A Very Unusual Duck Box

This 'Campfire Chat' is more lengthy than most, but it is an interesting read, especially if you're interested in conservation and wildlife habitat. Thanks to John Bradburn for his efforts.

By John Bradburn

October 10, 2018 - A common saying we hear today is that we are all works in progress. As imperfect beings, that is something for which we should give thanks. Fortunately, as we age, we develop the attributes of wisdom along with our ability to keep things in perspective. These gifts enable us to focus on what is important, such as understanding the beauty of our world, including wildlife and nature. It’s important that we engage youth in outdoor experiences and share our insights with them, so they become passionate about it and make conservation a component of their adult lives.

As a youth, growing up in a large family of nine children, I was always making or experimenting with something, using what most people call trash and most of the time completing a product that ended up ruining something of my Mom’s. From glue, paint and skinned bird remains spilled on my mom’s kitchen table, I made products that only a mother could love and found others challenged to understand what the items created were intended to be. 

When my Dad, with shotgun in hand and I with my BB gun would go hunting, we would get beautiful pheasants in the fields of Genesee County, near Flint Michigan. Although we would eat the birds during our family meals, I always felt it would be better if I could also preserve them in a lasting way to enjoy their beauty and share it with others. Because of that, I wanted to learn the art of taxidermy. I still remember mounting a bird, at 12 years old after reading through the J. W. Elwood mail order taxidermy lessons in the 1960s that were advertised in Boys Life magazine as if it was yesterday.

In the beginning, my mounts were certainly on the rough side and because I was always looking for new, less expensive ways to complete a task, I had an idea that crushed beer bottle glass resembled bird eyes, so fashioned many of my first birds using beer bottle eyes that I made using pliers and a hammer. They were a bit flat rather than convex, even after using the bottom edge of the bottles, but they were brown, shiny and you couldn’t beat the cost at zero. My dad supplied the bottles which gave me an endless amount of eyes that found their way into squirrels, chipmunks, pigeons and ducks. Little did I know that this repurposing mentality would lead to a career with one of the largest companies in the world.

I still recall the time I finished a bird and was upset with its looks, I took it to our incinerator in the basement and threw it in to burn it up. Yes, we had incinerators in Flint and used them to burn our trash in those days. Fortunately, my mom talked me into pulling it out and after dusting it off, telling me it looked fine. Of course, it looked bad, but that one experience helped me realize that everybody has a purpose, and in that instance, it was my mom’s purpose to encourage me to continue in a field that would become a hobby favorite past time for my next 50 plus years, to pass onto my sons and others so they too could enjoy the beautiful species that roam our land, air and waters. It was also my purpose to continue to perfect my taxidermy skills and preserve many beautiful wild species for others to enjoy.

I believe it was my exposure to the beauty of wildlife in the 1960s and 70s by my Dad and others that lead me to love the outdoors and the species coexisting with humanity. Because I continued with the trade, eventually I was able to create nice looking specimens and that helped fund much of my college costs. I continue to practice this trade today as a hobby and oftentimes combine taxidermy into my work with young people as well. I still have that $10 set of taxidermy books and feel it was one of the best investments of my life because of where it led me as a wildlife and ecosystem steward.

For me, this love for birds and particularly waterfowl continued on a personal level as a hunter and conservationist. For many years, I built and installed wood duck nesting boxes around the Flint area marshes to care for one of the world’s most beautiful birds. Duck hunting became special because I did not know what kind of duck would find its way to the decoys. Nor did I know if the bird would actually collide with my shot and make it to my display wall on my parent’s Flint home stairwell – and in fact, most didn’t.  

On the job, many years later, as GMs Global Manager of Waste Reduction, participating on the Chevy Volt Launch team, we decided to start the GM Brownstown manufacturing operation near Detroit as a landfill free, zero waste operation. This plant was created to build the Volt battery, an approximate 460-pound, T shaped Lithium Ion unit, three feet across at the top of the T and nearly 5 feet long. 

