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Michelle Witkin attaches a screw into her wood duck house as father Brad looks on. They will put the house up in their yard. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Science project will allow sneak peek at ducklings

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News Park Rapids,Minnesota 56470
Park Rapids Enterprise
Science project will allow sneak peek at ducklings
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

A citizen science project got under way Saturday with a bang - actually several of them - as a chorus of hammers, drills and cordless screwdrivers went to work.


Kids, parents, grandparents, science buffs and outdoors enthusiasts all came together Saturday in the industrial arts classroom of Century Middle School with one goal in mind - providing shelter for groups of unknown wood ducks.

A two-pronged project will allow families, students and Internet audiences to study wood duck nesting habits and watch, via infrared cameras and interactive video feeds, how ducks nest and incubate their eggs.

Little Eli Bervig covered his ears while his grandfather, Gregg Bervig pounded nails to build a nesting house. Eli's two-year-old brother Ephraim watched wide-eyed, trying to keep his safety glasses on his ears. The tow-headed tykes then accompanied grandmother Therese Bervig to view a finished model, peeking inside and opening the doors many times to see how the house would allow visitations once completed.

Retired Park Rapids science teacher Steve Maanum initiated the project with help from grant monies. He has had wood duck houses in his yard for several years with cameras mounted inside. This grant will fund two small cameras that will be monitored by a high school science class, but he told the duck house builders that cameras are available at hobby shops for less than $100 if individuals were interested in filming their own nests.

And fish finder cameras will work, Maanum advised, "as long as dad can do without them for the first few weeks of the fishing season."

Kids can even take digital or video pictures of the nests and eggs.

"We're putting up 50 houses in the area," Maanum said. "Look at all these," he marveled of the kids' work. "My ducks may just leave."

The kids who built houses last weekend pinpointed on a map where they will mount the homes, on trees, on poles or on posts. A GPS location of each house will enable the scientists to monitor where the ducks are nesting.

Maanum cautioned the eager builders it may take the ducks a year or two to find the houses, but not to get discouraged meanwhile.

Often times a merganser or sometimes even a bluebird will find the nests, he said.

"You can study those nests," said Joe Courneya, a 4-H program development educator with University of Minnesota Extension who is also involved in the project. An Internet link will be provided once the nests are up and running, he said.

Courneya told the kids they could use the wood duck projects for 4-H, science fairs, Boy Scout badges or just for fun.

"You are real scientists," he told the participants.

Michelle Witkin and her dad, Brad, initially planned to put their duck house on lake property in Morrison County. But as the project progressed, they got so excited about it, they decided to keep it on a wetland area near home so they could keep a close eye on it.

Maanum lectured the participants about duck nesting habits and what to look for. He explained the importance of a daily egg count; each student was given a "NestWatch" log from Cornell University's Ornithology Lab. Results will be entered into a nationwide count.

"She'll lay an egg a day and fly off," Maanum told the young scientists. "Don't worry about scaring her off when you go to check the nest. She'll come back."

Once the female duck lays all her eggs, they will incubate from 29 to 37 days.

Maanum said sometimes females will share a nest and incubate each other's eggs. He told the giggling kids about the time he saw a female lay an egg on the back of another female. The fun part comes when the moms push their young out of the nests, or call to them from the ground to take a leap to freedom.

Maanum has video of downy ducklings plummeting to earth, bouncing when they land. Houses are mounted anywhere from 5 to 10 feet above ground, near a lakeshore or river. Typically, the homes on poles have a baffle underneath to keep predators away. One participant was going to put his house on the water.

The homebuilders received packages of wood shavings the ducks will use to cover the eggs. Females also pluck their own down to feather their nests.

Joshua Severtson and his friend, Jeff Johnson, promptly mounted their two houses on trees in Josh's yard on the Fish Hook River.

Victoria Dahl and her son Alex took their house to Potato Lake.

Emily Eystad and brother Sam gave theirs to their uncle who lives on a nearby creek. They said they would visit it regularly to monitor it for signs of life.

The budding scientists hope for a population explosion of wood ducks. If enthusiasm counts as an enticement, the red carpet is out and awaiting prospective avian parents.