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Chores bring thoughts of spring

It won't be long and the "hoo-eek, hoo-eek" calls of hen wood ducks and the high-pitched whistles from drake "woodies" will be sounding from river-bottoms and wetlands everywhere. Conditions, I believe, should be favorable for this year's annual return. Runoff from springtime snowmelt ought to fill low-flowing rivers and wetland basins with plenty of water.

Every year about this time, I begin thinking about wood ducks and their eventual return to our still-frozen landscape. Along with their arrival, male red-winged blackbirds will soon arrive on ice-covered wetlands as they begin to stake out their breeding territories within lonely stands of cattails.

Soon, great blue herons will find their way back to traditional rookeries. Canada geese and trumpeter swans, too, among the first species of waterfowl to migrate to their northern breeding grounds, will be standing on frozen waters awaiting the thaw that will surely come.

On a recent early March stroll with my dog on the dirt road I live alongside, all is quiet in the woodlands adjacent to the roadway - at least for now. Soon another of northern Minnesota's favorite birds will be reminding us all how enjoyable springtime really is - not only to our eyes, but for our listening ears as well.

Ruffed grouse, that little "drummer of the woods," will be displaying from favorite stumps and logs as the male of the species struts and beats his wings furiously against the air. He does this to advertise his presence to other nearby males. He does this to show the world that he is King of the Woods.

As I continued my westerly walk, the sun having already dipped below the horizon, yet illuminating the clouds in a dim glow, I thought about another woodland gamebird and how he, too, will soon be with us once again.

Male woodcock, that squat, odd looking denizen of alder thickets and forest openings, sometimes called "timberdoodle," what with his preposterous bill and oversized eyes, produces nasal sounding "peents," and then, suddenly, takes flight.

Special primary wing-feathers create a twittering noise as his flight carries him up to 300 feet above his singing ground. At the apex of his flight, he begins a corkscrew descent, creating a delightful chirping and warbling song until, just before landing, he quits and glides to nearly the spot he departed from. Almost immediately he begins his series of peents once again.

Spring is fast approaching. It reminds me that it's time to visit bluebird houses, open each of them up, and clean out the old nests and discover if bluebirds or house wrens or tree swallows have occupied the houses. Sometimes, I find a surprise, like a deer mouse occupying a house or two.

Making the rounds on an annual basis to clean your birdhouses makes sense for many reasons. For starters, it gives you the opportunity to evaluate the overall condition of your birdhouses. By taking with you the necessary tools, you will be able repair any damage sustained since the house was last occupied.

Checking each of your nest boxes will also help you identify those houses that might need to be relocated. For example, I know from experience that if you are interested in keeping your birdhouses free of house wrens you should make sure you place houses away from trees and shrubs. House wrens, for example, favor boxes near shelterbelts and woodlots.

Not that there's anything wrong with house wrens, for I happen to enjoy the song of the male wren immensely, but those busy little wrens quite often stuff more than one box full of sticks as the male of the species has a habit of doing. It's all a part of the mating ritual as the incredibly active and vocal house wren builds nest after nest in his bid to impress a receptive female with his nest-building prowess. Meanwhile, some of the false nests, as they are called, will often remain unoccupied for the entire nesting season.

Still, too, cleaning your birdhouses helps to rid the box of last year's parasites. Many parasites can survive the winter inside old nesting material and are present and active when birds return in the spring. Moreover, having a clean and empty box ready for the returning migrants is just good practice. Many birds will build nests on top of old nests, but it is best to maintain the boxes every year and to provide them with something clean, fresh, empty and available.

It also makes sense, if you can, to add new houses. The number of available natural and artificial cavities limits the number of cavity-nesting birds. So, adding more birdhouses here and there might improve your odds of attracting a few more pairs of your favorite birds.

There's often not a lot to do during the month of March. As such, at least in my book, March is the perfect time for checking nest boxes. If you have nest boxes on your property now is the time to do a little "house cleaning" by performing any necessary repairs, adding wood shavings to your wood duck houses or just sprucing them up.

Regarding wood duck nest box maintenance, the ice is still safe to walk on, sleds filled with gear are easily pulled across snow and ice, and the wood ducks are still about a month away from returning. And there's plenty of time to construct and install a few nest boxes on your property or on the property of someone you know.

Indeed, aside from providing cavity nesting ducks and songbirds with much needed nest sites, the activity is great fun. To this end, it's time to think about spring; to take a walk in town or country and peek inside those birdhouses. Doing so will rekindle thoughts of green grass, leaves on the trees and singing birds as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife.