The hundreds of wood duck nesting boxes built and erected around Monroe County over the years provide winter shelter not only for wood ducks but also for other wildlife.(Photo/Terry Johnson)

 The hundreds of wood duck nesting boxes built and erected around Monroe County over the years provide winter shelter not only for wood ducks but also for other wildlife.(Photo/Terry Johnson)

Wood duck nesting boxes are common sights in Monroe County.  For decades members of the old Monroe County Sportsmen’s Club and others have built and erected hundreds of them across the county.

While they were intended to increase wood duck nesting sites, unbeknownst to many of the folks that erected these boxes, the boxes have also provided critically needed winter roosting sites for a variety of wildlife.  Let’s take a quick look at how wood duck nesting boxes benefit two of these species--the southern flying squirrel and northern flicker.

Southern flying squirrels have found wood duck nesting boxes offer suitable accommodations during the winter months. During the summer, these small nocturnal forest denizens use leaf nests measuring about eight inches in diameter. At times, they will also move into leaf nests abandoned by gray and fox squirrels. 

However, with the onset of colder weather, they begin taking up residence in woodpecker nest sites and tree cavities. The problem is there are far more animals looking for these sites than are available. This forces animals to look elsewhere for winter roost sites. Some flying squirrels have solved this problem by seeking shelter in wood duck nesting boxes.

Often several family groups will cram into the same nesting box. One theory suggests the reason southern flying squirrels gather in communal roosts is their collective body heat assist them to stay warm. This belief is borne out by the fact that the largest aggregations of flying squirrels are usually found during the coldest weather. 

One researcher found 16 southern flying squirrels curled up in a ball inside a wood duck nesting box on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Patuxent Research Refuge located in the state of Maryland.  Another observer reported finding 50 flying squirrels roosting in another box. 

I can only imagine how startled the person was that peered into a wood duck nesting box and saw 50 flying squirrels. That is more flying squirrels than I have seen in my entire life.

The northern flicker (commonly known as the yellowhammer) is the second largest woodpecker seen in Monroe County.  The northern flicker measures about 12 inches in length and has a 20-inch wingspan. 

The northern flicker is a permanent resident in Monroe County. However, it is one of the few woodpeckers that will migrate.  As such, some of these migrants from areas north of Georgia end up spending the winter alongside our resident flickers. In addition, when you add in all of the other birds that roost in cavities and are also seeking roost sites each winter, you end up with a critical shortage of suitable nighttime roosting sites. In response to this problem, flickers sometimes roost in barns and abandoned buildings. Some are even forced to resort to roosting in the eaves of buildings.  In addition (you guessed it) they routinely roost in wood duck nesting boxes.

Whereas flying squirrels have no problem with communal roosting, such is not the case for the northern flicker. In the world of the northern flicker, there is no such thing as sharing; each flicker roosts alone.

For years, Dr. Jerry Payne and his wife, Rose,  have watched northern flickers roost in the wood duck nesting boxes they have erected on their property located along the Monroe/Bibb County Line. Over the years, flickers have roosted in all of their boxes. As such, they probably know more about northern flickers roosting in wood duck nesting boxes than anyone in the state. 

Dr. Payne recently told me that flickers go to roost earlier than the other birds inhabiting their property.  Flickers fly to their roosts about an hour before sundown. Each bird enters a box only to reappear at the entrance a short while later.  Eventually the bird disappears and settles in for the night. The next morning, unless there is bad weather, it will depart its nighttime roost shortly after sunrise.

There is no question that the wood duck boxes that stand as silent sentinels in or near beaver ponds, impoundments, as well as rivers and creeks across the county, have helped contribute to our local wood duck population. However, it is also true that they have served as critical winter roosting habitat for generations of flying squirrels, northern flickers and many other animals.  Knowing this should warm the hearts of those men and women that put so much time and effort into their conservation efforts.  

 

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.