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Saving the Sprig

Bringing back the pintail to its former abundance
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Pintails face equally daunting habitat challenges in the Central and Mississippi flyways. Along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, massive losses of coastal wetlands and a 50 percent decline in rice production have greatly reduced wintering habitat for pintails and other waterfowl. And in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin and the Platte River corridor, high wetland losses have forced pintails and other waterfowl to gather into dangerously large concentrations that are vulnerable to catastrophic outbreaks of avian diseases.

Strategies for Recovery

DU and its partners are pursuing several conservation strategies to benefit pintails. Using waterfowl survey data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Canadian Wildlife Service during the past 50 years, DU recently developed maps showing average pintail breeding densities across Prairie Canada (see graphic). By combining this survey data with wetland and land-use information using geographic information systems technology, DU has identified the landscapes that are most important to breeding pintails and the conservation practices that will most effectively conserve these key habitats.

Given the importance of agriculture on the prairies, promoting wildlife-friendly farming practices is an essential component of DU’s pintail initiative. An agricultural practice that holds great promise for breeding pintails and other ducks is the cultivation of fall-seeded cereal grains, specifically winter wheat and fall rye. Farmers plant these crops in the fall directly into standing stubble left after harvest, and the following spring the fields provide more secure upland cover for breeding pintails, mallards, and other upland-nesting ducks. Recent DU research comparing pintail breeding success in spring-seeded and fall-seeded grainfields in southern Saskatchewan found that pintails hatched an average of one nest in every 72 acres of fall-seeded crops, compared to one nest in every 1,332 acres of spring-seeded croplands.

DU is presently working with plant breeders to develop new cold-tolerant varieties of fall-seeded cereals that are more suitable for cultivation on the northern prairies. Since 1992, these efforts coupled with favorable growing conditions have fostered a 500 percent increase in the acreage of winter wheat and other fall-seeded cereal grains in Canada. In 2004, Canadian farmers grew more than 700,000 acres of winter wheat in Prairie Canada, a 52 percent increase in the acreage of winter wheat grown the year before. 

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