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Ducks keeping neighbors up at night

Homosassa, Florida - Some neighbors in the small community of Homosassa have a big problem that's keeping them up at night. The Meadows subdivision is home to a little more than 50 Muscovy ducks.

While some people love the stocky birds with the red markings on their faces, others hate them. Those who dislike them say they're aggressive, spread disease and leave behind a large amount of droppings.

However, two homeowners say they're so desperate to keep the ducks from being trapped and killed that they're willing to learn how to slip into the ducks' nests while they're away to keep the animals from reproducing.

Susan Hayden moved to Pelican Lane in The Meadows subdivision five years ago because of the wildlife. She says that after growing up in Chicago, moving to The Meadows was like stepping into the glossy pages of a National Geographic magazine.

Her kitchen overlooks the pond where she routinely watches the Muscovy ducks along with Egrets, Bald Eagles, Hawks and Sandhill Cranes. 

Hayden says, "People come from other neighborhoods to see the ducks at this pond. Their children enjoy feeding the ducks. I don't know how anyone can get anything mean or negative out of it."

But Hayden admits there are people in the neighborhood who want to see the Muscovy ducks removed due in part to information shared with homeowners on Aug.8th.

During the Meadows of Citrus County Homeowners' Association meeting, Hayden says Laurel Varilek, president at the time of the gathering, read a letter from a woman who claimed she suffered a life threatening illness due to feeding the ducks.

The woman wrote that she had fever, shakes and weight loss. She claimed her condition was so dire that during chemotherapy her doctor said her deteriorating condition must have come from feeding the ducks. Hayden says the writer explained that her doctor had ruled everything else out.

Hayden says she was shocked by the letter.

She says the board also mentioned the ducks were ripping the shingles off one homeowner's roof and getting into neighbors' garbage. She says it was during that meeting when homeowners voted 29 to 17 to pay a trapper $1,600.00 to get rid of the ducks.

We tried to contact Varilek to find out who the sick homeowner is, but she did not return our phone calls.

Sara Dobbs is the Vice President for the homeowners' association. When asked when the ducks would be trapped she said, "I have no idea. I don't have anything to tell you. There's no decision yet." Paul Gadke is the Secretary for the association. He told us he was not available to speak, because he was on his way out the door.

Controversy over Muscovy ducks isn't new. Similar questions about how to control the duck population has been going on for years at Crescent Lake, near downtown St. Petersburg, and at the 17th Street Duck pond in Ocala. Gary Morse is a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission who says the Ocala location has had problems for decades. He says, "It's a difficult situation for the community to have to decide. The solution isn't easy."

According to research conducted at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural and Sciences Extension, the ducks are in all 67 Florida counties, especially around parks, lakes, ponds and streams.

Researchers say the ducks typically stick around because people feed them. The ducks eat vegetation in and around water, seeds and acorns but can become aggressive once they get used to being fed.

UF researchers also found that the ducks generate a massive amount of droppings that can contaminate water, and the ducks can spread disease to native ducks. However, UF and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) researchers have not documented any link to Muscovy ducks spreading disease to people.

FWC says the ducks were illegally released into communities by individuals. The animals are considered an invasive species and they reproduce very quickly when they're not controlled.

Hayden and her neighbor, Lisa Cocuzza, who also lives on Pelican Lane, have spent hours researching possible solutions. They've even called trappers to ask them about their procedures. They say they learned there's no easy answer, and the ducks are often euthanized. Hayden says the dilemma is impacting her and Cocuzza's health. 

"She's losing sleep over this, and I can't eat," Hayden laments.

Adam Gipson is a trapper. He runs Adam Gipson Critters in Crystal River, Florida and says he no longer removes Muscovy ducks. 

"It's a challenge. There's really no humane way that I know of to deal with them."

Gipson adds, "The only reason I would euthanize any animal is if it posed a threat to the pets or owners of [the] property." 

Gipson says if you relocate the ducks, state law mandates that you find someone with 40 acres and a pond to take them. 

"I don't have anyone," Gipson says, adding that it's a lot easier to relocate native birds, but Muscovy ducks are non-native.

UF researchers have found one way to keep the Muscovy duck population from growing and that is to disrupt the ducks' nesting. They say the eggs should not be removed, because the female will just lay more. They suggest the eggs be shaken so they don't hatch. The eggs should be returned to the nest or replaced with plastic eggs.

The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) says the most humane way to cut down on the populations is by removing newly-laid eggs. They admit, however, that doing so can be a real challenge.

Hayden says they've been working with ARFF to learn as much as possible about the process.

She says the Muscovy ducks reproduce like rabbits during the summer. She's noticed that the female ducks do leave their nests for an hour a day to eat and bathe.

Hayden adds, "If you find a nest with eggs, you shake the eggs and put them back. It doesn't develop into a duckling because the eggs won't hatch. My only fear is of not knowing the stage of the eggs. If you do it too late, the eggs could have partially-developed chicks hatch. I was concerned I couldn't do it alone. We'd have to have clipboards and record keeping. It would take a team effort."

UF researchers say the ducks will dig out shallow nests on the ground and then lay 8 to 16 cream-colored eggs, which they will incubate for about five weeks.

Gipson says you have to be careful when disrupting the nests. Timing is critical and disrupting the nest too late could also put the chicks at risk. He says, "I don't know how effective it is." He says he's heard if you disturb the nest too late the mother may not return. Gipson adds, "You don't want to leave chicks to fend for themselves. She won't be there to protect them."

For now, Hayden and Cocuzza say they are in limbo, because they have no idea when the homeowners' association will move forward with their plans to trap and get rid of the ducks. They're hoping the delay means the association is considering a compromise. Cocuzza says, "They said we should hear something within a few weeks, but it's been five or six weeks."

In the meantime, Cocuzza says she spent $80.00 to buy three signs that say, "Do Not Feed the Ducks." "I've tried to be proactive by buying the signs, and I've given them to the homeowners' association."

She's hoping they will be posted since UF researchers found that one of the reasons the ducks can become aggressive is because they're grow accustomed to being fed. When this doesn't happen, the ducks may chase and/or try to bite children. Hayden says the ARFF told them that feeding the ducks also promotes mating.

Researchers found that in South Florida some city ordinances ban residents from feeding the ducks.

Cocuzza says on Tuesday, October 1st the homeowners association  installed her signs instructing people to refrain from feeding the ducks. She says the association also erected bulletin boards where research is posted warning residents why they shouldn't feed them.

The Meadows of Citrus County Homeowners' Association's next meeting is in February. Hayden says even if a trapper is hired, the association has explained that it's likely they won't be able to remove all the ducks and the problem will continue. 

Both Cocuzza and Hayden are hopeful that the association will reverse their decision and decide against hiring a trapper.