It’s nothing short of a miracle. Eight white-winged wood ducks were born at the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station after several Hiram summer interns, including Allison Hock ’24, Claire Partin ’25, and Kaitlynn Jones ’25, served as duck midwives for over twelve hours, observing and assisting with the hatching. For the last month, staff at the Field Station contributed to the success of the ducks hatching by checking on the eggs, monitoring the development of the embryos, and keeping track of when the eggs were expected to hatch.
“Allison, Claire, and Kaitlynn were instrumental in the survival of these babies during hatching,” said Rebecca Moore, curator of animal programs at the Field Station. “Throughout the night, as the babies hatched, these three students updated me hourly. Their excitement as healthy babies emerged from their eggs was so heartwarming. They were part of a unique process that most college students will never experience—helping critically endangered white-winged wood ducks hatch and survive.”
Hiram College has had a partnership with the Akron Zoo since 2005 to provide housing, care, and breeding for their endangered white-winged wood ducks at the Field Station. The facility to house them is known as the “Duckhouse” to Field Station students and staff, appearing as a greenhouse with plastic sides that can open and close depending on the season. The structure was built to allow the ducks to have access to the outdoors during the spring and summer, along with heat for the winter, and running water.
Although eight white-winged wood ducks hatched, two did not survive. However, this feat is not one to take lightly as these ducks are native to Southeast Asia and India and inhabit swampy areas and tropical forests. Several reasons these animals are considered one of the most critically endangered species in the world are due to habit loss, water pollution, and collecting eggs and chicks for food and pet trade. Around five to eight hundred white-winged wood ducks are estimated to be in the wild, and breeding these ducks can be difficult due to the lack of diversity in captivity—it can prevent eggs from being fertile or successfully maturing.
“Being part of an international conservation effort to breed these ducks in captivity is pretty amazing. The fact that we have six healthy babies is a significant contribution to the international and North American captive population,” said Moore. “We are helping a critically endangered species through our breeding program and, someday, the captive population may be able to be released back into the wild.”
This experience has not only been monumental for the white-winged wood ducks conservation effort, but to biology major, Allison Hock, who helped assist one of the hatchings personally. “To be able to experience and watch the babies hatch was almost euphoric. There were so many different emotions running through my body. Obviously, I was excited, but the worry began as soon as they came out of the egg. There are so many things that could go wrong with these babies, and I felt responsible to make sure that they stayed as healthy as possible,” she said.
During the night the ducks had hatched, Hock and the other two interns examined the eggs every hour. As eggs near hatching, they begin to pip, or, use their egg tooth (tip of their beaks) to start breaking the shell from inside the egg. Once they break the shell open, the ducks continue to peck and eventually wiggle out to join the rest of the world. This process can take up to twenty-four hours or longer!
“We noticed that one egg had a double membrane and was starting to dry onto the baby, trapping him in the egg,” said Hock. “The nerves were high, and we all looked at each other and decided to help him out of the egg by slowly pulling at the membranes and picking off some of the eggshells. Luckily, when we checked on him again, he was out of the egg!” The newly born ducks were then pulled from the nest box to the brooder table—a place where baby waterfowl can grow up with heat, shallow water, and continued care in a safe setting.
“It is honestly so amazing to be a part of this,” said Hock. “When I first started working [at the Field Station], I could have never imagined being a part of something this significant and amazing!”
The babies will continue to be cared for at the Field Station until the Akron Zoo decides otherwise. Often, ducks are transferred to other zoos, or the Akron Zoo may take some for their waterfowl display. However, it is likely the Field Station will keep the new additions for future breeding opportunities and continue their conservation efforts.