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The Amazing Journey

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Spring Migration

In early March, our pintail and her new mate begin their northward migration with the help of a strong south wind flowing up from the Gulf. Following brief stops in Arkansas and Kansas, the birds arrive at Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin a week later, just as shallow wetlands in the region are beginning to thaw. The pair settles on a recently restored wetland on DU’s 1,200-acre Verona complex near Clay Center.

During spring migration, our hen is focused on acquiring lots of food—carbohydrates to provide energy for migration and protein to produce eggs. Her diet becomes more diverse, including natural plant seeds, waste grain, and a variety of aquatic invertebrates. DU’s efforts to restore and manage wetlands in the Rainwater Basin and other spring staging areas help ensure that migrating waterfowl have enough food to return to the breeding grounds in good condition.

When a sudden cold snap in late March refreezes shallow wetlands in the region, our pair moves to the nearby Platte River, where they feed on natural foods in warm-water sloughs and waste grain in nearby cornfields. The Platte, stretching from its headwaters in Wyoming and Colorado across Nebraska, provides important habitat for waterfowl during spring cold snaps and when other wetlands are dry. But reduced river flows and rural development along the river threaten to diminish the Platte’s value to waterfowl. In response, DU is working with a host of partners to protect riparian habitat, restore adjacent wetlands, and maintain water supplies throughout this important river system.

Completing the Cycle

As the days grow longer and the weather warms in early April, our pair pushes north again into the Prairie Pothole Region. Crossing South Dakota and southern North Dakota in a few days, our hen leads her mate to the same section of prairie in Kidder County where she nested and raised her brood the year before. Soon she will establish a new nest, and the cycle of renewal will begin again.

As we saw during our hen’s travels, conserving the many habitats required to support healthy populations of waterfowl is a daunting task, but with your help, DU will meet    the challenge. Fortunately, we have gained a wealth of knowledge about waterfowl populations and how habitat constraints affect the birds in different regions. Recent research has revealed that breeding habitat quantity and quality in the PPR is the most important factor influencing many continental waterfowl populations. But that doesn’t mean we should walk away from migration and wintering areas. We must continue to work in places like the Rainwater Basin, Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and Gulf Coast to ensure that as we make progress on breeding areas, waterfowl don’t face habitat shortages in other areas that could adversely affect their populations.

To maintain healthy waterfowl populations across North America, everyone who has an interest in ducks and the places they frequent will have to become more actively involved in raising funds and supporting public policies that conserve waterfowl habitats. And we’ll also have to encourage others with similar interests to do the same. The challenges facing waterfowl are great, but so are the opportunities for DU and its partners. As the acclaimed anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Dr. Scott Stephens is director of conservation planning at DU’s Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota.

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