Some waterfowl biologists theorize that on clear days more ducks will head for the woods because they feel uncomfortable in the open fields and somehow more vulnerable to attack from airborne predators. Others say that ducks don't necessarily search out timber on sunny days, it's just that they're more likely to drop in to a decoy spread when the sun hits the water and hunters can stay out of sight on the shady side of a tree.
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Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the mallards seemed intent on finding a place in the timber on this sunny morning. Groups of as many as 20 or 30 birds would circle around our hole, just above the trees, casting suspicious glances at the imposters on the water.
We kicked the water to give the decoys some motion, and Snapp enticed them with feeding chuckles and greeting calls. And then, just as if there were runway lights and arrows pointing the way, two or three would drop out of every group, following the exact same path into the hole, where they would hang above the decoys, presenting almost embarrassingly easy shots.
It seemed like only a few minutes, but it was probably more like an hour, as I stood gape-mouthed, watching this spectacle and trading pick-off shots with my partners for the day. And I thought: "This is like being the star in one of the best duck hunting videos ever made.
It's like one of those moments when the planets are aligned in your favor, your tee shot glides long and straight down the middle of the fairway, your free-throw swishes light as a feather through the net, you place your fly gently and tantalizingly in front of a rising trout. In short, you can do no wrong."
On the way back to Walnut Ridge, Manley gave me a tour of several nearby project sites where DU is helping private landowners manage their agricultural operations for waterfowl. "Probably more so in Arkansas than in any other state in the Delta, people are serious about wetland restoration and management efforts," he said as we walked along a dike built around a flooded rice field.
Combine those efforts with restoration activities by Ducks Unlimited, state and federal agencies, and other groups, and you begin to see a patchwork of waterfowl habitat spread across the state, providing waterfowl with a variety of food, shelter, and other resources.
Later, I spoke with Ken Reinecke, a wildlife research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a recognized expert on mallards and their use of the Delta. Reinecke enlightened me on the importance of Arkansas to North America's mallards. One of the main reasons for that, he said, is people. "People in Arkansas are disproportionately active in managing habitats for waterfowl-rice fields in particular."
Rice does seem to be a magic ingredient in the recipe that makes eastern Arkansas such an attractive place for mallards. Of the approximately 3.3 million acres of rice grown in the United States, 1.5 million (45 percent) are grown in eastern Arkansas. And around 250,000 of those acres are actively managed for waterfowl after harvest.