Colleen was born in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1932 to parents Alvin and Burdella. She always had a keen mind and her love of birds came to her at the age of just 11 years old. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota in 1955, where she earned her B.A. in music, and it was there that she met her husband, Carl Nelson. In 1956-57, while living in Italy, she prepared a study collection of European birds for the James Ford Bell Museum. In 1957, she entered graduate school at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, where she studied with the late Dr. S. C. Kendeigh. She received her M. Sc. in Zoological Ecology in 1961. Her thesis was “Six Sparrows of the Northern Great Plains: Descriptive Ecology”. She began field research of the downy waterfowl in 1962 at the Delta Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Station.
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