Thinking inside the box to help ducks


November 23, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON

Until Tuesday, he was simply "the wood duck dude." Now Cliff Brown has a real title: "Maryland Conservationist of the Year."

Both titles fit.

Brown leads the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative, a loose confederation of student organizations and Boy Scouts, hunting and civic clubs, and wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to restore the birds to waterways and marshes.

Volunteers build cedar boxes, which are mounted in marshland on metal poles, with cone-shaped baffles to ward off attacks by raccoons and snakes.

Since its beginnings four years ago, the group has grown to oversee projects on 59 sites around the state, involving 1,545 boxes. More than 6,600 ducklings hatched this year.

The Wildlife Advisory Commission, a panel appointed by the governor, presented Brown with the award at its monthly meeting in Annapolis.

"It's been amazingly successful," says Jonathan McKnight, acting director of the Department of Natural Resources wildlife program. "I can't go anywhere without someone bringing up the Initiative as an example of how to get conservation done. And they're right. This is the kind of partnership it's going to take for us to restore other species and habitat."

Brown, a semi-retired energy company executive, says he hopes the award leads to a greater public awareness of environmental restoration and "the entire wetlands experience."

The wood duck is one of North America's most colorful species. The scientific name, Aix sponsa, means "waterbird in bridal dress." In the fall, the drake develops beautiful 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.

Hunting and development in the late 19th century hammered the wood duck population. Federal laws enacted in the early 20th century put a stop to overhunting, but little was done to save the woodlands along waterways and lakes - the wood ducks' prime habitat - from logging, farming and residential expansion.

By the 1930s, biologists were encouraging the installation of wooden nesting boxes that simulated tree cavities. That activity, pardon the expression, took off. In 1942, the federal government estimated that there were 442 boxes in the Atlantic Flyway, which stretches along the Eastern Seaboard. By the mid-1980s, the total was nearly 36,000.

Brown became interested in wood ducks in 1993, when he discovered three decrepit duck boxes on his Rock Hall land. A problem solver by nature, he began experimenting with the boxes, figuring out where ducks like to live and how to protect them. Once he hit on a "best practices" model, he began recruiting others by word of mouth and with help from DNR.

The 2006 federal waterfowl survey placed Maryland's wood duck population at 21,000 birds, including 8,137 breeding pairs, and Brown wants to begin coaxing hens to nest in other duck-friendly areas.

This month, the Initiative installed a dozen boxes on Hart-Miller Island, a waterfowl sanctuary less than a mile from the mouth of Back River. Says McKnight: "You got to love the motto: 'A total wetland experience.' Cliff clearly understands the interdependence of wildlife and habitat."

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