By Jim Devries and Lee Moats
Dropping from a crisp blue sky, a pair of northern pintails swoop low over golden wheat stubble recently emerged from a winter’s snowy blanket. A brilliant April morning sun glints off distant sheetwater as the pair bank and gain altitude before separating. The drake doesn’t hesitate, but wings purposefully to a distant wetland to wait. The hen, wings cupped, settles quickly to the ground between arrow-straight rows of grain stubble. She remains motionless, head erect, for what seems an eternity. Satisfied her landing has gone unnoticed by any lurking predator, she slowly lowers her head. Adopting a sneaky, ground-hugging posture, she waddles slowly through the stubble, stopping occasionally to scan the sky. Seventy feet from her landing spot, she stops. With an economy of motion, she parts a thick layer of down to uncover eight eggs in a shallow bowl scraped from the earth. She settles onto her nest and becomes virtually invisible against the background soil.
The stage for destruction has been set. In a week, spring field cultivation will leave nothing behind except freshly tilled soil and a scattering of eggshells.
The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), the cradle of North American waterfowl production, has changed and, with it, the fortunes of many duck populations. Grassland plains and rolling parklands dotted with innumerable wetlands, once vast in extent, have largely been replaced with landscapes dominated by cropland and tracked by drainage. In much of the Canadian PPR, up to 80 percent of the landscape is cultivated annually (about 66 million acres in 2001). While some ducks, especially pintail, will nest in croplands, these lands are generally avoided by nesting ducks. Typical waterfowl nesting sites in grassy clumps or brushy thickets are limited primarily to remnant lands that have survived cultivation, such as road ditches, fence lines, some wetland margins, and lands unsuitable for cultivation. These same lands are what remain as habitat for many songbirds, small mammals, and insects. Predators also have adapted to the evolving landscape and have learned the value of these remnant habitats as profitable foraging areas. As a result, waterfowl nest survival has declined in recent history to where, in many landscapes, fewer than 10 percent of nests survive to hatch.