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How Ducks Navigate

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In young, new pairs, the male will follow the female to her birthplace. If re-pairing does occur, the male goose will follow the female to her breeding area.

The ability to navigate over many miles from breeding to wintering grounds is an amazing adaptation. It is likely that most birds use a combination of visual and nonvisual cues, as well as homing. Navigation and migration behavior is very difficult to study and therefore has not been fully resolved, but we quest for answers with great enthusiasm every fall when the birds return to the same wintering ground, or every spring when I see the same female wood duck nesting in her old box from the year before.

Who leads and who follows? The female duck always makes the choice for the breeding area because she is homing to the site of her birth or a site where she successfully hatched a nest. There is very little evidence indicating which sex determines the wintering site. In most duck species, males and females will go their separate ways after the breeding season, each returning to their respective wintering site from the previous year. Female ducks tend to winter farther south, and those that were successful at raising young arrive much later than males.


How do young ducks find their way?

In nearly all waterfowl species, young birds return to breeding areas at much lower rates than adult females: Only about 27 percent of canvasback young return to the area where they were hatched. This is mostly because young do not survive as well as adults. For those that make it through the winter, how do they find their hatch area? This is an unsolved mystery, but they likely use some of the navigation mechanisms mentioned in the text.

What about the wintering grounds?

We know from banding programs and neck collars that birds will return year after year to the same wintering area. Geese and swans are very loyal to specific wintering sites. Ducks are a little more flexible, yet they still home to wintering areas, as well as molting and migration stopover areas. There are important lessons to learn here for managers and private landowners. For birds to return year after year, disturbance and food availability should be managed.

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