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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Ducks adapt to dangers of urban living

Are ducks getting to be more common in Grand Forks? Enough people have asked this question to make me think that it must be true. Ducks are getting to be more common in Grand Forks. This is not too surprising. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks are...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

Are ducks getting to be more common in Grand Forks?

Enough people have asked this question to make me think that it must be true.

Ducks are getting to be more common in Grand Forks.

This is not too surprising.

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks are watery places.

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And North Dakota is the acknowledged duck factory of the Lower 48 states. The state's potholes produce a huge share of the nation's ducks.

The city itself has become more attractive to ducks, with the addition of a number of ponds on the Red River Greenway. Some of these have good vegetative cover along the banks, which provides protection for nesting ducks.

Within the city, wood ducks are probably the most common of the duck species. They nest in cavities, including those in cottonwood trees along the Red and Red Lake rivers.

They are also attracted to nest boxes.

Mallards also occur in the city, and I've seen blue-winged teal and northern shoveler on the Greenway ponds.

These species generally nest on the ground.

Ducks occur on English Coulee as it winds through the western part of the city and the UND campus. Just north of the city, along Columbia Road, the coulee widens. This area attracts a variety of waterfowl, including geese and gulls.

Urban living presents a number of dangers to ducks. Probably the greatest of these is traffic. Although ducks are water birds, they often nest quite a distance from the water. Once the ducklings hatch, the hens lead them to water -- past whatever obstacles may be in the way. This includes city streets.

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Ducks face a variety of other dangers on land, such as cats, and from the air, such as hawks.

On the prairie, skunks and foxes are probably the greatest threats to ducks, both eggs and ducklings.

Nor are the ducks safe once they reach water. Both fish and turtles eat ducklings.

So, it's a tough life for a young duck.

Ducks account for the danger to their young by producing a lot of them.

One of the wood duck families I heard about last week actually had more than a dozen ducklings.

It possible that these came from more than one hen because more than one hen may lay eggs in a single nest, a so called "dump nest."

"Dump nesting" allows ducks to make best use of favorable nest sites, and this may be especially important to wood ducks, which have specialized nesting needs.

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It also protects the species' gene pool by increasing the chances that at least some of a hen's eggs (and a drake's sperm) survive if a nest is destroyed.

Despite the dangers, most ducks seem to be thriving.

This is certainly true of the area's biggest species of waterfowl, the Canada goose. Big flocks of geese continue to pass over the city heading north. These are nonbreeding birds and don't face the same urgency in migration as mated pairs, so their migration is more leisurely.

Many aren't truly migrants at all. They're just moving around.

Canada geese have become fixtures of summer in the Red River Valley. This hasn't always been the case. Geese did nest in the valley in pre-settlement times, but the expanding human population pushed them out, to the point that the giant race was thought to be extinct.

They've recovered, of course, to the point that plenty of people consider them pests.

Geese and ducks reproduce prolifically.

The expansion of Canada geese is just part of a trend in the bird world. Species that once nested in the area are returning. These include trumpeter swans, now well-established in northern Minnesota and apparently expanding west of the Red River. There are records of sandhill cranes nesting in north central North Dakota and in northwestern Minnesota, where they've been regular for more than a decade. The past two springs have brought reliable reports of courting cranes in Grand Forks County, as well.

The rule among waterfowl is that the larger species nest farther south. This is certainly true of geese, and it appears to hold true for swans and cranes, as well.

Exactly why this should be is a bit of a mystery because the far north sustains plenty of big birds.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald. This column appears. Sundays.

Related Topics: ALWAYS IN SEASONMIKE JACOBS
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