Candid wood-duck camera
Amateur naturalist uses cameras designed for baby cribs to monitor five wood-duck boxes spread out over three separate properties
By Chris Niskanen
St. Paul Pioneer Press
During the spring months, thousands of Minnesotans build and maintain wood-duck boxes throughout the state.
ST. PAUL — Amateur naturalist Roger Strand enjoys watching a little television every morning this time of year, but he tunes into a program not offered by his local cable company in New London.
You might call it the Wood Duck Channel.
Recently, Strand was anxiously watching his TV in hopes of recording a first for him: the laying of an egg by a wood duck. Strand has a several tiny cameras with infrared lights mounted inside wood duck boxes on his property. One box resides about 40 feet from his farmhouse.
A long cable connecting that camera with his television delivers 24-hour viewing of wood ducks that come and go from the house, offering Strand valuable insights into the behavior of his favorite bird.
"The camera was designed to monitor infants in their cribs," said Strand, 68, a retired surgeon whose observations and writings are read and respected by many waterfowl biologists. "It also has a microphone so I can hear what's going on. This time of year, I get up at dawn and turn on the television just to see what's happening. I enjoy it."
Erecting and maintaining wood duck houses — typically small wooden boxes attached to trees — is a popular hobby for thousands of Minnesotans, especially those with a bent toward bird watching or waterfowling.
During the spring a major influx of wood ducks enters Minnesota and the egg-laying season begins by the hens. Strand was actively monitoring many of the 100 wood duck boxes he maintains.
“ This time of year, I get up at dawn and turn on the television just to see what's happening. I enjoy it. ”
— Roger Strand, amateur naturalist on his wood-duck television channel
The boxes are distributed between his 300-acre farm and hunting property, Sibley State Park and the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer.
"My wife likes to say that my wood duck boxes are like running a business," he said. "But every year I learn something new from these hens."
Strand got the idea to use video cameras in his houses from another wood-duck expert, Don Helmeke of Maple Grove. He now has cameras hooked up to three boxes on his property, one at Sibley State Park and another at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.
Strand and the members of the Twin Cities Wood Duck Society recently laid out the designs for the perfect wood-duck house design and erection. The method doesn't involve hanging the box in a tree; rather it's mounted on a post just six feet off the ground. It also employs a predator guard that keeps marauding raccoons, mink and squirrels at bay.
Strand shares his love of wood ducks — and hours of video tape — with children at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, where he has set up a video camera in one of the wood duck houses.
"Roger is certainly Dr. Wood Duck," said Dave Pederson, director of the center. "He's a deep person, and very concerned about the environment. He's extremely respected in the community for his conservation education."
Strand applies his scientific training to observing wood ducks, and he maintains notebooks on every one of his boxes, including one box that's been used for more than 20 years.
Mature wood-duck hens, identifiable by white eye markings, will often incubate several hens' eggs at one time.
"His knowledge and passion for wood ducks is incredible," said Jeff Lawrence, who heads the waterfowl research unit for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
One of his favorite subjects is compound nesting, or "dump" nesting, where multiple wood duck hens — even female hooded mergansers — will lay eggs in the same box.
Since wood duck hens lay one egg per day, Strand has a pretty good idea when more than one hen is using a box. Using his camera, he once observed a hen incubate 36 wood duck eggs in a single house, an effort that kept her up nearly day and night for a month.
The eggs were arranged in four layers and were likely laid by three different hens, including the hen that ultimately hatched them.
"She was like an obstetrician, scooping the eggs from the bottom of the box and rotating them to keep them warm," Strand said. "She worked hard at it and got 32 ducklings out of 36 eggs."
In the competition to incubate eggs, older hens — identifiable by white eye markings — usually win out over young hens lying in the same box.
"The old hens and the young ones will start squawking at each other, and they'll have at it," he said. "The young bird knows who is dominant and will usually leave the next, but the old hen might pluck out a few of her butt feathers as the young one gets out."
Compound nesting isn't rare — Strand estimates about 40 percent of his boxes get multiple usage — and on occasion a hooded merganser and wood duck will lay eggs in the same box, and one of the hens will raise all the eggs.
"You can tell the mergansers when they get on the water because the hen merganser will dive, and the little ones will dive too, but the wood duck ducklings will sit there looking around, like 'Where'd everyone go?' "
Mergansers are fish-eating ducks; wood ducks are not.
Strand said he has hours of wood duck video "that will make you go to sleep," but his most popular footage among kids is the process of ducklings jumping out of the nest. He has one episode where all the ducklings quickly climb out of the box and jump to the ground, except the last two ducklings, which struggle to get to the hole. Eventually, they make it, giving way to cheers from the watching children.
Strand has been urged by some of his biologist friends to submit his reports to scientific journals, but he dismisses the idea because he doesn't consider himself a trained waterfowl biologist.
Pederson said Strand is a volunteer conservationist who likes the outdoors and shuns attention.
"Roger is extremely giving of his time and resources," Pederson said. "He'll say, 'I don't care for meetings, but I sure like getting outside and doing things.'"
Distributed by the Associated Press, information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press