There weren’t many signs of spring in Franklin County on March 1, when I arrived at Bob and Donna McFarland’s home in Hagansport. Bluebonnet sightings were making their way north but were still hundreds of miles away. Redbud trees had yet to show their vibrant purple colors in this patch of northeast Texas, about a hundred miles east of Dallas. The only indication of the season was the stack of large cardboard packages on the McFarlands’ porch. The packages held wood duck boxes that the retired couple is known for distributing in this corner of the state, which is marked with an assortment of trees, ponds, and lakes—perfect breeding grounds for one of the most beautiful waterfowl in North America.
The McFarlands’ unusual hobby started nearly twenty years ago, when they got a call from the Talco post office. A large box was waiting for them there with four live ducks inside. “I think it was a first for them,” Bob laughs. “It sure was for us.” He’d worked for decades in the investment sector in Houston, and he holds an MBA from Harvard. After he retired a few years earlier, he and Donna dammed up a creek on some family land with the hopes of raising bass. They put up their first wood duck box in 2003 after seeing a mama duck and babies in the lake.
The next year, they ordered four juvenile ducks from a farm in California and released them onto the lake. Bob and Donna spent their free time learning all they could about the waterfowl. They ordered books, scoured the internet, and read studies from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “I think we’ve read every word that’s been written about wood ducks,” Bob says.
Each nest box is about two feet high, with a door on one side and a four-inch hole on the other. The couple orders wood duck boxes online at wholesale prices ($60 apiece) and fills them with wood chips. For friends, the McFarlands purchase and put up the first box, but subsequent ones are sold at that lower price. Wood ducks usually start to pair up in early February, with the first egg laid in the middle of the month. This year, they seem to be waiting a little longer to mate, perhaps because of unusual temperature swings in the region.
The wood duck is a stunning, vibrantly colored species, the stuff of birders’ dreams. The male has an iridescent green, blue, and purple head with stark red eyes. Its breast is chestnut brown. The wings are a blue-and-green hue, while the sides of the face are black, with a bold white stripe around the neck. The species has no close relatives on the planet other than the similarly colorful mandarin duck of eastern Asia. The wood duck gets its name from the wood cavities in which it nests. By the early twentieth century, hunting and habitat loss through deforestation had left the species at risk of becoming extinct. Conservation efforts beginning in 1916 helped it rebound, and it’s now common in the U.S., including across northeast and East Texas. Nest boxes have been an integral part of the bird’s comeback story since the late 1930s; birders can buy boxes online or use plans to build their own.
These days, the McFarlands have seven wood duck boxes mounted on poles surrounding their lake. Each has a camera inside so the couple can follow the birds’ progress.
The hen lays one egg per day over a two-week span. She uses her beak to roll the eggs daily to ensure the yolk doesn’t trap the embryo against one side of the shell. Once the month-long incubation period draws to an end, the mother hen talks to the eggs with a low, rumbling sound. When the eggs start to crack open, the McFarlands know “jump day” will be the next morning between 9 and 11. (Donna whips up fruit salad and coffee for the occasion.) Inside each box, there’s a ladder flush against the side leading up to the four-inch hole. The hen waddles out first, showing the way. Then each baby climbs up using a hook on its bill. Once it’s at the opening, it doesn’t wait long before taking the leap.
The McFarlands put their boxes right next to the lake to decrease the odds that predators will reach the ducklings. Still, seven-to-eight-foot-long diamondback water snakes sometimes slither up the poles and swallow the eggs. The couple recently put up wads of bird netting on the poles under the boxes that have been successful in keeping snakes out. But even once the babies are in the water, there are bass, turtles, river otters, and water moccasins. There’s only a 30 percent survival rate. “It gives you a sense of wonder and magic of nature,” Donna says. “They have everything going against them.”
Sometimes after the jump day, some eggs are left behind still waiting to hatch. The hen will not come back for them, so that’s when the McFarlands step in to take care of them. “We try to think about what happens in nature and emulate that as much as we can,” Donna says. “We want them to go back to the wild.” They use heating pads and lamps to keep the ducklings warm.
Once a baby is a day old, its instinct says it must jump in order to live, so a tub won’t do. The McFarlands keep the ducklings contained and safe in their walk-in shower. They don’t feed the birds, but they teach them how to eat for themselves. Sleepless nights aren’t uncommon. “It’s exhausting,” Donna says. “It’s kind of like having a child.”
After a few weeks, the ducklings are able to eat worms and spend time outside. The McFarlands introduce them to water in a kiddie pool and watch as they learn to swim. Bob and Donna carry them to the lake for short excursions until they’re ready to take flight.
The wood duck boxes have fostered more than just waterfowl. When the McFarlands moved to Franklin County full-time in 2008, they ran into an issue that many adults face: how, outside of school and work, do you make friends? “When we came up here, we didn’t know anybody except Donna’s parents,” Bob says. “I was feeling a little lost.”
They decided to combine their passion with a desire to meet their neighbors. The couple offered to build and put up wood duck boxes pro bono. They first made their intentions known at a historical society meeting, and word spread quickly from there. Over fifteen years, they have distributed 177 boxes and gotten to know many of the recipients. “Some of those friendships are kind of momentary, and some of them last a really long time,” Bob said.
The McFarlands name all the babies they raise: Billy, Anna, Stormy. And then there was Toby.
Toby was just starting to hatch as his siblings were jumping out of the box. His was the only egg remaining, so when he looked up and saw Bob and Donna, that was it. They were his family.
Toby would sit on Bob’s lap and talk. As Bob rode around the lake on his water bike, Toby swam around, rounding up all the other ducklings and leading the flock behind Bob. Sometimes, he’d even hop up on the back of the bike. “What happened with Toby is hard to explain. It was just a wonderful, unusual experience,” Bob says. “He and I were best friends.”
When it was time for Toby to go out on his own, he took longer than usual to leave for good. He kept coming back. In subsequent years, the McFarlands think they’ve seen him, but they can’t be sure. Females nest where they were born, so if Toby pairs up with a hen from somewhere else, he’ll stay around there. Wood ducks don’t mate for life. It’s possible he could return.
The day after my visit, on March 2, Bob sent me an email. A pair of wood ducks were sitting on top of a box by the lake—their declaration to others that they were claiming that spot for their nest. The next day, the hen laid the first of a dozen-odd brown and white eggs and covered it with wood chips to keep it warm. Bob and Donna are watching the cameras and waiting, eagerly anticipating the jump day. And if things don’t go as planned, they’re ready to step in to help. After all, that’s what friends are for.