BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA — In February, life is generally at its easiest for North America’s mallards. Hunting season is over. Nearly all have formed pair bonds for the year. The major focus of ducks is taking things easy and building energy for the return flight back to northern breeding grounds.
But the shortest month of the year is quite busy for Delta Waterfowl’s Hen House delivery specialists in the prairie pothole region. There, Delta technicians are working furiously to maintain and add to Delta’s fleet of nearly 10,000 Hen House mallard nesting structures. This important work contributes to the PPR’s overall production of as many as 70 percent of the juvenile ducks in next year’s fall flight — the birds most critical to successful hunting seasons.
Hen Houses consistently boost nest success to more than 60 percent and commonly to 80 percent. Without them, nest success in these same areas is often 10 percent or less. On average, a mallard using a Hen House is 12 times more likely to hatch her clutch than one nesting in the uplands of the Canadian parklands.
Matt Chouinard, Delta’s senior waterfowl programs and Delta Marsh property manager, oversees a team of 19 technicians who install and maintain Hen Houses in Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“February is the time,” he said. “All of our Hen House specialists appreciate good ice for doing their work, so it’s go-time to make ducks this spring. Ice makes getting around and doing the job so much easier than dealing with open water and mud. February is also late enough in the winter so that Hen Houses will remain in pristine conditions until the hens arrive.”
Optimal ice conditions usually arrive in late-January into February, when the weather in the PPR can be coldest and snow the deepest. That means efficiency isn’t just about saving time, it’s about keeping the Hen House delivery specialists safe and comfortable, so Delta equips its technicians with the best possible technology.
This year marks the second season in which all Hen House specialists are using a new smartphone app called QuickCapture, a major breakthrough modified by Delta especially for its team.
“Before QuickCapture, there was always note-taking required and the systems we used for location reporting were slow and not very reliable,” Chouinard said. “Now, the specialist simply pushes a button on a smartphone. It reports the location, use-data and the disposition of the individual structure. It takes two seconds. I know how much that means when it’s below zero and the wind’s blowing 20 miles an hour.
“We’ve also equipped all of our Hen House specialists with earth augers to drill holes for Hen House poles. They work way better, cut faster and require a lot less time-consuming maintenance than traditional ice augers. With the app, that kind of represents the high-tech and low-tech range to boost efficiency out there in the cold.”
Hen Houses are cylindrical nesting structures placed on poles in carefully selected wetlands where mallard nesting densities are highest. Refined over many years of research by Delta, they provide attractive nest sites that keep nesting hens and their eggs out of reach of common predators. Three decades of data demonstrate that Hen Houses are the most effective and cost-efficient tool available to increase mallard production on the prairies.
Not only do Hen Houses increase mallard nest success, they also boost hen survival. Delta research shows survival of hens nesting in Hen Houses is 20 percent higher than for those nesting in the uplands.
“Hen House delivery specialists are a big part of our front line forces pushing forward the duck production mission of Delta Waterfowl,” said Joel Brice, Delta’s chief conservation officer. “We know Hen Houses are adding tens of thousands of ducks to the fall flight each year. Supported by Delta’s members and donors — and the best technology we can provide — the program and these dedicated, hard-working specialists are making a difference for The Duck Hunters Organization and duck hunters in every flyway.”
Delta Waterfowl is The Duck Hunters Organization, a leading conservation group working to produce ducks and ensure the future of duck hunting in North America. Visit deltawaterfowl.org.