From Cheetahs to Wood Ducks: One Man's Contribution to Conservation
Simple obsessions are all alike; each difficult obsession is difficult in its own way. We all have them … I myself suffer from a seemingly terminal case of bibliomania (frenzied book collecting), a pricey but physically undemanding (moving days excluded) hobby. Other peoples’ idea of a worthwhile hobby entails plenty of hard labor, personal expense and a honed sense of craftsmanship. Down in Bath County, just over the Rockbridge line heading toward Millboro, lives a 70-year-old retiree whose idea of a good time involves the meticulous handcrafting of nesting boxes for wood ducks, smallish cavity-nesters renowned for their brilliant pallets of impressionistic plumage, and the anchoring of said boxes on heavy steel poles, placed deep in the woods during the coldest months of winter.
Arne Peterson is a Nordic-looking native of northern Wisconsin who moved to the Valley in 1996 after retiring from a 21-year-stint with the Navy at the Pentagon and overseas. He admits that his Yankee status was an initial source of adjustment both for himself and for his new neighbors, but his enthusiasm for wildlife and rural living, coupled with his determined doggedness in pursuit of difficult projects, eventually eased him into the company of the characteristically cautious and reserved natives of the Appalachian foothills.
Peterson’s residence, a lovely old farmhouse surrounded by 47 acres of woods, ponds and food plots, was a gift, kind of; he bought the land but the house itself was free in exchange for assuming the taxes and title. Of course it needed a little needed repair work. In fact the entire building, which Peterson had discovered back in 1987 during his regular visits from DC, was near complete structural collapse, a gutted and abandoned homestead its owner was eager to offload. With the help of a local construction worker who he says became a restoration mentor, Peterson got down to work for over eight years at three days per week, an introduction to precision woodworking that would be of use in other ways down the road.
Formerly married to a career diplomat, Peterson enjoyed foreign posts for years at a time. One of his favorites was Namibia, that little-known coastal desert country northwest of South Africa, where Peterson says he served as “unofficial ambassadorial tour guide” for visiting dignitaries. His outdoor skills, honed in the great northern woods of his native Wisconsin, were of high value even in the dry veldt and dunes of Namibia; familiar with moose and bears, it wasn’t too big an imaginative leap to appreciate gemsbok and lions. He became involved with conservationists that worked with locals to reduce human/wildlife conflict by capturing and outfitting adult cheetahs with electric collars, which provides a startling disincentive for the cheetahs—a miraculous species whose numbers are plummeting across Africa—to raid flocks of cattle and thus be targeted by vengeful herders.
Africa’s large predators are under growing attack by pastoralists who fear for their flocks, with dead cattle being routinely laced with deadly pesticides in the hope of poisoning local predators like lions and hyenas. This cruelly vicious and indiscriminate killing method naturally affects anything that might partake of the carcass, targeted or not, and now ivory poachers are also seeding the hacked corpses of their quarries with poison so that circling vultures won’t reveal the crime scene; in July 2013, nearly 600 vultures were killed after feeding on a single poisoned elephant poached in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park.
Peterson’s African idyll made a lasting impression, and the summer afternoon I met him at his home he’d just returned from Utah, where he’d attended the wedding of a young man he’d met in Namibia. The first thing I saw upon stepping into his meticulously kept workshop in a former garage was the enormous rack of a greater kudu mounted to the wall, a hunting trophy gifted to him by another African contact. When I was able to wrench my eyes away from those lovely spiraling horns I noticed all the work I stood in the midst of: sturdy tables stacked with dried wood planking, saws and hammers and other tools neatly arranged on the walls, completed nesting boxes lining the benches.
An avid hunter and angler, Peterson sought out likeminded locals upon his permanent relocation to the Valley and soon became chairman of the environmental committee of his local Ruritan chapter. One aspect of his new home that his earlier hunting and fishing excursions had revealed to him was the abundance of natural ponds, wetlands and similarly sodden areas hidden about the hills and woods of the Upper Valley. He noticed few nesting boxes edging these still waters, and an idea was born. The Virginia Highlands Wood Duck Club, at first consisting solely of himself, was initiated to address the lack of suitable nesting habitat in the James River watershed west of the Blue Ridge, and Peterson went about studying the minutiae of Aix sponsa’s nesting habits with all the keen diligence he brought to rebuilding his home.
Through error and trial, biologists had some time ago arrived at a winning formula for constructing the ideal wood duck box, narrowly tailored to the birds’ dimensions so as to exclude unwelcome interlopers like starlings. This didn’t deter other potential residents, as everything from screech owls to kestrels to flying squirrels find Peterson’s nesting boxes to be prime real estate, and so as in many other examples in conservation, by instigating the spread of suitable habitat for one species Peterson has brought about reverberating benefits for a host of other native wildlife.
The Wood Duck Club now consists of five local men monitoring and maintaining 72 active boxes spread across Rockbridge, Bath and southern Augusta counties, with an eventual goal of 150 boxes should manpower and money continue to hold out. “Upkeep of the boxes is certainly the most time-consuming part of what we do,” Peterson told me amid the sawdust and sunlight of his workshop. Each nest box assemblage is a carefully constructed composite formed of the box itself, an anchoring pole and a predator guard, and a fencepost for mounting, each measured and assembled with exacting care to maximize their successful use in the field through ten years of rain, sun and snow. Regular maintenance—removing a year’s worth of feathers and egg fragments, bugs and detritus, is essential for them to function effectively over time.
