We have a special bonus today: DUCKS AND DUCKLINGS! At my request, UC Davis ecologist Susan Harrison took photos and video for this site when she went out yesterday to help a colleague band, chip, measure, and DNA-sample wood ducklings. Susan’s narrative is indented; click the photos to enlarge them.
Notes From a Wood Duck Research Field Trip
In early June 2023, I accompanied UC Davis’ John Eadie, a leading expert on waterfowl biology and conservation, to measure and tag newly hatched Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) ducklings.
For ten years, John and his collaborators have been studying the social lives of Wood Ducks, especially the striking behavior called nest parasitism. Females (‘hens’) may lay some or all of their eggs in the nests of other Wood Duck hens. Why do they do this? It’s probably related to the fact that they nest in tree cavities, which are a scarce resource. But how do hens decide whether and whom to parasitize? What determines the shifting benefits of raising your own kids versus trying to get them raised by someone else? You can read this lively and beautifully illustrated American Scientist article to find out what’s been learned and what’s still unknown.
We went to a private ranch near Davis where John and his lab have set up 100 of their 400 total nest boxes. Nest boxes help boost Wood Duck populations, and when suitably equipped, they also make it easy to collect data on hens and ducklings.
These ‘research’ nest boxes can be raised or lowered for access, and are equipped with instruments that read the output from tiny radio tags similar to pet microchips:
The first step is to lower and open the nest box to see if the eggs have hatched:
Then the entrance hole is covered to keep the hen inside and the ducklings are carefully extracted:
Each duckling is brought to a mini-lab on the truck tailgate:
Being a good mentor, John is letting me ‘help;’ here I’m holding my first duckling:
Ducklings are slid headfirst into the tube to be weighed:
Bill length, bill width, and tarsus length are measured:
A tiny pinprick allows blood to be drawn for DNA analysis:
A radio tag the size of a rice grain is gently and safely slid under the skin:
Foot color is recorded as tan (left), orange (right), or pure black, since John is curious about this variable trait:
Ducklings then go back to their nest and the seemingly calm hen. Using this combination of radiotagging and DNA, John and collaborators have collected around 3 million data points, each one a combination of an individual duck’s identity, parentage and location. These data have shown, for example, that a hen’s tendency to parasitize is pretty strongly correlated with her mother’s tendency to parasitize.
We stopped at John’s aviary on campus. Here I’m holding Konnie, a Wood Duck hen who was hand-reared and named for Konrad Lorenz, to show off her gorgeous iridescent wings:
In this brief video, Konnie and her mate Crookneck like they are eating but they are actually performing a contact ritual, watched by a Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). Turn the sound up to hear their squeaky calls and John explaining their behavior. He says many pair-bonding behaviors in birds are ritualized versions of feeding: (Photo 13)
This male Cinnamon Teal (Spatula cyanoptera), less friendly than Connie, energetically nibbled at fingers when picked up:
It was great fun comparing notes with John about research. When I was in grad school learning plant and insect ecology, it was often said that you couldn’t really test theory using birds or wildlife, because you couldn’t do experiments or get large amounts of data. But sensor and DNA technologies have since transformed the study of animals in the wild. And with Wood Ducks, a researcher can deploy their most critical resource – nest boxes – and return later to find abundant and accessible study animals. However, since adult male Wood Ducks are hard to catch and tag, their role in the social network is not yet well understood.
Bob Zimmer, former President of the University of Chicago, died yesterday of brain cancer at the young age of 75. He was stricken several years ago, but lived longer than anyone expected, and for that I’m glad. I’m writing this not to ape all the encomiums that will be printed in the next few days, but to show a side of the man that only I knew—until Mary Schmich wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune.
I met Bob in person only once (we were both inducted into the AAAS at the same time, and he introduced himself to me at the associated lunch in Cambridge, MA.). At that one meeting, I found him affable, easy to talk to, and not the least arrogant. As President and then as Chancellor, Bob distinguished himself not only in the REAL job of a President—raising money, which he was very good at—but, more important, in defending the Chicago Principles, including free speech and our policy of institutional neutrality embodied in the Kalven Report. That’s why, back in 2017, Bret Stephens (an alum who got his undergrad degree here in philosophy) wrote a NYT column calling Bob “America’s Best University President.” (A NYT obituary hasn’t yet appeared, but I’ll link to it here when it does.)
