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Nested eggs

Courtesy Ducks Unlimited Ducks Unlimited volunteer Mery Casady handles a duck egg on a duck nesting survey last year. Ducks Unlimited conducts the studies annually in an attempt to set conservation policy.

For the last ten years, the Great Plains Regional Office of Ducks Unlimited chapter has been keeping a close eye on North Dakota's duck nesting habits.

The study, which seeks to understand where and when ducks prefer to nest, is in its tenth consecutive year, and Jennifer Kross, a communications biologist with DU said the information they've been able to gather has been valuable.

"Research is kind of a learning experience," Kross said. "We've gotten some really good data and I think that's pretty much the point.

Johann Walker, manager of conservation planning in Bismarck said the information is valuable because it gives the conservation group a greater understanding of where they should focus their efforts.

"Ducks Unlimited spends a considerable amount of effort and time and money - and so does the Fish and Wildlife Service - trying to conserve grassland habitat," Walker said. "Our intention with these nest surveys is to learn about which landscapes consistently have the most nests in them and relate that nest hatching rate to the characteristics of the landscape."

The nest searches are conducted in Burke, Divide, Kidder, Mountrail, Stutsman, Ward and Wells counties in North Dakota and two South Dakota counties, McPherson and Edmunds counties, Kross said.

About 20 sites are searched throughout the two states, Walker said, adding the find about 2000 nests on average each year.

"We find nests of kind of your most common upland nesting duck species, mallards, gadwall, blue-wing teal, shovelers and pintails, primarily, with a few scots thrown in," Walker said. "We use very standard methods of searching for nest in fields of grass cover all over the Missouri Couteau."

Walker said searches are conducted using two ATVs, which pull a 200-pound 5/16-inch chain spread out a few hundred feet.

The chain, while seemingly heavy, is supported by the grass which shelters the nests and flushes nesting birds. The nests are then marked and investigated.

"We just visit those nests every few days until they either hatch or they're destroyed by a predator or the female abandons them for whatever reason," Walker said.

Walker said the process rarely sees any broken eggs, but it does happen with about one out of every 500 nests.

So far the study has yielded some good information, which shows duck nests tend to thrive in wetter conditions and they tend to prefer landscapes with more perennial grass cover, Walker said.

Walker said they actively share the information with other wildlife agencies and when the study is completed the data will be archived at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown.