Akron Zoo Helping Study Venezuela's Whitewater Ducks

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - The Akron Zoo's first international research venture is a study of a South American duck that can swim against Andes' rapids.

"They don't just swim around the whitewater, they can swim up the rapids underwater," Doug Piekarz, the zoo's vice president, said Monday.

The goal is to help conservation officials in Venezuela learn more about the Venezuelan torrent duck and determine how to preserve the species.

On Jan. 28, zoo officials are scheduled to leave on the third trip in three years to Venezuela to work on the project, which includes offering financial and technical support.

Earlier work included setting up a waterfowl conservation group in Venezuela and checking two rivers for the torrent.

One river had none and another had many, according to Piekarz, who said researchers will try to figure out how differences in the two river habitats may affect the torrent.

The torrent duck, similar in size to the typical duck found in the United States, is extremely shy. It is notable for its ability to live amid the churning Andes mountain rapids of northwest Venezuela.

The male is white, maroon and black with a white breast, and the female is orange, brown and peach. The torrent typically breeds once a year, laying about four eggs in rock cavities overlooking rapids.

With few exceptions, even the young torrent ducks seem to be able to handle the fast-moving water, Piekarz (pronounced PEE'-ah-kahzh) said.

"It's incredible. These are areas humans wouldn't go into in a raft and they are raising their young," he said. "It's amazing that they are able to stay near their parents at all. That's not to say they don't occasionally get washed down. The parents are particularly good at herding their young."

The zoo has raised $10,000 toward the project and is trying to raise $8,000 for the coming phase, which involves studying the torrent's habitat and counting the ducks.

Because the goal is to help preserve the species, Akron will not bring back a torrent, Piekarz said. "You don't want to do that unless you absolutely have to," he said.

The torrent has been successfully held in zoos in the past but has never bred in captivity, according to Piekarz, who said there are none currently in zoos. Piekarz is head of a duck and waterfowl advisory committee of the American Zoological Association.

Like American zoos trying to save endangered species in Australia, Africa or elsewhere, Piekarz said the Akron zoo got involved because of a specific interest. He became familiar with the torrent while working at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)