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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Understanding Waterfowl: Drought and Deluge

We can't control the weather, but conserving wetlands and grasslands on the prairies will help ensure the long-term health of duck populations
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Periodic drought is a natural part of the prairie ecology and helps maintain wetland productivity. (photos by Jim Ringelman, DU; MichaelFurtman.com)

By Michael G. Anderson, Ph.D.

I'm a child of prairie pothole country, raised in southeastern North Dakota. My earliest memories are of gently rolling land, covered with grass in the summer and by wind-whipped flats and cornices of snow in the winter, with sloughs of various shapes and sizes filling the low spots among the knolls.

Farmers and ranchers, mostly second- or third-generation immigrants from northern Europe, owned the land where I grew up. For those who persisted through the dreadful 1930s, drought deeply affected their views of life on the land. No two years were the same—farmers described every year as too dry, too wet, or too cold. Rarely did the prairie porridge seem to be "just right." But I remember well the rebound years of 1965−1967, when I first began to hunt and there seemed to be ponds and ducks everywhere after the severe drought of the early 1960s.

Later, as a graduate student studying canvasbacks in Manitoba, I was much impressed by the profound impacts of droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in 1977, when wetlands that produced canvasback nests the year before had dried to dust, few birds nested, and nesting success went from 51 percent in 1976 to 0! But the rain and snow returned the following year, and in 1978 canvasback nesting success was 76 percent, the highest recorded over a span of 30 years.

How could that happen?

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