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Banding Together for Waterfowl

The Amazing Journey

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Fall Migration

By late September, our hen, well fattened by waste grain and wetland foods, becomes restless. She joins a group of other pintails, and soon they begin their southward migration together. With only brief stops on marshes in South Dakota, the flock arrives at a large wetland complex near McPherson, Kansas, in early October.

During the fall, ducks need high-energy foods to build stores of fat that will fuel their long migration. Although waterfowl habitat was historically abundant across the southern Great Plains, wetland loss has significantly reduced the food resources available for migrating waterfowl in this region, especially during the dry early fall. Fortunately, in this part of Kansas, DU and its conservation partners have restored several thousand acres of shallow wetlands. Managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, this wetland complex contains extensive stands of shallowly flooded moist-soil vegetation. Our hen finds seeds produced by this vegetation especially attractive following the long flight from South Dakota.

She spends a couple of weeks here rebuilding fat reserves before continuing her migration. She doesn’t stop to rest again until she reaches Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area near Frederick, Oklahoma, an oasis of wetland habitat in an otherwise arid region. Once again, our hen will take advantage of moist-soil seeds produced in impoundments restored by DU and partners and managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

After staying a week at Hackberry Flat, she regains her fat reserves and is ready for a final flight to the wintering grounds. Riding the winds behind a powerful cold front, she follows the Red River east to the Mississippi River and then turns south down the Atchafalaya River. Our hen doesn’t stop until she reaches the coastal marshes of the Atchafalaya Delta near New Iberia, Louisiana. With Halloween still a week away, thousands of ducks have already arrived on the Gulf Coast for the winter.

The Wintering Period

In south Louisiana, our hen spends her time feeding on the diverse food resources available in these coastal marshes. Once again, stores of fat are essential, allowing her to endure inclement weather or move to an area where food is more abundant or the risk of mortality is lower. But the Gulf Coast marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate, threatening the region’s capacity to support wintering populations of many species of ducks. Levees and associated flood-control projects along the Mississippi River have starved the marshes of sediment that historically sustained them. In addition, extensive channel construction has allowed salt water to infiltrate freshwater portions of the marsh, killing vegetation and causing erosion and habitat loss.

Addressing these challenges is a high priority for DU. In Louisiana, DU is working with many partners to conserve and restore degraded coastal wetlands. Farther west in south Texas, rice agriculture, which has long provided important food resources for waterfowl, has declined to record low levels. Many rice fields have been abandoned as increasing production costs have made them unprofitable for farmers. Consequently, DU and its conservation partners are working to develop former rice fields into moist-soil management units that produce seeds and other natural foods for waterfowl.

Our hen remains in south Louisiana until early January, when severe thunderstorms to the north dump more than eight inches of rain across the central Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV). That night, she flies north into Mississippi and settles at the confluence of the Yazoo and Little Sunflower rivers near Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Ducks are somehow able to sense when storms produce flooding rains across the flat Delta region. These weather events can flood hundreds of thousands of acres of managed and natural habitat rich in moist-soil seeds, acorns, and waste grain.

Although waterfowl habitat is abundant in parts of the MAV following heavy rains, flood-control projects and the conversion of land for agricultural production have significantly decreased the region’s wetland base. In addition, earlier harvest dates for rice, milo, corn, and other crops have greatly reduced the food available for waterfowl in fields, as waste grain has ample time to sprout, decompose, or be consumed by other wildlife before waterfowl arrive in winter. In response, DU and its conservation partners are working to restore moist-soil habitat and forested wetlands on private and public land in the MAV. The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) has been especially helpful in restoring and protecting important waterfowl habitat in the region. Thus far, DU has helped restore 220,000 acres of wildlife habitat on WRP projects in the MAV, primarily in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. DU also permanently protects high-quality existing habitat on private lands with perpetual conservation easements donated by landowners.

Shortly after our hen arrives in Mississippi, she begins to attract the attention of several drakes that vie for the chance to be her mate. Following a series of elaborate courtship rituals that allow her to assess the fitness of the competing drakes, she chooses her mate. This drake will remain faithfully by her side throughout the upcoming spring migration and into the nesting period.

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