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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Understanding Waterfowl: Flocking Together

While most waterfowl seek isolation during the breeding season, the birds are often highly gregarious the rest of the year
  • ART OF THE DECOY Recognizing the flocking behavior of waterfowl, hunters for centuries have relied on decoys to lure ducks and geese within range for harvest. The earliest recorded use of decoys was by Native Americans around 2,000 years ago. The construction of these decoys was very simple, consisting of woven cattails and bulrushes gathered from local surroundings and adorned with duck feathers. These early decoys were incredibly lifelike in appearance and undoubtedly quite effective. Through the years, the design and materials used in the construction of waterfowl decoys have continually evolved, but their purpose has remained the same.
    photo by John Hoffman, DU
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An added benefit of flocking is that individual birds have a higher probability of finding and securing a mate. Concentrations of waterfowl on fall staging and wintering areas ensure that individual males and females have an opportunity to court and pair. In most duck populations, however, drakes outnumber hens, so some males will inevitably be unsuccessful in securing a mate.

While there are numerous benefits associated with flocking, there are also some potential risks to this behavior. Large aggregations of waterfowl are highly conspicuous, and the movement and sound created by a flock of ducks or geese can attract potential predators as well as hunters. In addition, concentrations of waterfowl in limited habitat can increase competition for food resources. The larger the flock, the greater the amount of food energy required to support the birds. Thus, in areas where foraging habitat is in short supply, some members of the flock may be unable to find enough food.

Disease is another potential hazard faced by flocked birds. Many diseases such as avian cholera are spread through bird-to-bird contact or ingestion of contaminated food and water, so waterfowl are at greater risk of infection when concentrated in close quarters. Habitat loss on key staging and wintering areas can exacerbate the occurrence of disease outbreaks by concentrating greater numbers of birds in fewer remaining habitats. Waterfowl are also more vulnerable to catastrophic losses caused by other calamities, such as oil spills and hurricanes, when concentrated in limited habitat.

Fortunately for us, the rewards of flocking outweigh the risks. As long as we provide waterfowl with the habitats they need to thrive, we will always be able to enjoy the annual spectacle of large flocks of ducks and geese on staging and wintering areas across this continent. Whether it's a seemingly endless skein of snow geese winging south over the prairies or a raft of canvasbacks on a large lake or estuary, flocks of waterfowl are a wonderful sight to behold for all who appreciate these magnificent birds.

Dr. John Coluccy is director of conservation planning and Kassondra Hendricks is a conservation specialist in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.

BROOD AMALGAMATIONS For the most part, waterfowl seek isolation during the breeding period. However, after the hatch it is not uncommon to see large numbers of ducklings or goslings accompanied by one or more adults in brood-rearing areas. Post-hatch brood amalgamations (also known as creches or gang broods) occur when adult birds abandon or lose their young, which are then cared for by other adult birds, or when several waterfowl families intermingle and adults cooperatively care for the young. Brood amalgamations have been documented in at least 41 waterfowl species. This behavior presumably enhances survival of both young and adults via predator detection and access to food resources.


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