Small-fish professors like me have almost no contact with University presidents; when they do the prof is either in trouble or wants something. My second contact with Bob involved the latter: I wanted to feed the ducks. As the covid pandemic started to grip America, we were told that the campus would be closed except for “essential research workers”, but I wasn’t one since I’d retired a while before that. Since I was busy feeding up Honey for her nesting season, I was upset that they might prevent me from going to Botany Pond. After fretting over it one evening, I sat in front of my laptop and banged out an email to Bob and Provost Ka Lee (March 19, 2020):
Dear President Zimmer and Provost Lee,
I am terribly sorry to bother you with a trivial request when I know that both of you have huge issues on your minds, trying to balance the mission of our University with the need to protect our community and its environs from contagion. But in light of the possibility that the University may close almost completely, with non-essential people barred from campus, I wanted to request a small favor should that happen. I will be brief.
For the past three years I’ve taken it upon myself to feed the breeding mallards at Botany Pond during spring and summer, and have been inordinately successful at bringing the young to fledging (in the last few years my associates and I have fledged 39 ducklings with only one loss, a mortality rate of <3% compared to over 50% before I took over). I attribute this to constant care and good food (duck chow, corn, and mealworms), and have worked with Facilities to ensure that pond remains “duck worthy” (they have constructed a duckling ramp and raise and lower the water level for me so the young can be safe).
The presence of healthy ducks and ducklings has been a big draw for the community, with frequent visits from schoolchildren and others who come to watch them. Some of the females who migrate south return every year (I recognize them), and they have just returned and will soon begin building nests on the ledges of Erman.
What I would like to ask is whether, if the campus closes and I am not considered an essential research worker, I would still be allowed to visit the pond at least twice a day to feed the ducks. This is a solitary activity and nobody helps me, nor would I stand near anybody else. I would not work inside my building (I have an office in Zoology), but merely tend the ducks outside for a brief period. As far as I know from the CDC, there is no danger in spreading the coronavirus if you’re alone outside. (I am healthy and have experienced no symptoms.) I would simply feed the animals, which takes about ten minutes, and then leave campus.
I am asking your permission because our department is not the appropriate chain of command given that my request is not connected with research. But it is connected with animals—animals that have chosen to live and breed on our campus. There is an old Jewish saying that goes “If you have saved one life it is as if you saved the world.” Some of my colleagues say, “Well, they’re just ducks,” but their lives are important to themselves, to me, and, I think, to our University community.
I hope you’ll find yourself able to grant me this small favor if the campus is shuttered. I enclose two photos of our successes from the last year.
Thank you for your attention during these distressing times.
Department of Ecology and Evolution
This could be considered presumptuous, and also a burden on the President at a difficult time, so I didn’t expect an answer. But early the next morning I got this response:
Ka Yee and I are in full agreement that you should be able to do this. And I fully sympathize with the view that they are not “just ducks”. Please take care of them, “our ducks”, as you have been. We are appreciative of this.
Stay well, and with best wishes,
Now I ask you: who but an empathic and humane man would even deal with an issue like this? Bob even wrote the campus police telling them not to remove me were they to find me taking care of the ducks.
Ten days later, Mary Schmich, the Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, found out about Honey and me from her former colleague who had moved to the University. Schmich then wrote the first of three columns about a professor and his duck, “The pandemic, a professor, and a duck named Honey: a story of life in a time of death.” (Her other two are here and here.) They were all written as feel-good stories: tales about how duck life goes on even as people fall ill. As always, Mary wrote a fantastic piece (inquire if you can’t see it) and followed it up with two columns that were equally good.
The first one appealed to the University administration, for it told people about the pond and the ducks, and the solace they gave everyone, and it was good publicity for the school. They put up a webcam at Botany Pond, and Facilities gave me lots of help making the pond duck-friendly, adding fences, duck ramps, and so on. They even built a trampoline to cushion Honey’s jumping ducklings when she’d nested right over a cement porch! When I needed help, Bob was always there for me. Here are a few of the notes from his side (I would send him photos to keep him up to date.)
Jerry, Thanks for your report on the ducks which was certainly welcome and encouraging. And thanks for the wonderful photos. Thanks also for the offer to show me around. I may wait until my granddaughter is back in town before taking you up on it. Stay well.
With very best wishes and appreciation,
Here’s another written after I asked him to help me get fencing in one place to keep the ducklings safe from human intrusion. Since we were both Jewish, I told Bob that I gave one drake a Jewish name: Shmuley. (I also told him how a human mother tried to release two whopping flightless domestic ducks into the pond, which I prevented just in time):
Jerry, Thanks so much for keeping me up to date. If you need help to get fencing in place, please let me know. And Shmuley – fantastic. “Gotta have duck with Jewish name” – love it. Maybe you are on your way to having a duck minyan. That was a somewhat sad story about the domiestic ducks and the kids worried about their pets. But it sounds as if it ended ok…..
Thanks again Jerry. I hope you are doing well.
With best wishes and appreciation, Bob
Every six months or so I’d send him an update, often with photos. Here’s one from July, 2021:
I’m just sending an update as the duck season at Botany Pond winds down. It’s been a good year: we had four broods with a total of 27 ducklings that have fledged or are about to fledge, and it’s been very peaceful. Lots of people have come to the pond to find respite by watching the birds (I met a woman the other day whose husband was having a transplant in the hospital, and she comes by every day to chill out by watching the waterfowl), and the Labbies have some of their drawing classes here.
Anyway, they plan to dredge the pond this fall, and I hope they do a good job, as they’ll have to preserve the turtles and fish who live there too. As you transition to Chancellor, I hope you retain some of your “duck powers”!
At any rate, all is well, and I enclose some photos of this year’s crop; I hope they aren’t too large to get through.
And the response (this is only one of many exchanges), from July 20, 2021:
Jerry, thanks so much for the update and the wonderful photos (which came through very well.) It is nice to hear that those who are under great stress, particularly medical stress, find respite at the pond. As for dredging the pond, I am sure this needs to be done carefully, and I will make sure that they have someone who knows how to do this in a careful and protective way. And I will still be here for the ducks (and more!) Thanks again for the wonderful work taking care of our ducks. It is important and I greatly value it.
I hope you are well and doing well more generally.
With best wishes and appreciation,
From the winter of that year, after I made a duck Christmas card for him:
Jerry, thanks very much for the lovely card. And thank YOU for all you are doing for the beautiful ducks and ducklings and helping them all flourish. I walk by Botany Pond occasionally (without our dogs) and it is great to see them all and see how they are doing. Keep up the great work which is of value to us all. I wish you and family all the best for a safe, healthy, happy, rewarding, productive, and gratifying new year.
With warm and best wishes, Bob
Now this isn’t a huge deal in the scheme of things or in the running of our University, but I have to say that a lot of the help I got with the ducks was because of Bob. He always answered my emails within a couple of days, and I felt secure knowing that the President considered the Botany Pond mallards as “our ducks”. I am sure that his help, and that of Facilities, saved the lives of many ducklings.
Then Bob had a seizure, and was diagnosed with brain cancer. I kept sending him emails with photos until about a year ago, but the answers stopped coming. Of course I understood, but I was sad. I had even saved one of Honey’s molted speculum feathers to give him, but I never got the chance. And now he’s gone.
I wanted to put this on the record because it’s a side of Bob that won’t be lauded in his obituaries but shows his humanity.
I could also describe how several of us worked with him to ensure that the provisions of the Kalven Report on institutional neutrality were maintained, but that story appears on the University website and is a more conventional tale of academia. Further, Bob’s work on free speech (which continued after he resigned as President and became Chancellor) will also be described widely, so I needn’t repeat it.
We have a new President now, but I don’t know him, and thus dare not ask him about the ducks. But rarely will you find a college president like Bob, who had all the power to effect change but remained concerned about the well-being of a few campus mallards.
Those of us (especially me) who welcomed the renovation of Botany Pond as both an improved facility but also as a break from last year’s spate of difficult duckling rescues, now find ourselves missing the mallards. Occasionally a duck or two may stop by the pond, looking quizzically at the absence of water, but otherwise there are no ducks to be seen. (Some of us get our duck fix by visiting nearby ponds.)
We also find ourself remembering the mallards of bygone years. For example, Honey was here for six straight years, but I doubt that I’ll ever seen her again. Three years ago, her brood hatched on May 1 and then another nesting hen, Dorothy, hatched her own brood on May 3. You may remember, if you’re a regular, that Honey managed to kidnap all of Dorothy’s brood, winding up with 17 ducklings to tend. We are proud that they all lived to fledging, but Dorothy was bereft. Fortunately, she nested again and produced a second brood of seven, all of which she brought up herself.
Here’s Honey with her huge brood, calling them to leave the plaza and enter the water. It’s fun to watch them hustle to mom and leap over the metal barrier, and makes me miss the ducks even more. The video below is by Jean Greenberg. (Click to enlarge.)
Here she is with her entire brood that year, resting on the “duck ring” in the center of the pond. I suppose that, when the pond is refilled in October, she might come by to say “hi,” but I have no guarantee that she’s alive, and she was looking a bit peaked last year, showing up only at the end of the season.
Send in your photos, folx! I need seven batches a week to keep this going (and thanks to those who heed my calls).
Today we have several contributors, the first being reader Don Bredes. All contributors’ words are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:
Our rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) showed up here in northern Vermont this past week. They perch on the deck railing, chirping for us to come out and feed them a few sunflower seeds and waiting, trustingly, right there. We’ve seen only males so far. They remember us, clearly. Rose-breasted grosbeaks can live in the wild for 10 years or longer, twice as long in captivity.
In the fall they migrate from their breeding grounds in North America to Central and northern South America. Most fly across the Gulf of Mexico in a single night, although some migrate over land around the Gulf. Their population globally, now at 4,700,000, is dropping slightly. In their wintering grounds, they are commonly trapped for sale as caged birds because they’re beautiful, and their song is lovely.
We can’t help but wonder about the little neighborhood in Belize or Venezuela where “our” grosbeaks spend their winters and whether another family there may have befriended them.
From Peter, a poisonous juvenile Dugite snake (Pseudonaja affinis) gets killed by a Redback spider (Latrodectus hasselti). He added this:
Two decades ago I took a photo of a redback spider that had killed a small lizard. This is next level up.
A video from Rick Longworth, who says he’s put up a new house for the displaced wood ducks:
Today a pair of wood ducks (Aix sponsa) inspected my duck box for nesting. Unfortunately for them, a Western screech-owl (Megascops kennicottii) had already taken ownership and was sitting on eggs. The woodies both inspect the box and look down the back side where the opening is. The male—the one wearing the tuxedo—looks on as the female makes attempts to enter the hole. Imagine her shock to see two enormous, yellow eyes staring back. Suddenly, a different female shows up. The male is pretty upset and tries to intimidate the interloper. The original female gives up and scurries off. Soon the male leaves too. Music is Kevin MacLeod ~ Fluffing a Duck.
After a long spell of cold, gray days with drizzle, Spring has finally arrived in Chicago. Today’s high is predicted to be 71ºF (22ºC), and the sun is shining gloriously. Normally the ducks would be either nesting or tending babies at this time, but this year Botany Pond is pretty much off limits, as it’s drained and ready for a summer-long renovation, landscaping, and then, in October, refilling with water. Here’s what it looks like now, dry as a bone. Renovation will begin after convocation, which is in early July in Chicago (we’re on the quarter system).
But wait! What is that animal in the circle? It is one of two wolf statues, put by the pond to scare the ducks away. Here is the other one:
As you see, it has sticks for legs, and is designed to move with the wind. These were originally put atop the nearby Chemistry Building to keep the geese from nesting. They didn’t work there, and they’re not working here, either: yesterday a mallard pair was resting peacefully a few feet from the wolf. Ducks aren’t dumb! But when a person is shown the wolf, they are often startled, as it’s very lifelike!
Our big worry is that mallard hens will try to nest here this summer, which would be a disaster because there is no pond for them to swim in, and they’d surely die. We check for mallards every day, and Facilities (who put up the wolves), sends someone over daily to chase away any errant ducks. Unfortunately, individual ducks keep dropping by, particularly a hen and drake pair who, I fear, will try to nest here.
The first stage of nesting around Botany Pond involves a hen choosing a nest site on the windowsill of an adjacent building. When I see a hen on the windowsill, I get very upset. And, as I write these words, here’s what I see right outside the window at my desk:
I have a suspicion that this is Audrey, the killer hen who had all her babies here last year but also tried to kill babies from four other broods that entered the pond. I saved nearly all the babies by going into the pond and catching them with a butterfly net, and only about two were lost out of 33. But I got pretty banged up, and I’m getting a bit old for this!
I was happy about saving the babies last summer, but of course I had to separate all the mothers from their ducklings and send the latter to rehab at Willowbrook Wildlife Sanctuary. They did get a good chance at living, but it kills me to break up families; and there was nothing to do about Audrey the Killer, as she already dominated the pond with her ducklings (they all survived save one, whose first real flight as an adult took it right into the walls of the Regenstein Library, where it crashed and died). No baby could survive in Botany Pond so long as Audrey was there. (Alarmingly, the hen above looks like Audrey.)
Now I have to worry that this stupid hen is actually going to attempt nesting near a dry pond. Ducks are really good at finding nesting sites, but not so good at finding nesting sites with adjacent water. Wish us luck!
Jean Greenburg, a member of Team Duck, saw that a sign on the fence around Botany Pond, now devastated before renovation begins, has acquired some graffiti:
I was accused of having written this, but it isn’t mine. Many people will miss the ducks this summer, as the pond won’t be filled with water until October. We may get some migrants stopping by, but we won’t get ducklings That is, unless—and this is my big fear—some ducks, remembering the old pond, may nest near it anyway. If they do, I’ll have to do still more duckling rescues, something I swore I’d never do again, as (especially in the case of a dry pond), I’d have to separate mother from babies.
There are already a pair of mallards at the pond—a drake and a hen. I don’t recognize them, but they do recognize me, as they fly or waddle over to the other side of the fence when I show up. They also come to my whistle. I am avoiding the pond now, for seeing that makes me sad.
I am getting wildlife photos sent to Poland, and though I don’t encourage that as they may get lost in my email, I manage to keep up by posting them as they come in (but still, keep them till I return on Friday).
Today’s batch is from Vanderbilt professor emeritus Paul Edelman. His captions and intro are indented; click on the photos to enlarge them.
Some more grist for the photo mill featuring some odd ducks.
This time of year in Nashville can be pretty slow for birding. One’s best bet is to look around lakes and ponds as more waterfowl are around in the late winter and early spring. So my wife and I went to Shelby Park to a small pond to see what we could see. It turned out to be an interesting visit.
Up in the trees around the park we found an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) looking for insects. We also spotted a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) and an Eastern Bluebird (Siala sialis) sharing a look-out. Overlooking them all was a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). In the marshy area next to the pond was this Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).
Even more interesting were the birds in the pond. There was a large group of Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and some Canada Geese (that I didn’t photograph—they are really nasty birds, one of only a few I actively dislike!). Finally, there was a mix of dabbling ducks. We saw a female American Wigeon (Mareca Penelope) swimming alone and with a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). Female Mallards were also paddling around. On the shore was a male Mallard with a hybrid of a Mallard with an American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). This cross is common enough that it often appears in field guides. Less common, at least for me were male and female crosses of a wild Mallard with the domesticated Khaki-Campbell breed. Further research indicates that this isn’t particularly rare—I saw similar pairs more recently at a park north of Nashville. This proliferation of cross-breeds does make for a nightmare for novice birders, though! My thanks for help in these identifications go to Nicole Reggia, Queen of Ducks.
As it’s Sunday, John Avise has provided us with another cache of themed bird photos. This week’s them, is, well, it’s below.
Click on the photos to enlarge them.
Birds on Boulders
In one of our local parks here in Southern California, a small pond’s shoreline is strewn with boulders that sometimes yield excellent photo opportunities for the creatures using them as resting spots. This week’s WEIT post shows several animals I’ve photographed on these boulders against the solid background provided by the pond.
Today Doug Hayes from Richmond, Virginia send us some non-bird-feeder birds, so they’re not part of “The Breakfast Crew” series. These are, he says, “bonus birds.” Doug’s captions and narration are indented, and you can click on his photos to enlarge them. One thing about the bird feeders is that they don’t attract DUCKS, but we have some this week—lovely mergansers.
I had not been to the lake at Forest Hill Park in some time, so yesterday I grabbed my camera and headed out to see what was happening there. To my surprise, there was a pair of hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) at the far end of the lake. This is the first time I have seen these ducks in the city: normally, one has to go to the more rural parts of the outlying counties to find them. The male and female were lazily paddling around the lake, taking turns diving for food. On one of her dives, the female snagged a freshwater mussel or snail. It was pretty large, but she managed to swallow it.
The male hooded merganser showing his impressive crest before it got wet and plastered to his head from diving for food:
The female hooded merganser showing off her spiky hairdo:
Just cruising around the lake:
On one of her dives, the female came up with a snail or freshwater mussel:
Her catch looked to be about the size of a ping-pong ball, but she was determined to eat it:
Down the hatch!
Camera info: Sony A7RV, Sony FE 200-600 zoom lens + 1.4X teleconverter. All shots handheld.
When I am looking for a specific photo, I often have to scroll back through gazillions of photos in my iPhoto library to find it, for I haven’t labeled many of my pictures. And when I am scrolling, I’m stuck by the number of duck pictures I have. But that makes me both happy and sad: I remember the good times but I’m sad that we won’t have ducks and ducklings this summer.
I don’t even know if they’ll let us have ramps to let any ducklings leave the water. Here’s a photo from two years ago or so showing a brood of ducklings that decided to nap on the ramp. How can you be glum looking at this?
Click the photo to enlarge it. Note the closed nictitating membranes of the sleeping babies: