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Waterfowl of the Boreal Forest

Many of the ducks harvested in the United States are raised in this remote northern region
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By Stuart Slattery, Ph.D.

The Prairie Pothole Region has long been known as the epicenter of North American waterfowl production, and for good reason. The prairies support the highest densities of breeding ducks on this continent. Ducks Unlimited's proud legacy of conservation work on the prairies has also added to this region's mystique among waterfowl enthusiasts. But if the prairies are the Duck Factory, then another region to the north—the boreal forest—is the Continental Reserve for waterfowl. This 1.4-billion-acre swath of woodlands and wetlands, which stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland, may not have the same density of waterfowl as the prairies, but the region hosts equally impressive numbers. 

About 12 million to 15 million ducks—comprising 23 species—use the western boreal forest during the spring breeding season. More than half this continent's American wigeon, green-winged teal, scaup, buffleheads, goldeneyes, scoters, ring-necked ducks, and mergansers are raised here. Large numbers of classic prairie nesters, including mallards, canvasbacks, and blue-winged teal, also nest in this region.

Not only are millions of ducks raised each year in the boreal forest, but large numbers of waterfowl also molt and stage in this region. In addition, boreal wetlands serve as a refuge for ducks when the prairies are gripped by drought. With so many ducks using boreal wetlands, there's a good chance that many of the waterfowl you see in the fall will have spent time there. In fact, there is a one in four chance that the next mallard you see will be from the western boreal forest, and a four out of five chance that the next ring-necked duck you encounter will have boreal origins. 

Waterfowl band recoveries help managers determine the origins of harvested birds, and these records reveal a lot about where boreal ducks go during migration and spend the winter. Roughly 10 percent of the 300,000 ducks banded in Canada's western boreal forest from 1924 to 2005 have been recovered, with reports coming from every Canadian province and territory and every U.S. state except Hawaii and Rhode Island. In addition, ducks banded in the western boreal forest have been recovered from Mexico to South America and throughout the Caribbean.

So what makes the boreal forest so important to waterfowl? The answer is simple: water. Wetland types here range from less productive bogs and fens—called peat lands—to highly productive marshes, swamps, and open-water basins. In total, Canada's western boreal forest has more than 100 million acres of surface water, with an additional 150 million acres of peat lands. This area is larger than the states of California and Texas combined. 

Peat lands are often highly interconnected. These "green rivers" can have little surface water, yet they transport water and nutrients to wetland types that are important to waterfowl. In northernmost regions, many boreal wetlands exist only because they are lined with frozen peat and mineral soil, which form a seal that keeps water from draining into more porous soil below. 

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