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Fueling the Migration

Ducks and the Farm Bill
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During spring, waterfowl need high-quality wetland habitat to fuel their journey to the breeding grounds

By Tina Yerkes, Ph.D.

We’ve all been on those long car trips where the monotony of the highway is broken only by periodic stops for fuel. It’s not very different for migrating waterfowl in spring. Like other travelers, the birds must stop frequently to refuel during their long journey north to the breeding grounds.

Spring migration is taxing, particularly for female waterfowl. The birds need an abundance of food, not only to have the energy to fly long distances but also to store extra fat that is used upon arrival on the breeding grounds. To complicate matters, the wetlands that serve as fuel stations for waterfowl are becoming increasingly scarce along the birds’ migration routes. The landscape over which waterfowl travel has changed dramatically. Many areas have lost more than half their historic wetlands. In the Mississippi Flyway alone, the key migration states    of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri have lost as much as 90 percent of their wetlands. With wetland losses continuing at the rate of at least 80,000 acres a year across the United States, migrating ducks may soon be running out of gas, or at least traveling on fumes, on their way to the breeding grounds.

What kind of fuel do waterfowl need during migration? In the fall, waterfowl are focused on getting out of the way of approaching winter weather up north and generally do not make many stops. During this time, ducks consume high-energy carbohydrates like seeds and waste grain, which are plentiful on the way south.

In spring, waterfowl have one thing on their minds—returning north to breed. At some point during the spring migration, ducks shift from eating mainly carbohydrates to proteins. Initially eating seeds provided by natural wetland plants and waste grain in agricultural fields, female ducks switch to eating bugs (aquatic invertebrates) that provide the protein and minerals needed for egg production. Wetlands are the factories and storehouses for these invertebrates. Continued loss and degradation of wetlands mean less food for migrating waterfowl and other birds.

The shortage of spring migration habitat poses immense challenges for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The loss and degradation of existing wetlands must be stopped, and additional habitat must be restored along spring migration routes used by waterfowl. But relatively little is known about this phase in the annual life cycle of waterfowl and how to meet the birds’ needs through landscape-level habitat restoration. DU is addressing these issues through research (see sidebar), by utilizing existing conservation provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill, and by supporting the reauthorization and expansion of these programs in the 2007 Farm Bill currently being crafted in Congress.

With the majority of North America’s remaining wetlands in private ownership, cooperation with farmers and ranchers is essential to meeting the habitat needs of waterfowl in the spring and throughout the year. Farm Bill conservation programs provide much-needed federal funds to private landowners willing to restore wildlife habitat on marginal cropland. The 2002 Farm Bill has been very helpful in restoring spring migration habitat, primarily through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), as well as other incentive-based programs that encourage farmers and ranchers to meet environmental challenges on their lands.

WRP is a voluntary program that provides landowners with incentives  to restore and protect wetlands on marginal, flood-prone, restorable agricultural lands. From the outset, WRP has been highly popular with landowners, and the demand for enrolling land in the program has far exceeded available funding. Under WRP, landowners enroll land in 10-year, 30-year, or permanent easements. In return, they receive financial assistance in the form of easement payments and cost sharing on habitat restoration activities. Landowners continue to control access to their land, which can include hunting and fishing.

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