In the depths of winter, the cold can be unforgiving to an outdoorsman. One group of local outdoor enthusiasts annually takes up the challenge, however, by building wood duck houses. Once built, the waterfowl boxes make their way to the Mississippi River backwaters near Bay City for the leisurely use of the waterway's native species.

Derf Hoisington, Bob, Kip and Mitch Earney, Craig and Spenser Kronbeck, Josh and Nathan Omann, and Milt Sell all grew up in the Hager City and Bay City area and hunt in the region. As hunters, they are also conservationists and see the project as a way to give back.

"All hunters are (conservationists)," Kip Earney said. "I think things in wide use are there for us to use if we give back. You know, you cut a tree, you plant a tree.

"We meet in January for a day and build the boxes," Earney added. "We then pick a weekend to go and put them out."

Over many years, building the wood duck houses has become a science. The lumber, screws, wood chips and more are all purchased by the group and the boxes are then built in their own free time.

After production has been completed, the group heads out to the Mississippi River backwaters with ATVs and trailers to put the new boxes up and take the old ones down. The boxes that aren't needed to be replaced receive some fresh cedar chips and put back in place.

Of course, while the houses are meant for wood ducks, the comfy confines offer respite to all sorts of wildlife seeking shelter.

"You never know what you are going to get when you empty a box," Earney said. "I've been at the top of a ladder and open up a box to see a screech owl right there. The owl had its eyes closed - it was sleeping - but when I opened it back up, all of the sudden it opens its eyes and flew right over my shoulder."

Earney said the wood duck population has really improved in the area with projects like this.

"Everyone in the group likes to hunt the area," Earney added. "It's just a nice way to give back."

Surely the wildlife that make use of the houses appreciate the work of the group as well.