The box itself is made of kiln-dried tulip poplar inexpensively provided by fellow sportsman Kenny Wilkinson of Blue Ridge Lumber. Each is made to a consistent form and is 21 inches high in front and 23 inches in back, the roof slanting backward at a ten-degree angle to encourage runoff. The boxes are ten inches in width with a four-inch-wide entry hole in the center of the upper third of the front. The top is made of fascia, a composite material composed of recycled plastic grocery bags and sawdust, creating a virtually watertight roof. A wire grid, usually a gutter-guard, is screwed to the inside of the front wall just below the entrance and down to three inches from the bottom, making a handy toehold for timid ducklings climbing up one by one to take the dizzying plunge to the forest floor.
The roof is hinged with a straphanger, with tied eye-screws in the front for easy opening and cleaning, while a one-inch floor flange anchored to the bottom center serves to mount the finished box to a six-foot, one-inch-wide steel pipe. The pole is bolted to a fencepost, which must also be carted out to the assembly site,; simply attaching the poles to trees encourages raccoons to ambush the ducks from the top of the box as they come and go. At the base of the mounted box a one-foot length of capped stovepipe forms a practically impassable barrier for climbing predators such as raccoons, possums and pilot black snakes.
The meticulousness of design, materials and construction shows throughout in the smallest details, with the bottom or floor of the box subtly recessed to avoid weather and prying bear claws (bears are can be attracted by the hypnotizing honeyed odor of nesting bees who have appropriated nest boxes). The entire assemblage weighs close to 40 pounds, and lugging these contraptions through deep snow and across frozen creeks—January through February, when wood ducks are first pairing up for the season, being the ideal time for placement—is not for the weak of will.
Proper placement is of critical importance for the successful fledging of young wood ducks. Initially ground nesters like most waterfowl, wood ducks have over time followed the lead of kestrels, owls, flycatchers and swallows in taking advantage of the security and shelter found in natural or woodpecker-drilled cavities made in tree trunks. They are one of the few duck species that have claws strong enough to comfortably perch on branches, and are the only North American duck that regularly produces two broods per year, usually between six to 16 eggs each. The wood duck has a powerful reproductive urge but its reliance on nesting cavities can be problematic in woodlands that are routinely logged or burned, making projects like Peterson’s an important restorative.
The day after hatching the young woodies are called out of the nest by their mother, anxiously awaiting them by the closest body of water. As with newborn sea turtles, it’s critical that the precocious fledglings move swiftly from the nest to the relative safety of the pond or stream because predators abound and ducklings are essentially helpless. A moment’s hesitation, maybe with a helpful push from an impatient sibling, and the little woody is out the door, its tawny coat of down at full bristly extension to slow its fall (unharmed jumps of 50 feet have been recorded). It bounces once or twice off the leafy loam and toddles swiftly away towards its mother’s voice.
For the next five months the ducklings will remain in their parent’s constant company, closely watching her and one another to learn the tactics of catching insects and crawfish, of chomping duckweed and water primrose, panic grass and waterlily, and occasionally waddling cautiously ashore to feast on blackberries and wild cherries, beetles, caterpillars and snails. When fall rolls around they take to the migratory highway with their kin, returning to the same area in spring to pair off and mate.
The maintenance schedule consists of checking on each box every winter for signs of wear and tear and to record evidence of nesting, hatching success or failure, predation and colonization by other species. These others are typically drowsing screech owls, snoozing through the daylight hours safe from hawks, and Peterson’s wood duck corps can typically tell there’s an owl in a box by the regurgitated pellets of compressed indigestible leftovers littering the ground beneath the box: the discarded hair, feathers, bones and toenails of mice, voles, rabbits and sparrows.
Creeping up a ladder propped against the supporting fencepost, the monitor carefully opens the top of the box to a pair of brightly blinking unbelieving eyes, then swiftly reaches in and seizes the stunned little owl and in one motion tosses it into the trees. Peterson says the screech owls, rudely disturbed from their diurnal slumber and still not sure what the heck’s going on, usually flap to a nearby limb where they sit and glower at their intruder’s inhospitality before vanishing silently into the forest. The boxes constitute an inescapable attraction to this interloper but Peterson seems accepting of the owls’ choices, even directly supporting them by placing additional boxes proximate to those sited for wood ducks so that all may share alike.
In 2014, the Virginia Highlands Wood Duck Club recorded nesting success in 27 of 62 boxes, with only four unsuccessful nests (typically caused by weather extremes or feeding shortages), 26 cases of ducks not utilizing the boxes, two instances of “egg dumping” where an unhatched brood is abandoned for various reasons, and 15 boxes appropriated by owls. Given the high birthrate of successful nests this represents a significant boost in local numbers, with the associated ecosystem benefits brought by native wildlife recolonizing natural habitat.
In fact the design he uses for ducks has proven to be so effective that Arne Peterson has branched out to making other sized nest boxes for smaller birds such as great-crested flycatchers, chickadees, wrens and bluebirds. He tells me that he’s actively looking for help in placing and monitoring his nesting boxes, so if you’re in the area and are looking to play your own part in a personal obsession that has blossomed into a regional boost for wildlife, give Arne a call at 540.997.5216.
For some creative people, work can be a myopic hiding place from the world—the tortured artist alone in his studio, the graphic designer rapt before his screen, the scientist ensconced at her microscope. Even passion for the outdoors can be a selfish exercise in personal glorification; witness the cretins who pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot penned lions. But for those whose enthusiasms directly benefit others, particularly the voiceless, a hard day’s work ends with a boundless sense of wellbeing, of deserved satisfaction. All it takes is one person with the drive and talent to ignite a spark that catalyzes others—from the Kalahari Desert to the Shenandoah Valley—to make all the difference in their corner of the world.