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Winter Homes for Waterfowl

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  • photo by Don Farrell
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Farm Bill programs help ensure that wintering grounds across the continent continue to meet the needs of ducks and geese

By Chad Manlove

Have you ever wondered what ducks do during the cold winter months? Experience might lead many of us to believe that the birds spend most of their time skirting decoy spreads and flaring from duck calls. But what really determines a duck's daily routine on the wintering grounds?

Ducks spend most of their time during winter actively searching for food and resting to conserve energy (fat reserves) for use during periods of harsh weather when feeding time is limited. For some species, including mallards, important activities like courtship and pair-bond formation also occur in winter. So it should come as no surprise that Ducks Unlimited's habitat conservation efforts in priority waterfowl areas like the Central Valley of California, the Gulf Coast prairies, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and the mid-Atlantic coast focus on providing optimal foraging habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl. DU's conservation programs in these areas help the birds survive during winter and return to northern nesting areas in good physical condition the following spring.

Winter Habitat Needs

By the middle of December, most waterfowl have reached their wintering grounds across the southern half of the United States. The most important biological need of wintering ducks is food. Wintering areas offer a diversity of habitats that ducks use to meet their food or energy needs, including moist-soil emergent wetlands, forested wetlands, coastal marshes with beds of submerged aquatic vegetation, and flooded agricultural fields. Habitat needs vary over winter by species and location. Daily energy demands differ by species, but a typical mallard-sized duck generally requires about 290 kilocalories of food per day throughout winter. For that reason, wintering waterfowl congregate in areas with an abundance of foods that will provide them with the energy they need to survive.

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