By Howard Meyerson
ROSCOMMON, MI — When the members of Clio Boy Scout Troop 602 met last fall to build duck nesting boxes, installing them on trees around a frozen swamp was just a distant idea. No one knew that snows would pile up and become deep; that the Michigan winter ahead would be the coldest in decades.
But February’s deep freeze didn’t slow the intrepid scouts. Excited about doing something different – a conservation project to help wood ducks – they gathered at the Backus Creek State Game Area near Roscommon and loaded up a sled with boxes and tools. Then they put on snowshoes, or planned to sink in the snow and spent a snowy, cold day installing them around the marsh.
“It was a good group. They were pretty energetic,” said Mark Boersen, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who oversees the game area and accompanied the group. “Most were willing to go up the ladder and attach a box to a tree; once in a while one needed encouragement.
“It’s been a really cold winter and the hardest thing when working with nuts and bolts, is you have to take your gloves off. By the end of the day, some of the boys were pretty cold.”
The scouts that had ventured out to do good things for ducks included seven boys from Troop 602 and two others from Troop 111, in Bay City. That they were there in snow – learning about wood duck ecology – was brainchild of Susan Hickey, mother of Josh Hickey, one of the scouts.
“I was looking for something more that the boys could do. We do normal service activities like food drives and cleaning up a park in town, but a lot of the group hunts and the conservation aspects of the project were appealing.
“I wanted the boys to do more than pick up trash on the beach. I thought it was important that they learn there are things to do to keep ducks around. It also exposed them to what a DNR guy does – not just the hunting side of the story.”
Those dedicated scouts installed 10 boxes that day, spread out over three floodings in the
game area. Most are likely to be used by wood ducks, according to Boersen. Wood ducks are cavity nesters known to perch and nest in older growth trees that are located along streams and swamps. They are common in Michigan during the warmer months. Most head south in October and winter in southern states.
“We annually trap and leg-band wood ducks on the marshes. It’s not uncommon to catch 200 over the summer,” Boersen said. “I’m confident the boxes will be used. Some may see a screech-owl or a squirrel. I found a raccoon curled up in one last year.
“When the group comes back to clean them out next year, it will be interesting to look for eggshells which will give us an idea of how successful they were. Even if none grow up to be biologists, they will learn of the positive things they can do for wildlife.”
Gordon Hitchcock, the Troop 602 scoutmaster, said the project was designed to give something back. The group spends considerable time outdoors.
“Teaming up with the DNR was a good way to do it,” Hitchcock said. “That way we knew that what we did would be done right.”
Hitchcock’s 14-year-old son Chad was among the boys.
“It was tough and (the) boys worked hard, but it was fun, Hitchcock added. “We wanted
them to do something more than just work on a merit badge. The boys saw an endangered trumpeter swan out there and a nesting platform for osprey. They learned that bluebirds eat a lot of mosquitoes and now they want to do another project building bluebird houses at their scout camp this summer.”
The Michigan DNR maintains an online list of projects for scouts. Approximately 60 are shown around the state. They include building trails, wood duck boxes, osprey nesting platforms and projects to control invasive species. There are tree planting projects and litter clean ups and beach patrols. That list can be found at: Michigan.gov/dnr. Click Education and Outreach, then Scouting and the DNR.
“I have 14 dams in my work area,” Boersen. That is 14 wildfowl floodings. There is always a place where we can put up a nest box. What these scouts did was very helpful. Backus is one of the best floodings we have for wood ducks.”
Susan Hickey was initially worried, when starting to plan the project a year ago. She feared that the winter of 2014 would be too warm to walk out on the marsh. It appears Mother Nature had something else in mind.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors.