Readers’ wildlife photos

July 2, 2023 • 8:15 am

As it’s Sunday, we have a themed batch of bird photos from John Avise. Today’s theme, like last week’s, is about bird eyes. John’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Don’t miss the leg-banded female woody at the end!


Eye adornments must be important in avian behavioral signaling and non-verbal communication.  I say this because the eyes of many bird species have evolved colorful irises (see last Sunday’s WEIT post) or are otherwise exaggerated in appearance, much as people’s eyes vary with iris color or eyelid mascara.

Another way that avian eyes may draw attention is via the presence of eye-surrounding circles known as “eye-rings” that give the birds a spectacled look (much like large-rimmed eye-glasses on people).  This week’s post shows several examples of North American avian species with notable eye-rings, which are a useful aide in species’ identification by birdwatchers.  Because eye-rings have evolved independently many times in different avian taxa, we can speculate that they probably serve some adaptive role, perhaps in inter-bird communication or species recognition.  But precisely what that adaptive role is remains uncertain.  Readers are welcome to suggest potential roles for eye-rings, or how any such hypotheses potentially might be tested.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius):

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea):

Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius):

Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus):

Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla):

Pacific-Slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis):

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Corthylio calendula):

Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Aimophila ruficeps):

Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons):

Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi):

Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria):

Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla):

Ring-necked Duck hen (Aythya collaris):

Wood Duck hen (Aix sponsa):

Our dorm ducks

June 27, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Yes, a mother and ten ducklings are marooned on the garden plaza connecting two dorms here, and I was called as the Duck Rescuer to deal with them. Our plan is to let them grow up on the plaza, as there’s plenty of space, shrubbery and lawns, as well as a cement area, and we will ensure that they’re fed and watered until they’re able to fly (they cannot jump off the plaza as it’s surrounded by a high wall). There are no students here, so there’s nobody to disturb them. Facilities and a kindly worker in the dorm are looking after them when I can’t get in—which is most of the time.

So, meet Maria and her ten ducklings (there were ten when I first saw them, so none have disappeared). “Maria” was the name of the grandmother of the woman at Facilities who alerted us to the brood and is helping us,

As a duck rescuer once told me, “Ducks are really good at finding safe places to nest, but not so good at finding safe places to nest near water.”  This is the case here, but we’re giving the babies plenty of water to splash around in.

Ten—count them—ten.

Ceiling Cat help me—I do love my ducks!

And they’re in very good shape. Look at those full crops!

Of course Amy is still incubating her brood on a Regenstein Library window ledge, and we’ll have to figure out how to deal with the hatchlings when they jump to the ground to be with mom.

Ducks upon ducks

June 23, 2023 • 1:20 pm

This morning two members of Team Duck went to look at the report of ten young ducklings on a dorm roof (actually, a big landscaped yard) where they can’t get out. We took a look, gave them tons of food and water, and decided to keep the babies with mom until they can fly. This, of course, involves a nearly daily schlep across campus and a labyrinthine trek through dorm basements to get to the garden. But I’ve just ordered another 25 pounds of baby duck food, and I have a big supply already on hand.

We couldn’t find any ducklings when we first walked onto the roof garden, but Marie heard peeping and there they were: ten adorable babies, probably 4-5 days old, all huddled together. Where was Mom? We were worried, but in a minute or so Mom appeared with loud quacking. She called to her babies, who ran to her.

By that time we’d placed bowls of duckling food and pans of water around the plaza, but they didn’t know what they were. So I tossed a handful of the small pellets to Mom, and it wasn’t long before she realized they were food, and began gobbling them up. The babies followed suit.

Mom discovers that what I was tossing her was good to eat!

And the babies tucked in, too:

We had a couple of little swimming pool pans, and when the ducklings saw them, and one jumped in, they all followed–all ten. I believe this is the first time they ever were immersed in water, and they were splashing with joy and drinking. (We’ll give them more pools by Monday.  I don’t even think they saw water until yesterday, when the boss at Facilities left out a bowl.

Now we’ll look after them until they’re ready to fly: in about 5-6 weeks. I didn’t expect to be doing such things this summer, but somebody has to. And it’s good to see ducklings again.


Amy the library duck

June 23, 2023 • 8:55 am

My hopes for a mallard-free year have been cruelly dashed. As I noted the other day, I rescued eight newborn ducklings that were wandering around campus with a mother who was leading them about aimlessly (they never would have gotten to water). Those are now at Willowbrook and will be brought up with care.

I received a call the other day, which I’ve also recounted, that a hen had nested on a windowsill at Regenstein Library—the main campus library—and the people there had named her Amy. She’s sitting on eggs, and we estimate a hatch date of about July 10. I suggested that they put a tub of water on the ground near the nest for when Amy wanted a drink or a bath (they leave the nest for an hour about every five days to tank up and wash off), and they did it immediately. They love her! Here’s the tub (it’s now full to the brim with water):

The window where she’s sitting has a webcam with chairs in front of it so people don’t disturb her. Here’s a photo of Amy burrowed down in her nest, probably to both avoid the heat and camouflage herself and her nest. (The window is dirty, but you can see her head at lower right plus the patterns on her feathers.)

They have put contact information for me next to the window in case people need duck help. I redacted that information.  You can see that the library people love her; this is what happens when a duck nests on your windowsill:

Finally, the live duck cam focused on Amy and her nest, which operates 24/7, is here, and you can also access it by clicking on the screenshot below, taken just a few minutes ago. Make sure when you go to the site that the video is turned on (i.e., you see a little triangle in the lower left corner).

And remember, ledge-nesting is a novel behavior in mallards. In the wild they nest on the ground, but as they’ve moved into urban areas, they’ve discovered that some window ledges, not accessible to ground predators, make ideal nest sites.

After checking on Amy yesterday, I got a call from Facilities that there’s a family of ten ducklings marooned on a dorm roof. It’s the same roof as last year, and I did one rescue/rehab there but the female re-nested right after that and managed to raise a second brood on the grassy roof (there are trees, too). I am bringing them food and water this morning, and checking on the situation. If mom is there, I’ll make sure they have food and water for the six weeks it’ll take for them to be able to fly.

No rest for the weary!

DuckCam upgrade

June 19, 2023 • 1:12 pm

Amy, the duck nesting on a ledge at Regenstein library, now has an upgraded cam and a new website. It’s worth watching her, as all kinds of stuff can be seen.  For example:

a. Two days ago, someone saw a squirrel encounter the duck, supposedly trying to steal an egg (I don’t think it’s possible for a squirrel to run off with a duck egg). The duck pecked it, and the squirrel DIVED UNDERNEATH THE DUCK, so that the duck was plopped down on a belly-up squirrel. Apparently the squirrel ran off.

b. Someone saw at least five eggs in the nest. That means there are more buried in the leaves and feathers.

c. Yesterday someone watched her fly off for about 1.5 hours (they do this every few days for a drink and a bath). She probably went to a nearby pond or lake. But before leaving the nest, she carefully covered up all the eggs with her bill. This not only keeps them warm, but hides them from potential predators.  When she returned, she shuffled the leaf-father covering off the eggs, but using her feet.

If you click the picture below, you can go to the new duckcam. Say hi to Amy! Right now the sun is on the nest, so it’s not all that easy to see. At other times she’s clear as a bell. And you might get to see her cover or uncover her eggs. (She also turns them from time to time to ensure even incubation.)

Be sure to click the triangle to start the video (you can also scroll backwards).  There may be an annoying buzz that you’ll have to silence by muting the screen.

She’s always futzing with her nest, too.

More ducks: A new duck cam shows a nesting hen at our Regenstein Library

June 16, 2023 • 1:30 pm

I was informed yesterday, not to my huge delight, that a mallard hen is nesting across the street from my office—on a window ledge at Regenstein Library. This would not normally be a problem, for when her babies hatched and jumped down one floor, we could herd them to BotanyPond (we’ve done it before from this area). The problem, of course, is that there IS no Botany Pond this year, which leaves us with a dilemma. Let nature take its course and let the mother lead the babies to water? But the nearest water is well over a mile and a half away: large ponds and lakes to the east and west, and the family would have to cross big and busy streets.  Most of them would probably not make it.

The other solution is to get the ducklings as they drop, put them in a box, and take them to the rehab people. (This is what I did this morning.) While this assures complete survival of the brood, it requires breaking up the family, as it’s impossible to catch the mother duck and take the whole family to the water.  \

Well, you can see the duck, whom the library folks have named Amy, at this site (be sure to press the “play” triangle), or by clicking on the screenshot below. I’m told the camera and feed will be upgraded soon.

In the meantime, I have about a month to get anxious; she just started incubating, and it’ll be about 28 days to Hatch Time. I had hoped to have a duckling-free season while Botany Pond got renovated, but it doesn’t seem to be working out.

Note to U of C people: this ledge is in an office, so don’t try seeing her from inside the library. And please don’t disturb her from the outside. Thanks!

What I did this morning

June 16, 2023 • 11:00 am

So much for hoping for a duckling-rescue-free summer! I was writing peacefully in my office when Jessica Morgan, a grad student in biology who knew of me as the “duck rescuer” called me on my cellphone. She’d spotted a mother and eight ducklings wandering around aimlessly by the physics building, not knowing where to go. There was no way they could make it the 1.5-2 miles to water, and they were headed in the wrong direction anyway.

I had to make the hard decision and rescue the brood, which I did with the help of two people.  Of course the babies were spooked, the mother quacked frantically as I netted the fast little buggers, and after that I put them is a towel-lined box.  They’re now in rehab, with food and water, headed for Willowbrook Wildlife Sanctuary this weekend.

Yes, we got all of them, and they all look healthy. Poor mom.

Now the mom is freaked, the babies are freaked, and I’m in tears. The only consolation is that I know that all these little ones will live. Thanks to Jessica and Marie Schilling of Team Duck for their help!

Box o’ ducks:

The state of Botany Pond

June 10, 2023 • 12:30 pm

All of us are missing our wildlife this year, for Botany Pond is being renovated. We were told that the renovations would begin after convocation (that was a week ago), but we’ve had a week of good weather since then and nothing appears to have been done. The schedule calls for landscaping, fixing the cement walls, putting in a new pond bottom, adding upgraded drains and filters—all done by fall, with the Pond being refilled by October.  Right now it’s just a shadow of its former self.

The gate to the pond was open this morning, so we strolled in and I took a few pictures (click them to enlarge):

From the north end. You can see all the duck circles as well as the barriers, which I didn’t know existed since the mud was so deep that I rarely ran into them. Note that both bald cypress trees were cut down and only the stumps are visible (their roots were going through the cement). The plants are growing wild, as is the Virginia creeper on Erman Hall to the left.

A view from the south looking north.  I never knew those walls were there in the pond, though occasionally I’d bump my leg on something when I was saving ducklings. The bridge over the pond that leads to the channel is to the left. Notice the faux wolf at lower left, put there to scare off the ducks (there are two, but they didn’t work).

A panorama of the pond from the south:

And a faux wolf. They are smaller than they look from afar, and are also made out of plastic (for some reason I thought they’d be furry, but that would be dumb):

We are all suffering from duck and turtle withdrawal.

Readers wildlife photos and video; banding wood ducklings

June 4, 2023 • 8:15 am

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 died

May 24, 2023 • 9:30 am

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.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
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:

Hi Bob,

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.

RIP Bob; I will miss you, and so will the ducks.

Bob Zimmer


Honey and offspring