philips head bit), Extra Battery, Screws, Lag Bolts with Washers, Socket Wrench and Cedar Chips.

David Alexander is a professional outdoor guide and conservation biologist.  He enjoys making nature more accessible to people and wildlife.  You can follow him at



  1. I enjoyed reading about your project. Well done and researched. If you are on Facebook check out “Cavity Nesters of Hazel Wolf Wetland” and “Cavity Nesters of Canyon Creek Wetland”. It’s an interactive site documenting to ongoing studies of Cavity Nesting Ducks of 2 wetland close to me. Put a like on them and follow the life cycle and doings of a active science project about Cavity Nesting ducks.

  2. This design is spectacular! You obviously know how to keep a reader entertained.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!)
    Wonderful job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.

    Too cool!

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