On a recent sunny Saturday, Tom Dufour stood outside his metal shop off Lovett Road and wondered aloud at all the young boys putting the final touches to wood duck boxes that he had pre-fabricated for a visit by Cub Scout Pack 103.
“This is more than I expected to put these things together,” Dufour said of the 22 elementary school-aged boys, casually mentioning he would have doubled the eight wood duck boxes if he could have predicted the turnout.
It had been a few years since Dufour hosted Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts at his shop, which is mainly duck-centric with shelves of duck decoys, blinds and boats. But Dufour and Pack 103, which is hosted by St. Jude Apostle Catholic Church, have a new commonality in the conservation organization Delta Waterfowl.
Matt Caillouet, assistant cubmaster of Pack 103, recently joined Delta Waterfowl and learned of Dufour’s legacy in the Baton Rouge area chapter.
Since the chapter’s inception about 12 years ago, Dufour has churned out hundreds of duck boxes and so-called hen houses out of his shop to bolster breeding grounds across the country.
Caillouet said the Cub Scouts will later place the duck boxes in and around swampy areas of Baton Rouge.
“I really want the boys to get dirty, get out there and put them up,” Caillouet said.
The duck boxes mimic natural habitat — old hollow trees — for wood ducks.
“You put these out and they’ll nest in them,” Dufour said.
To ensure long-lasting durability, Dufour made the duck boxes with cypress wood and ceramic-coated screws. Pack 103 footed the bill for the materials.
“I think Delta will be tickled to see the response that they had,” Dufour said of the troop.
Besides duck boxes, Dufour focuses a lot of energy on building nesting habitats for the “duck factory” prairies of North Dakota and Minnesota.
Nearly every September, Dufour loads up at least 150 duck nests and support poles on a trailer and hauls them 1,700 miles to the home office of Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck, N.D. From there, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delivers the hen houses to prairie “potholes” — ponds and small lakes — that pockmark the landscape.
Dufour began the pilgrimage shortly after Delta Waterfowl opened its Baton Rouge chapter, which he also helped pioneer.
Each hen house is a barrel of double-rolled hardwire wire stuffed with straw in the walls. The hen houses sit in a cradle made with two steel bars, which Dufour curls in his shop with help from a log splitter before welding them together.
On the prairie, the cradles are screwed atop steel poles that are driven in the shallow-bottomed potholes.
“It’s a means to get those hens away from predators,” said Dufour, noting foxes, raccoons, skunks and opossums are incapable of shimmying up the poles for an easy meal.
The metal poles are made of chrome-polished steel.
“It’ll last 500 years,” Dufour said.
For the drive, Delta Waterfowl helps pay for gas; Dufour writes off other expenses with his taxes.
Just like the drive, the metal isn’t cheap. But Delta Waterfowl has another benefactor in the Baton Rouge area.
For the past several years, duck hunting enthusiast Gene “Buddy” Ohmstede, owner of GEO Heat Exchangers in St. Gabriel, has donated 8-foot steel poles and other materials to Dufour to help cover building costs.
“Instead of selling it for our benefit, we donate it to him,” Ohmstede said. “We’ve manufactured a lot of ducks by doing this.”
Dufour said the whole operation would be cost-prohibitive without metal donations, which also come from Brecheen Pipe & Steel Co. in Port Allen.
Ohmstede, however, is compensated very well, noting he receives a jar of Tom Dufour’s wife, Patsy Dufour’s homemade jelly each year for the steel and metal.
“That’s my pay for that,” Ohmstede said.
Dufour, 77, estimates he has hauled at least 1,200 nest structures and 600 hen houses up north. The objective is to see more ducks in the flyway across south Louisiana. Or, as Dufour puts it, help put two more ducks in the air across hunting grounds for each one harvested — a mantra Delta Waterfowl’s founder, James Ford Bell, repeated often.
“We wanted to sort of continue something like that,” Dufour said. “Someday we may get back to where we see waterfowl like we used to.”
Dufour got the buzz for duck hunting from his uncle in Alexandria when he was 12 years old. He recalls riding the train from Baton Rouge alone with a shotgun across his lap and getting off in Alexandria and walking to his uncle’s house with the barrel propped on his shoulder.
At about the same time, Dufour also got serious about building birdhouses. Back then he and other neighborhood kids were competitive for the wooden apple boxes that grocery stores would discard — perfect material for birdhouses and other kid projects.
In his shop, Dufour still has the old electric jigsaw that he used to cut up those boxes and fashion them into birdhouses. He also has antique duck decoys that are decades old lined up on shelves.
“I’m most of the time out here,” Dufour said of his shop.
Dufour is also a deacon at Istrouma Baptist Church, volunteering his time to help fellow parishioners with home chores and repair jobs that have become too burdensome with age.
“He definitely has the gift of service,” Patsy Dufour.
This fall, Dufour will pass on the tradition of making the annual pilgrimage to North Dakota to his grandson Hunter Dufour, who will make his first trip north to the potholes.
But Dufour plans to let his grandson do all the driving.
“I take it as easy as I can,” Dufour said.