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Natural Curiosities

Last March I was going to put new bedding in my wood-duck house and was surprised to find six eggs from the previous spring. Any idea why they would not have hatched? The female wood duck was at the house all spring and early summer, so I don't think it was due to lack of attention.

Michael Mosher

DNR waterfowl specialist Steve Cordts says the eggs could have been infertile, or the embryos may have got too hot or too cold and died. Another possibility is that a first brood hatched and left the nest, then the six eggs were laid and abandoned by a second hen. Or perhaps the eggs were deposited by another hen while the first clutch was still being incubated. Such "dump nesting" is common in wood ducks. The dumped eggs would have been left behind, unhatched, when the first hen and young left the nest.

How long do northern pike live?

Pete Talberg

In northern Minnesota lakes, they tend to grow slowly and live 15 to 20 years or longer, according to DNR fisheries staff. Those from southern Minnesota grow more quickly, but live only eight to 10 years. Fisheries biologists determine the age of a northern pike by counting the number of layers of bone in the cleithrum, a bone that runs along the back edge of the gill chamber. The cleithrum adds a layer of bone, much as a tree adds a ring, for each year of life. The oldest northern pike aged using this technique was a 29-year-old, 31-pound female caught in Lake Athabasca, Saskatchewan, in 1974.

In his article on ice (March-April 2007), Will Weaver states that "right on schedule -- the first loon came swimming by, head erect, apparently happy to be back." (The ice had just cleared Lake Bemidji.) I have noticed this same happening on Lake Phalen in St. Paul. The ice breaks up in the morning, and shortly thereafter the loons appear. How do they know when the ice leaves? And where are they the day before?

Carrie Wasley
St. Paul

DNR loon expert Pam Perry says she has heard many reports of the same thing. She also has observed loons using the Mississippi River before the ice goes out on the lakes. She suspects that the loons hang out on the river and periodically check their lake. If the lake is still frozen, they return to the river or fly to another lake farther south.

We have a rock pile in our yard that seems to attract garter snakes each spring. Last April I saw more than 15 snakes tangled together in the grass. What were they doing, and how can I convince my husband we don't need to get rid of them?

Stacey Baltes

Male and female garter snakes form a "mating ball" when they emerge from their hibernaculum in the spring, says DNR herpetologist Carol Hall -- so they were making more snakes.

Tell your husband snakes are an important part of the balance of nature in your backyard ecosystem. They feed on mice, insects, and frogs, and add to biological diversity. Minnesota has two species of garter snakes. The eastern garter snake is found mainly in and along the edges of forests. The plains garter snake inhabits open grasslands.

Why does the air smell so refreshing on my early morning walks around the pond by my home?

Mark Heaner

University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley says if the air is quiet overnight, cooler air can become trapped beneath a layer of warmer air. Trapped along with it are the fragrances coming from the soil and vegetation. Your brain interprets the fragrance as freshness. As the sun heats the earth's surface and breezes pick up during daytime, the layers begin to mix and the concentrated scent dissipates. Seeley notes that this also explains why hunting dogs often are able to track better early in the day.

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