Battery Cover

Since I led GMs global landfill free program at the time, which included finding special homes for manufacturing operational materials that were to be scrapped, I realized I had a challenge with the battery and particularly the cover. A landfill free operation requires that all daily operational by-product materials be managed in a way that does not include landfilling. Nothing from the plant’s daily operations including trash, vehicle parts, food discards, sludge, swarf, cardboard, plastic, metal, and wood could be landfilled.  

After studying the many components of the Volt battery, good recycling options were found for every part except the battery cover, which is a composite material. This highly engineered material was designed to withstand significant heat while in use as a battery, but because of its chemistry, it would not melt, which prevented it to be reprocessed into new plastic at the end of its first life as a battery. Finding a good home for scrap covers became the biggest challenge for me at that operation, but this project also represented how to address dispositioning scrap composite materials in all industries. Because landfilling was not an option and burning as fuel for energy production was not desirable in that instance, repurposing was something that I had in mind.  

I still remember walking into the plant, looking at the cover and noticing it was formed into three sections and that each section had a special shape and size. Those properties triggered my thoughts and my past experiences that taught me, don’t see things as they are, see them for what they can become and soon this most challenging battery material would have a secondary use to benefit wildlife.  

I noticed the battery cover middle section had an emergency disconnect hole and saw a wood duck entry and exit hole. The three-Inch diameter hole was almost the right size and shape of the recommended three by four-inch oval used on artificial wood duck houses, and as luck would have it, that disconnect hole was placed in a perfect position as other artificial nest box house designs. Other physical properties of the cover were eerily appropriate to fit the needs of many forms of waterfowl that nest in trees to avoid predation. The emergency disconnect hole had heavy glass fiber reinforcement around the opening which, in the wild is perfect in deterring predators such as raccoon and domestic cats in North America from chewing their way into the box to prey on eggs, chicks or the hen. The section height, length and width were also perfect for wood duck as well as other species, such as hooded merganser and screech owl. The battery cover accounted for three sides of the box, with only a top, back and very small section of the bottom needed, and those parts were made easy using cedar.

Needless to say, I was eager to build a nest box and took a few covers home to my farm and built a box in my laboratory, which doubles as my barn. That was early summer in Michigan 2010 and I felt I might see a squirrel using it in the fall and maybe some waterfowl action in the spring, but I was wrong. Two weeks later my son, John called while I was at work and said, Dad, I just seen a hooded merganser fly out of your nest box. That was the beginning of one of General Motors’ most notable specific waste related innovations. From that year on, many covers were repurposed into duck boxes and used on public and private lands throughout the US and Canada. Many school projects were completed with kids building the boxes, gaining those special experiences and developing a love for wildlife and waste reduction, seeing things not as they are, but for what they can become. Today, over 1,200 boxes have been placed in the wild around North America alone. With that, I wanted the program to grow to address challenged populations and the opportunity would come soon.

Wood Duck Nesting Box

Wood Duck on Box

While attending a United States Business Council for Sustainable Development (USBCSD) meeting that was held at the University of Texas, Austin in 2015, I met a biologist from the Netherlands who worked for Wetlands International. After describing my project, I showed him pictures of wood ducks entering, exiting and sitting on the boxes then asked if he knew of a species in need, possibly one that was endangered, that could benefit from the use of these nest boxes.   

He told me of a Russian colleague, Dr. Diana Solovyeva, who was part of the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Duck Specialist Group working to save the scaly sided merganser, an extremely rare endangered bird. In my investigations of this species, I found they are one of the rarest birds on the earth and identified with a formal red listed, endangered species designation with only an estimated 2,400 birds remaining in the world. The research indicated two small flocks remain, one in Russia and one in China and their numbers continue to decline in both countries. Soon Diana and I were communicating back and forth about using my boxes to help these birds.

One day, I received an email from Diana asking if I lived near Ann Arbor, because she was there. It turned out that her husband, Sergei was studying at the University of Michigan School of Paleontology for a short period. After I got past my initial shock about how someone from Russia could all of a sudden be near my home, I answered, absolutely, I’m about 45 miles from the school and will take you to my farm.   

