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Minnesota's ducks won't stop toying with the National Weather Service

When Minnesota's ducks hold a feast, they don't go cheap on the invites.

When Minnesota's ducks hold a feast, they don't go cheap on the invites. Brian Rogers

Last week, meteorologists at the Duluth station of National Weather Service grew alarmed. Something strange was showing up on their radar over Aitkin County, home to the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It appeared to be smoke from an emerging fire.

Urgent calls were made. They notified the sheriff and firefighters, but no one was aware of any reports of a blaze. So they called the refuge, where it turns out something far more innocent was afoot.

Workers had been out on Rice Lake late that morning running a waterfowl survey. This did not please the ducks feasting on wild rice. The noise drove them airborne. And when an estimated 600,000 ducks take to the sky, it's bound to show up on radar.

It's not unusual for large flocks of birds or swarms of insects to appear on meteorologists' screens, especially when they're congregating for a major party. In La Crosse, the Weather Service often finds the summer mayfly hatches on radar.

But ducks only tend to appear in the early morning, when they take to the sky in volume for a day of duck-like activity. The fact that they'd risen at once at 10 a.m. was what made this sighting unusual, and that's what toyed with the radar analysis.

So when it happened again yesterday, no one was fooled. Wildlife Refuge workers let the Weather Service know it would be out counting ducks on Rice Lake that morning. This time, their estimate reached 900,000. No one feared a major fire.

While the episode may show the limitations of technology, it's also a keen lesson on the bounty of nature. That that many discerning ducks can show up at one restaurant to feast on authentic Minnesota wild rice—as opposed to the lesser farm-grown California version—is something of a miracle in itself.

Where else can a waiter say, “Party of 900,000, please?” and expect to find no problem seating them?