It’s a question that never ceases in the Wood Duck Society, a storied 32-year-old nonprofit dedicated to conserving the species, mainly by teaching people all over the country how to protect hens and their broods by installing proper nesting boxes.
“Lots of people say, ‘If you love wood ducks so much, why would you shoot them?’ ” said John Molkenbur, president of the all-volunteer organization.
The question is particularly apt this time of year, when wood ducks once again will be targeted starting Saturday by hunters across Minnesota. The wood duck is one of 10 waterfowl species illustrated in the 2016 regulations handbook published by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). An even wider assortment of ducks will be taken throughout a season that ends Jan. 2 in the state’s southern zone.
The DNR said Monday that duck hunting should be good this year. The daily bag limits remain at three for wood ducks and scaups; four for mallards; and two for pintails, redheads and canvasbacks. For other ducks, the daily bag limit remains six per day.
Molkenbur said if it wasn’t for hunters, not enough people would take interest in sustaining wildlife populations, including numbers of wood ducks. Duck hunters help make up the 600-person membership of the Wood Duck Society, which views this year’s three-duck limit in Minnesota as an indicator of a healthy wood duck population.
“You need hunters because they are the ones who know the needs and wants of wood ducks,” Molkenbur said. ”They’ve helped bring up the populations.”
The evolution of the Wood Duck Society began in Lino Lakes circa 1984. That’s when friends of Art Hawkins started meeting around Hawkins’ breakfast table to share experiences related to box-nesting wood ducks. By 1989, the group had formulated an annual April meeting and the growing number of participants prompted a change of venue to the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area.
To this day, the annual meeting is the society’s biggest event, attended by members from the five-state area and beyond. But the society’s backbone remains the Wood Duck Newsgram, published three times a year, and a similarly informative website that has drawn interest from as far away as Europe.
Stephen Straka, the society’s webmaster, said he fields hundred of questions a year from people throughout the U.S. who are captivated by wood ducks. Do they mate for life? (No). Where do Minnesota wood ducks winter? (Louisiana, Florida and other Gulf states). Can I raise wood ducks? (No, it’s against the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act).
When the answer to a question requires wisdom from one of the world’s pre-eminent wood duck experts, Straka turns to Roger Strand of rural Willmar, the society’s longtime leader.
“He’s been my mentor and he’s phenomenal,” Straka said.
Central to the society’s mission of protecting nesting hens is to proliferate its signature 29-inch long wood duck house. The boxes are made of cedar and mounted on a post. And in its teachings of “best practices,” the society has been emphasizing the need for cone-shaped guards on the posts to keep out raccoons and other four-legged predators.
Part of the society’s success has been to promote the building of boxes as a family endeavor. Kids can participate in the construction and mounting process and later observe the nests when they’re active. And based on decades of experience, enthusiasts know it’s safe for children to climb onto a five-gallon bucket and go nose-to-nose with a clutch of eggs.
Another payoff for box builders is watching as the chicks make their first leap to the ground.
Molkenbur said the Wood Duck Society is at something of a crossroads. Fewer and fewer volunteers are in place to communicate with members and plan the annual meeting, he said. And there’s a scarcity of young people willing to fill personnel voids caused by the retirement of longtime leaders.
“We are all getting long in the tooth,” Molkenbur said. “I’m 66 and I’m one of the young guys.”
He said membership in the society — with its $20 annual fee — has fluctuated recently to as low as 500. And where the annual meeting used to draw 80 to 90 people, attendance lately has been closer to 50 or 60 people, he said.
“We still have people with their heart and soul in this, but it’s getting hard to find young people,” Molkenbur said.
According to the DNR, interest in duck hunting also has waned over the years. In the early 1970s, Minnesota had as many as 160,000 licensed duck hunters in a single season. But since around 2007-2008, annual license sales haven’t exceeded 100,000 and have plateaued at around 90,000 over the past five years.
Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist in Bemidji, estimated 50,000 hunters will be afield this weekend for the season opener.
Straka said the Wood Duck Society held a board meeting last week and brushed off an agenda item that called for a discussion of society’s long-term outlook. He said the organization is stable, and not unlike other dedicated conservation groups where volunteer responsibilities fall on a small number of people.
“We have years and years of experience to share,” Straka said.