Students are gone for summer vacation, but school’s still in session for the ducks at Ferris High School.
For seven years, mallards have homed in on the two small ponds in the open courtyard surrounded by the science building classrooms. The courtyard, used by students for various chemistry and biology projects, has become a living science lab.
The occupation started with one hen’s attraction to the combination of water, three small trees and a few plots of shrubs and grass.
The hen lured a tizzy of suitors.
She mated, nested and raised a brood of chicks to the daily delight of teachers and students who have a picture-window view before and after every class.
That hen or her progeny have returned to repeat the family affair every year.
“We know one banded hen has returned for several years and she’s produced 12 chicks every year – except this year she hatched 15,” said Robin Crain, one of the Ferris science teachers who’s taken an extended interest in the ducks.
To complicate matters, two of that hen’s “daughters” returned this year and pulled off broods.
The activity would be equally fitting in the school’s drama department.
“It was chaos earlier this spring when the males were flocking in,” Crain said.
A calm ensued as the males departed and the two hens concealed themselves as much as possible and incubated their eggs.
More turmoil emerged as the ducklings hatched and the adult ducks enforced moving territories within the smaller-than-a-basketball-court enclosure. When students realized that one banded hen hatched chicks just outside the science building, Crain organized a group of kids to herd the family into the science courtyard.
“There was no water, just busy streets out there,” he said. “It seems they’d have a better chance of surviving in here.”
Nevertheless, about eight ducklings had been killed by last week. “The mothers would whale on the chicks from other broods,” Crain said. “One younger hen had a late hatch about a week after the others and she has only three chicks remaining. We found some chicks dead in the ponds, but I suspect others may have been taken by owls.
“We’ve been putting out some feed for them because there’s clearly not enough forage or insects for all of them in the enclosure. There’s a population issue. I think we have the three hens and 23 chicks in there,” he said last week.
The Ferris duck den has become a model of wildlife biology fundamentals, said Mike Rule, wildlife biologist at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.
At Crain’s request, Rule has come to Ferris every year to clamp leg bands on the chicks. Crain’s students have used binoculars to read numbers on the bands and verify hens that have returned in subsequent years.
Acceding to Rule, wildlife lessons that can be observed at Ferris include:
• Female ducks tend to return to their natal marshes, and mallards are particularly tied to traditional nest sites.
• Hens returning to the courtyard have been banded while no bands were on the males that returned to breed with them.
• Increased territorial violence and the need for supplemental feeding indicate the duck population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the habitat available in the courtyard.
• Ducks are attracted to predator-free nesting areas.
“A fairly ambitious research project in North Dakota involved trapping and putting up electric fences to create predator-free habitat around a productive island,” Rule said. “It didn’t take ducks long to figure it out. They became almost colonial, nesting in very high-density concentrations.”
Those ducks probably had less territorial strife because they could disperse once the chicks hatched, he said.
The Ferris ducks are confined until the chicks are strong enough to fledge.
“They don’t all mature at the same rate and go at once,” Crain said, noting that he and other staff members keep coming in and putting out feed for the ducks after the school is closed for summer.
“The hens leave about two weeks before the ducklings have all their flight feathers. You’ll come in one day and notice some of the young ones are gone. A few days later only three or four are left. Then finally you come in around the end of June and they’re all gone.”
Hunters have a traditional connection with waterfowl research through the fees they pay for Duck Stamps and the support they give to wetland conservation. They also are the main sources of information from banding research that helps study waterfowl migrations.
Waterfowlers take pride in calling in the numbers on a leg band should they shoot a banded duck. In return, researchers consult the North American database and let them know where the duck had been hatched and banded.
So far, two of more than 50 ducks that were hatched, banded and fledged at Ferris have been reported harvested by hunters.
One was killed 6 miles north of Spokane during the fall-winter hunting season, the other was shot in the Burbank area of the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities, Rule said.
While school’s still in session, the ducks provide plenty of wildlife observation time for students, if not pure entertainment.
“The students love it,” Crain said. “Who doesn’t love seeing baby ducks?
“And students are quick to notice other things.”
Crain recalled a student running into his classroom with news that a red-tailed hawk had just dive-bombed the enclosure and attacked a duckling.
“We ran out and saw the hawk fly up but for some reason it dropped the chick as it went out of the enclosure. We watched the duckling run and cower against the wall, but after a little bit, when the other ducks came back to the water, the duckling sprinted over to join them. Pretty soon, it was acting as if nothing had happened.”
Big changes are in store for the ducks next year, as construction continues on the new Ferris High School.
The current one-story science building eventually will be torn down, but not until after the ducks would have nested, Crain said. “So we have to decide whether to let the birds come in and nest in the first place.
“The new science building will have a similar enclosure, but it will be stories high. We don’t know whether ducks will be attracted to it, and if they are, whether the young will be able to fly up and out over the two-story enclosure.”
Once again, the life of the school ducks mirrors a situation found in the wild.
“Development and the loss of wetlands is a major issue with wildlife populations across the continent,” Rule said.