Hen Houses helping to boost duck productivity in Central Alberta

A winter project in Central Alberta that will increase duck nesting opportunities and therefore the number of ducklings this summer is underway in Central Alberta.

A winter project in Central Alberta that will increase duck nesting opportunities and therefore the number of ducklings this summer is underway in Central Alberta.

Ninety-five man-made nests, called hen houses, are being installed on frozen water bodies in the Haynes area east of Red Deer. They will complement 125 nests installed in the same area last year by a landowner contracted to do the work for the duck conservation organization Delta Waterfowl.

The hen houses are cylindrical nest structures, placed on top of poles pounded into the bottom of water bodies, such as sloughs. Mallard ducks in particular seem to like the nests, perhaps because they are safer than their typical nests in a grass field on the ground. They sit above water, away from pesky predators like egg-stealing skunks or hungry foxes.

The project has a research aspect, which involves predator control at some of the hen houses and none at others. Delta Waterfowl is a nonprofit group that operates in Canada and the United States that promotes waterfowl conservation and the tradition of duck hunting.

One of the operating principles of the organization is to replace two ducks for every one taken by hunters, biologist Joel Brice said Tuesday. He is based in Bismarck, N.D., and is Delta’s vice-president of waterfowl and hunter recruitment programs.

This year’s hen houses are being installed through a grant from the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society. Delta has been doing the hen house initiative in Manitoba since 1991. Until now, they haven’t done much in Alberta.

Out of the 125 hen houses installed last year near Haynes (about 35 kms east of Red Deer), 35 per cent were used, and of those 91 per cent had successful hatches, Brice said.

This a very typical result, he said, adding mallards are so adaptable, they’ll nest anywhere. Delta expects the use of the hen houses will increase over the next two to three years. In Manitoba, they now see in excess of 80 per cent use of the nests.

The more times the hen is presented with the nest, the more likely it will use it. As well philopatry, also known as “homing” is involved. Some of the mallard ducklings that live to adulthood will return to where they were hatched, said Brice.

A study will compare production from hen houses with trapping to no trapping of predators. The hen house results will help with future management activities, Brice said.

Going forward, they will expand the number of hen houses as funds allow, he said. The nests have a lifespan of about 20 years. Delta Waterfowl has agreements with the contractors who install and maintain them.

There is concern about the loss of wetland drainage areas, which means the loss of duck habitat. And there’s more and more pressure on grassland habitat, Brice said.

Roger Marcil, the Haynes farmer contracted by Delta Waterfowl, said he will have all the hen houses placed by March 1.

The Haynes area has a lot of good duck habitat, Marcil said. “Water is the key for ducks.”

It’s “pretty neat to see them inside the nests.” Most have been mallards but a few redhead ducks have nested, he said.

The ducks will start arriving toward the ends of March. Their ducklings start appearing in June.

barr@bprda.wpengine.com

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