An owl, a raccoon and many, many mice.

Along with the obligatory egg shells, those were the contents of several dozen nest boxes that Abby, the 94-year old (people years) labby, and I cleaned out in recently.

It's for the birds, mostly, but maintaining a trail of wood duck and bluebird houses is also a great reason to get outside in winter.

Sadly, this is likely the last go around for Abby. The old girl needs to be boosted into the truck these days and sits out every other stop.

The mice, however, brought back enthusiastic memories of a pup who, for years, lived to hunt from nest to nest in pursuit of the furry rodents who regularly take refuge in bird houses in winter. In 13 years, I don't think she ever killed one — just pounce, mouth and occasionally flip. After a little play, they'd always get away.

It took a good deal of training to learn catch-and-release was not her role as she became an outstanding waterfowl retriever.

Raccoons, on the other hand, are big game. Knock-down, drag-out, fur-raising romps ensue before the coon finds an escape tree. I'm certain she would wait for days for a coon to come down if I'd let her.

It is downright improbable how a 12-pound raccoon can squeeze into a wood duck box with an opening the size of a hockey puck. But, every other year there is one or two to be rousted from a nest box.

Owls, take up residence on occasion, too. I've found three inside nest houses over the years.

I've never looked up their exact identity, but they are intriguing little fellas. Probably eight-inches tall, light as a feather with surprisingly large talons.

Last weekend, a sleepy, big-eyed owl was found in company of cardinal feathers and I wondered which had come first. Was the redbird killed in the box or did the owl enjoy a take-home meal?

Plenty of old and new deer trails were noted for future hunting reference. There is a distinct difference between the main deer run and the routes old bucks follow. In several locations, the big boy tracks were in much thicker cover and thirty or so yards down hill or on lower ground than the main trails.

Mostly, a couple afternoons spent cleaning-out and refurbishing next boxes is a welcome respite from the dreary indoors

They're great for the birds, too.

Back in the early 1990s, the first dozen wood duck boxes I erected were used immediately. Another dozen the following winter yielded full occupancy in spring. And it wasn't until the three dozen mark was reached on this particular farm that a few vacancies occurred.

The swamps and sloughs on this 800-acre property were alive with wood ducks from spring through the early-fall hunting season. Now, probably a half-dozen of the boxes need replacing or rehabbing each year.

Bluebird boxes work wonders, too.

Years ago, my son's elementary school project examined whether bluebirds might prefer "natural" nest boxes or nest boxes painted blue.

Bottom line was the blue bluebird houses won. A dozen bluebird houses, half of them painted light blue, were strategically alternated around a couple of hay fields.

Three of the four boxes which attracted and hatched bluebirds that spring were painted.

Of the boxes not used by bluebirds, six housed and hatched tree swallows, another mosquito-eating speedster.

So, if you're looking for a winter project, building and erecting bird houses is a worthy cause.

The North American Bluebird Society's website (www.nabluebirdsociety.org) contains a material list and plan for constructing bluebird boxes as well as everything you may want to know about nest locations, maintenance and the birds themselves.

Better yet, the Ducks Unlimited site (www.ducks.org) has links to building nest boxes for dozens of birds from American kestrel to tufted titmouse to wood ducks. I even skipped from that site to places with plans for butterfly and bat houses.

• Outdoor notes: A big steelhead contest, open to the public and organized by the Northwest Indiana Steelheaders, is set for Saturday with weigh-in from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Chief's Bait on West U.S. Highway 12 in Michigan City. There is no entry fee and the largest steelies garner medals and swaggering rights. See www.nwisteelheaders.org for more information.

Depending on how the thaw and mud flow goes, steelhead fishing should be good as the fish haven't been pressured since last week's big freeze. Might be some coho around the lower Trail Creek community holes and harbor, too.

The Michigan City episode of Salmon Showdown, which aired nationwide on the Pursuit Channel in January, is online at YouTube.com (Salmon Showdown, Episode 1, Season 6). The program was filmed as part of the Hoosier Coho Club Classic, which is set for April 30 to May 1 this spring.

The Indiana Dunes State Park is hosting a birding "crash" course on Feb. 28. There is a small fee. For more information, call (219) 926-1390.

A new study from Oregon State University shows hatcheries change fish at the genetic level and at a stunningly fast pace. See www.oregonlive.com (Hatchery life changes fish genetics, Oregon study finds, 2/17).

Previous studies showed hatchery-raised fish and wild fish differed in survival and reproductive success, but scientists were unclear whether DNA-level differences were behind the phenomena.

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