Once we arrived, we discussed the nest requirements, such as the size of the scaly sided and I proposed a few design options, which included using another section of the battery that was larger than the wood duck option and enlarging the entrance/exit hole. Diana suggested creating a hole as well along the side of the box for the hen to escape if a predator enters the box. While there, Diana explained to Sharon, my wife, and me how predation was a huge problem in China and Russia. Diana said in North America, we have what she called the fat raccoon, but in China and Russia they have much more aggressive predators including tigers, large fox snakes and sable. Sharon asked why sable are a problem, because she thought they were used as coats for people, and Diana explained that the population of this species has risen dramatically due to the lack of demand for this valued fur. Additionally, we found that old growth trees that have holes large enough for scaly sided hens are rare due to deforestation, causing another challenge to the bird’s survival.    

A few weeks later, I built the boxes and prepared them for the long journey to Russia. Unfortunately, we experienced much difficulty getting the boxes into Russia. They were rejected in St. Petersburg and sent back to the US, damaged. It was a time of trade prohibitions between Russia and the US. This challenge became another example of something I’ve said for many years, “having an idea is one thing, but getting it done is another.” I decided that issue wasn’t going to stop the project. After discussing it with Diana and others such as Peiqi Lu, a biologist from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), we decided to send the boxes to China instead and serve that scaly sided population. The initial batch of boxes arrived in safe order into the hands of WWF, which arranged for them to be erected on trees with markings. The locations were mapped in the Changbai Mountains, inside the Changbaishan Nature Reserve, Jilin Province. 

As Spring approached, I received a wonderful note from Diana and Peiqi telling me a merganser hen was nesting in one of the boxes. Obviously, that was very exciting news, but nothing compared to the note I received a few weeks later. They sent some of the most wonderful pictures of the hen and her 11 chicks emerging to the nest hole and jumping down around 30 feet to the ground, following their mother’s direction to find water and feed even though they couldn’t fly.

Merganser Emerging From Nesting Box

Merganser Hen Nesting Box

Following this success, other boxes were used in other locations within China and eventually Russia as well. I was told that this was the first time in China’s history that an artificial nest box was used on waterfowl.

The (GM) high voltage battery program was launched with the help of these ducks. It is part of a program I call” Powering Our Way to Help Challenged Populations,” and it includes using the Volt battery and other electric vehicle battery parts. To date, the program, has also placed over 1000 bat houses using the lower section of the Volt cover. That project is a conservation story in itself, serving our rapidly declining bat populations, somewhat due to white nose syndrome, a fungal disease impacting millions of bats in the northern tiers of the US. Our intent was to provide ecological assistance to address increased pesticide use, due to those dwindling bat populations. We had much input from biologists at Bat Conservation international and the Organization for Bat Conservation on the box design and hope these very weather resistant, long lived houses favorably impact bat populations well into the future.  

Other Volt sections have been built as raised bed garden and flower planters that I designed to serve physically challenged individuals, whether they have difficulty in working at ground levels, are homebound or both. Other designs using the same and other composite materials include bluebird houses, floating island waterfowl nest structures and many more that are baking in my head as I write this article.

Perhaps more importantly however, these experiences continue to reinforce my belief to not see things as they are but see them for what they can become. I try to live my life that way when considering human interaction as well. 

We all have opportunity to help the challenged, whether they fly in the sky, swim our waters or walk the earth. It doesn’t need to be a big impact item to make a difference. What’s important is that we do our part, take some Individual responsibility and pass on the blessings we have received from God. I believe sports men and women alike, camo cladding individuals, are the greatest conservationists our country has ever seen. This is also a story of why we need more engineers wearing camo because they represent how we can power our way into the next phase of electrified transportation and assist wildlife and other challenged populations at the same time. It’s also an important one because it opens up the potential to address some of the continued use challenges of composites and other new materials, as well as the need to find wise non-landfill uses at the end of a products first life.   

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