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Birdshot and backlashes

Just about anyone who has spent some time along the streams and lakeshores of Minnesota has seen a number of those rectangular wooden structures mounted on tree trunks, known as “wood duck nesting boxes.” Some folks have even built them and erected them with the hope that a pair of ducks would move in and rear a brood. Not only the nesting boxes, but wood ducks have become more numerous over the past 60 years due considerably to the efforts of an Illinois biologist named Frank Bellrose.Frank made a study of wood ducks back in he late 1930s at a time when they were very nearly extinct. He was a new waterfowl researcher for the Illinois Natural History Survey with a laboratory at Lake Chautauqua near Havana, IL. Frank determined that the low wood population was due to a lack of hollow trees along waterways, preferred nesting sites of the birds. He built some boxes with entry holes the exact diameter of a wood duck, and put them up. Ducks moved in and raised young. He was in business.He was my boss in 1947-48 when I got a job with the Natural History Survey working on waterfowl research. We livetrapped hundreds of ducks, mostly mallards. These were fitted with numbered brass bands and released, their band numbers recorded as to the date captured. A lot of ducks were already wearing bands, ducks previously captured and released. Also, hundreds of bands were turned in by hunters who shot the migrating waterfowl along the Mississippi Flyway. By plotting the exact sites of the recoveries, Frank could mark the migration patterns of ducks, useful in management programs and setting hunting regulations.But it was the wood duck for which he was best known. Frank took his nesting box show on the road, appearing at countless sportsmen’s dinners and wildlife meetings, showing slides of the box construction and then as used by the ducks. He printed up and distributed thousands of plans for nesting boxes which found their way to sportsmen’s clubs all over North AmericaIn his spare time, Frank wrote “Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America,” the bible of duck identification, which has sold over 350,000 copies. While I was working for him, he was also doing studies on the lethal effects of lead shot pellets on the digestive systems of waterfowl. Over winter, we trapped and captured dozens of lead-poisoned ducks, victims of eating lead shot picked up along with weed seeds on the lake bottoms. The pellets would be ground up in the ducks’ gizzards and entered their blood streams with deadly results.It was largely through Frank’s efforts in contacting other researchers, wildlife managers and hundreds of sportsmen’s club that we now have nontoxic shot used in duck shotgun loads.Frank died a couple weeks back. His friends, Mr. and Mrs. Gene Herman of Havana, Illinois, sent me the obit. It was sad to hear Frank was gone. He was working on a new book and left some unfinished business. But he also left a legacy to waterfowl hunters and to the waterfowl he loved so well.Wood ducks, now a numerous game species, owe much of their current population numbers to Frank’s nesting boxes. And without nontoxic shotgun loads, the waterfowl numbers in North America would be nothing compared to what they are now.And those of us who knew him carried away a measure of the good humor, the quiet drive and the thirst for knowledge that Frank embodied. If somebody is keeping score somewhere, Frank Bellrose has to be on that short list we all know as “Good Guys” of this world. His legacy migrates north and south each year as the waterfowl of North America follow the seasons in a rhythm older than our ancestor’s presence on the continent. Slowly, inexorably, researchers like Frank add little bits and pieces to our knowledge of the natural world. We still have a long way to go.

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