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Fulda's Koopman enjoys watching wood ducks

Del Koopman Sr. poses in his Fulda home. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)

FULDA -- He has lived in the Fulda area all of his life, and spent the last 56 years in a house on Ireland Avenue, helping his wife raise their six children and working for Interstate Power until retiring in 1993.

Del Koopman Sr. has a passion for golf, and is currently teaching a greatgranddaughter to play. He raises Superstar musk melons the size of basketballs and bigger, and grows Big Daddy onions the size of softballs.

He meets mornings with a group of people at Antonio's, but don't mistake the meeting for a coffee clutch, because it isn't.

Yes, there may be a bit of hanging out, chit chat and coffee, but as he explains, the group is a steady flow, from early to mid-morning daily, of people who get together for what he and they refer to as a "cultural exchange."

He enjoys the daily meeting immensely, and looks forward to it, but he also has another hobby. At certain times of the year, he turns his attention to the wood ducks.

"I got curious about them some 40 years ago," he said recently. "I used to hunt and would see them around, and there were several individuals around who would put up wood duck houses."

Contacting his brother, who worked for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Koopman borrowed some books, did some research and built a few wood duck houses.

"And, lo and behold, pretty soon I had a clutch of wood ducks nesting," he chuckled.

He expanded his efforts, and soon had two tall poles in his backyard that hold three houses each.

"Some years they are all filled up, but lately the numbers are down," Koopman said. "It seems to go in cycles."

He developed a set of blueprint plans for wood duck houses and, using them, had a son build a few for some friends who were interested.

Wood ducks, according to Koopman, like to nest in the cavity of a mature tree, which are a bit scarce in this area, so the houses are an attractive option to the birds. Some come back to the same places year after year, but not always.

"They will come through about the last week in March, depending on the weather and a few other things," he explained. "They'll usually come before April 1."

The ducks start looking for a cavity or house where the hen can lay eggs. While the drake sits on top or in a nearby tree, the hen will check out the cavity or house, and maybe do a bit of cleaning. Koopman cleans out his houses at the end of each season or before the new season starts, adding a five- or six-inch layer of sawdust shavings for the beginnings of a nest.

The hen will pull out a few feathers, adding them to the nest each time she comes in to lay an egg, which generally starts the first week of April.

"She usually lays one a day in the morning, which takes about a half-hour," Koopman stated. "The drake sits on top or nearby and waits, then he goes with her back to their pond or wherever."

The mated pairs come and go each morning until the hen is done laying. The number of eggs can be as low as nine or up in the teens, and sometimes other hens will use the same nest, Koopman said.

"We call that a dumpsite," he explained. "I've seen as many as three hens using the same nest."

One year, Koopman had a dumpsite nest in his yard and carefully watched the site, removing some of the eggs so the dominant hen wouldn't have too big of a brood to care for.

"Once there was a nest with 33 eggs," he said. "They were all laid in there like a perfect bowl."

After mama hen is done laying her eggs, she sits and incubates until they start to hatch in mid-to-late May. Some might go into June or July, he said, because if the first batch of eggs is unsuccessful, the pair may start a new nest and lay another clutch of eggs.

Once the eggs are hatched, the babies don't stay in the house very long, Koopman said. A day or two is about normal. Then mama hen flies up, circles around to make sure the coast is clear, settles in nearby and starts talking to her little ones.

"And they answer her," Koopman stated.

Pretty soon, one of the babies will jump up and sit in the hole of the house. After it gets oriented, it peeps back at mama, then jumps.

"They flutter to the ground like pieces of popcorn," Koopman described.

Once all the babies have braved the jump to the ground, mama hen leads them away. They follow in a line, moving through the grass "like a big snake," Koopman said.

"They are very nimble, like baby pheasants," he explained, "and they can run across the yard like you wouldn't believe."

The hens are a brownish color, the babies are dark yellow, and Koopman described the drakes as "just beautiful."

The houses Koopman designed have hinges and a latch on one side for easy cleaning -- as easy as it gets at the top of a tall pole, anyway. One who wants to try housing wood ducks should remember to keep the shavings in the house low enough that mama can't see outside while she is nesting.

Koopman is humble about it, but admits he was instrumental in coming up with the idea to rename Fulda's Summer Water Festival. He said he just talked about Fulda being the home of the wood duck, and pretty soon it caught on. Soon after, the Fulda Wood Duck Festival was born.

Although he was involved in the Water Festivals, he hasn't had much to do with organizing Wood Duck Festivals. He does, however, keep busy with a few other things besides wood ducks, golfing, melons and onions. Koopman does quite a bit of singing, he said, performing for weddings, funerals and other church occasions. He also, in his younger days, played the trombone, but left it behind shortly after high school.

"I sold my trombone to some other aspiring musician and never picked it up again," he said with a grin.

Koopman attended country school in District 36 -- "right across from Doc Ommen's place," he said. He did two years at St. Paul Parochial, then four years in high school, graduating from Fulda High School. He also served in the U.S. Marines from 1952 to 1954.