“And they whirl and they twirl and they tangle” goes the refrain from “Muskrat Love,” a popular 1970s song by the Captain and Tenille about the lovemaking of muskrat Susie and muskrat Sam. As fate would have it, I found out one day while “Muskrat Love” was high on the charts that that really is what muskrats do when they make love.
The setting could not have been more romantic: a warm, sunny, early spring day at a six-acre pond in Wayne County. Over the years, I spent hundreds of hours at that pond watching the muskrats do their thing, the coots, grebes, and great blue herons feeding in the pond’s shallow water, turtles sunning on a small island, a woodcock sitting motionless on her nest under a bush near the pond’s edge. I wonder now if that pond is still there or if it has been turned into a shopping center as planned. If it’s been turned into a shopping center, I don’t think I want to know. I want to go on believing that the pond is still there and that muskrat Susie and muskrat Sam are still whirling and twirling.
As more and more people move into rural areas, the number of ponds increases, partly because a pond serves as a reservoir that can be used in case of fire and partly because it can be used for recreation and attracting wildlife.
Before You Dig In
If you’re thinking of creating a pond, there are many things you need to consider before you start digging. The most important consideration is the site. Most ponds have at least 6 feet of water at their deepest point. Therefore, you must be able to dig down at least that deep and still have a base that will retain water. It makes sense to have soil cores drilled and analyzed before starting a large digging operation. When I tried to dig a decorative pond in the backyard of my home in Tompkins County, I hit shale at 18 inches. The shale allowed the water to leak out through its thin layers while leaking in small, dark blobs of oil that floated on the water’s surface. So much for that idea.
Besides being fairly deep, the site needs to be fairly flat. Building a pond on a hillside, though not impossible, is rather difficult and limiting. It can also require more dam construction, which will increase its cost. When locating your pond, remember too that a pond should never
be placed where it will come in contact with run-off of chemicals like pesticides or road salt, near septic leach lines, or near grazing animals.
If the pond is fed by a creek or stream, make sure upstream water is pollution free.
Once you’ve chosen the site, you must consider the size. The size will determine the uses of the pond. As you can imagine, the larger the pond, the greater the number of uses. Here, you need to be realistic. If you’ve always dreamed of having a pond on which you could practice your rowing techniques, but your site only allows for a half-acre pond, then boating is probably not going to be an option. At that point you have to decide if you want to go ahead with the pond anyway or abandon the project. Keep in mind that if you want to attract wildlife, the most productive wildlife ponds are several acres or more in size, but ponds as small as half-an-acre will attract wildlife on a limited basis. Anything smaller than half-an-acre is really only decorative.
Finally, when planning the site and total area needed for the pond, remember that constructed ponds usually have a dirt bank called a dam on at least one side. The total width of the dam can be 10 feet or more depending on how much dirt is removed to construct the pond. By adding the dam to the water surface area, plus such amenities as a boat launch, pier/dock, picnic area, etc., you’ll see the total land required for the pond can be considerable.
Ponds for Wildlife
We are used to drinking and bathing in water that is clear. It isn’t necessarily clean, but it is usually clear. Healthy pond water is, on the other hand, cloudy or “dirty” due to the activity of aquatic plants and animals living in the water. If you have your heart set on swimming in water that is clear enough for you to see your toes, you will need to apply chemicals to the water to kill all the life in the pond. A “dead” pond is, for the most part, not attractive to wildlife except as drinking water.
“Dead” ponds can also occur when the pH of the water becomes too acidic to support life. Slightly alkaline ponds contain the greatest amount of minerals and support the most life. The more acidic a pond becomes, the less life it supports. That is why acid rain has had such a devastating effect on Adirondack lakes.
I like seeing trees around ponds. I guess that’s because the Wayne County pond had lots of trees, including a woods on one side. But trees can cause a lot of problems for a pond and its owner since leaves that fall into the pond not only discolor the water as they decay, but promote algal growth that uses up oxygen in the water—an essential element for pond-dwelling creatures.
Trees should never be grown on the pond’s dam and, in theory, should not be allowed to grow within 20 or 30 feet of the pond’s edge. However, if the pond will be used to attract wildlife, pondside trees are important because they shade and cool the water and provide perches and shelter for birds and other animals. In fact, certain birds like kingfishers and green herons require overhanging branches from which to watch their prey. Herons, who grab at their prey, prefer something low—within a foot or so of the water—while kingfishers, who are divers, prefer something rather high up. You may also wish to have trees next to your pond to shade a picnic area or pondside cabin. Whatever your reason for having trees, just remember that their leaves will dirty the water, contribute to the amount of sediment on the bottom of the pond (which some wildlife actually need), and, over time, might cause you to have to drain the pond to remove excess sediment.
If clear water is your goal, your pond should be constructed with steep sides, which will discourage shoreline vegetation and the ecosystem built around this plant community. Long, shallow edges, on the other hand, encourage vegetation, providing breeding areas for many amphibians and some birds and living quarters for insects and small fish—food for many forms of wildlife.
Small islands, particularly those with bushes and ground cover, will attract birds and, if the ground is soft enough, nesting turtles. These island refuges should have sloping, rather than steep, shores and should be placed where the water is 3 feet deep or more to discourage predators.
How to Pick Your Help
Before choosing a contractor, drive around and look for ponds in your area that appeal to you. Talk to pond owners and ask them if they were satisfied with their contractor and if they have had any problems with the pond since it was built. When considering a particular contractor, look at at least three ponds built by that person and make sure all pond owners were satisfied customers. The fact that someone knows how to operate a bulldozer or backhoe doesn’t mean that they know how to construct a pond.
Make sure the contractor is willing to work with you on a pond design suitable to your needs and desires. Then get everything, including a start-up and finishing date, in writing. Never work with anyone who won’t sign a contract.
It’s normal for contractors to request partial payment when starting a project, but always make sure that the final payment isn’t due until you’re completely satisfied
with the job. A pond of decent size will cost thousands of dollars to construct. Make sure you get your money’s worth.
After Your Pond Is In
Once the pond is constructed, the soil will need time to settle. It may take as long as a year for the pond to fill up, so be patient. As the pond begins to accumulate water, watch for leaks. The level of the water should go down only slightly due to evaporation during dry periods. Any significant decrease in water level could mean a leak. Contact your contractor if this should occur.
When the water level is stable, you can start establishing the small aquatic creatures that will reside in your pond. One of the quickest ways to do this is to take a couple of gallons of water from a “dirty” pond
and dump it into yours. The “dirty” water contains millions of microscopic organisms that are the basis of pond life.
At this time, you can also add plants. I recommend that you plant only native vegetation. Avoid non-natives like purple loosestrife and certain water lilies, which are aggressive and can take over a pond. You probably will be able to acquire many pond plants by asking people with ponds for transplants. Some plants, like cattails, grow readily from seed separated from the brown seed heads in late summer or early spring and sprinkled along the shore in the area you want them to grow. Step on the seeds to press them into the soil a bit, otherwise they will float on the water and travel to other parts of the pond.
Once the small aquatic creatures and plants are established, reptiles, amphibians and birds will begin to frequent the pond. This is a good indication that the pond is starting to produce its own food, and you could probably introduce a few fish at this time, if the pond is large enough to support them.
Once the pond is self-productive, you could also put a wood duck box with a cone-shaped raccoon guard just a little ways out into the water from the shore. Baby ducklings will jump out of the box and land safely in the water. Put bluebird boxes around the perimeter of the pond or on adjacent land. These boxes should be installed at a ratio of no more than 10 boxes for each 49 acres of open, uncultivated land and 1 acre of pond. The reason for this is that the area must be able to support all breeding birds and their nestlings (maximum population) when food is at its lowest—during long, cold or rainy periods. Bluebird boxes are attractive primarily to bluebirds and tree swallows. The latter will do a good job of helping control mosquitoes and other winged insects that breed in your pond, whereas bluebirds feed on insects in grassy and treed areas around the pond.
by Ronda Roaring
Ronda Roaring has been writing from her home in Tompkins County for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in numerous national magazines and newspapers. She is the publisher of www.IlovetheFingerLakes.com.