CEDAR RAPIDS — At the duck house at Bever Park in Cedar Rapids, something rare happened this year: one of the canvasback ducks in the park’s Old MacDonald’s Farm duck exhibit hatched four babies.
That hasn’t happened in years, said farm manager Megan Lopata. Her theory: Without the crowds of families visiting the exhibit, the ducks have felt safer and less stressed. The canvasback duck female in particular likes to nest right under the exhibit’s boardwalk, near where children are often running.
“This year we’ve had more babies in nests than in the five years I’ve been here,” she said. “These babies are very precious to us.”
Still, she said, something was lost when the coronavirus pandemic led to the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department’s decision to not open Old MacDonald’s Farm to the public this spring. The farm includes the duck exhibit, a farm animal petting zoo and educational gardens. In 2017, the farm had over 115,000 visitors, according to the Cedar Rapids Parks Foundation, which is in the process of raising money for improvements to the farm.
“I missed people. Every year we have regulars who come almost every day. It was sad not to see them this year,” she said.
On July 11, the department started opening just the duck exhibit to the public on a limited basis, from 9 a.m. to noon Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
“We thought we could do it safely and keep it social distanced. We know people are looking for things to do,” said Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department Director Scott Hock.
But it was too late to include the other farm animals in the petting zoo. Normally, they receive the animals, including cows, pigs and goats, as babies on loan from area farmers, and the animals are socialized and used to being around lots of people and children from birth. This late in the summer the animals would be too big and without that socialization wouldn’t make good petting zoo candidates, Lopata said.
The zoo “is really about giving the opportunity to kids who might not have the opportunity in the urban setting to interact with those animals, to gain an appreciation for them,” Hock said.
At the end of each season, most of the farm animals go back to the farmers who lent them. The ducks, however, stay at Bever Park year-round. Since they cannot fly south to escape the cold, they spend winters inside the duck house in the park — a structure that used to be the monkey house when the zoo housed more exotic animals.
Other permanent residents of the farm include a tortoise, hedgehog and rats, whom Lopata said seem to have missed the attention this year.
One duck, at least, enjoys having people around again. A pekin duck with a poof of white feathers on his head named Buckaroo came to the farm from a woman who had kept him as a pet. When she moved from a house to an apartment she couldn’t take him with her, so now he lives at Bever Park. If he doesn’t get enough attention from park staff, he’ll follow them around and demand it, Lopata said.
“He’s spoiled rotten. He sits right here and waits for us to love him,” she said.
The duck herd, as Lopata calls it, includes 23 species and around 100 individual ducks, is self-sustaining, with new babies hatched each year.
The new canvasback ducklings and their mother are up in the duck house for now. When they’re a little bit bigger and stronger, they’ll join the other ducks in the exhibit.
Even in captivity, survival isn’t assured. An electric fence, scarecrows and plastic coyote decoys aim to keep predators like mink and raccoons at bay. The staff keep a radio playing at night, which helps deter hawks. Near one of the ponds, old CDs hang on twine — Lopata said they reflect light and blind hawks trying to swoop in to grab a duck. All of the ducks are rounded up each night and kept in sheds, to protect them from owls.
Wild ducks also enjoy the exhibit. Every year, a pair of mallards come in and lay eggs. Right now, the mother and several of her babies are there, swimming alongside the zoo’s ducks. The staff don’t round them up at night; since their wings aren’t trimmed, they can fly away from predators. At the end of the summer, they fly away to migrate south.
Lopata said she enjoys seeing all the different breeds of ducks and learning their quirks.
“I just like their different personalities. They are so fun,” Lopata said.
Lopata’s main assistant is Don Thompson, who helps care for the ducks and the landscaping around their ponds.
“They’re just calming,” he said. “When I’m having a bad day, they get me out of it.”
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