The Completing the Cycle Initiative

Sustaining Atlantic Flyway waterfowl populations throughout their annual journey
By Kristin Schrader

Waterfowlers mark time according to the season and where the ducks are. From spring courtship flights and summer brood-rearing to the fall migration and wintering period, waterfowl use a variety of habitats throughout the year. Thanks to sound science, we know more than ever about what these magnificent birds need to thrive during their annual journey. Ducks Unlimited's continental conservation work supports waterfowl throughout all phases of their life cycle. In the Atlantic Flyway, the aptly named Completing the Cycle Initiative will focus on the most important threats to waterfowl populations in this region and ensure that the birds return to their breeding grounds healthy and ready to successfully reproduce.

The Completing the Cycle Initiative area stretches from Maryland north to Ontario, Québec, and Canada's Atlantic Provinces, a region that supports millions of breeding, migrating, and wintering ducks and geese. At least 34 species of waterfowl migrate through or winter in this initiative area. Many of the Atlantic Flyway's remaining wetlands are in close proximity to some of the most populated areas of the United States and Canada. Key habitats include wetlands associated with Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, the St. Lawrence and Lake Champlain River Valleys, Lakes Erie and Ontario, the hardwood and Boreal forests of eastern Canada, and the northeast Atlantic coastal zones. These wetlands are not only vital to the needs of waterfowl, but also provide recreation, improved water quality, and flood protection for millions of people.

The Completing the Cycle Initiative is DU's approach to addressing the extensive habitat loss that has occurred in this region. The health of waterfowl populations depends on high-quality habitat at every stage of their life cycle. The American black duck, for instance, migrates thousands of miles between its breeding and wintering grounds each year. Black ducks that winter along the Atlantic coast breed from Maine to Ontario to Newfoundland, largely on beaver ponds and other freshwater wetlands in the eastern Boreal Forest. Many of these birds fly south in fall across the lower Great Lakes before finally arriving on their wintering grounds in coastal areas of Long Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Common eiders will also benefit from the Completing the Cycle Initiative. These sea ducks primarily nest on rocky islands off the coasts of eastern and northern Canada and winter along the New England coast as far south as Massachusetts. They migrate along the coastline between their breeding and wintering grounds, relying on mussels and other invertebrates to sustain them during their travels. 

HELPING MILLIONS OF WATERFOWL COMPLETE THE CYCLE The Completing the Cycle Initiative area is located in the northeastern portion of the Atlantic Flyway. This landscape provides vital habitat for a great abundance and diversity of waterfowl, including:
  • An estimated 2.5 million breeding ducks from Maine to Virginia, and an estimated 4.5 million in Canada
  • The majority of American black ducks
  • Approximately half of the continent's canvasbacks
  • The bulk of wintering Atlantic Population Canada geese
  • The majority of the eastern population of black scoters
  • The entire population of Atlantic brant


DU utilizes an assortment of conservation tools to provide habitat for breeding, migrating, and wintering waterfowl, and one of the most effective is public policy. The 2014 Farm Bill, for example, created a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which merges several existing programs and provides funding incentives for state, federal, private, and nongovernmental organizations to form conservation partnerships to improve the health of major watersheds. Such conservation partnerships have been highly successful in the past, and that model will continue to serve waterfowl well through this new program.

The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) has contributed to the conservation of almost 27 million acres of habitat across North America, including many key projects in the Completing the Cycle Initiative area. NAWCA remains one of the most important sources of funding for wetlands conservation, and its reauthorization is at the top of DU's public-policy priority list. This voluntary, nonregulatory program is a bargain for taxpayers, as every federal dollar allocated through NAWCA is matched with more than three dollars from nonfederal sources. 

Because waterfowl do not recognize international borders, DU must work across North America to ensure a bright future for these magnificent birds and the people who enjoy them. Your gift to DU's Completing the Cycle Initiative will support crucial waterfowl habitat conservation work not only in the Atlantic Flyway, but also in the Prairie Pothole Region, Western Boreal Forest, and lower Great Lakes—the areas where the majority of this continent's waterfowl are raised. For more information about how you can support the Completing the Cycle Initiative, visit the DU website at ducks.org/DUinitiatives


Kristin Schrader is a regional communications manager at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

ASSESSING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SALT MARSH RESTORATION FOR BLACK DUCKS There isn't a more iconic waterfowl species in the Atlantic Flyway than the American black duck. Unfortunately, populations of these prized birds have declined significantly over the long term. DU's efforts to stem this decline have focused on conserving key salt marsh habitats on important black duck staging and wintering areas along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Habitat managers assume that salt marsh restoration will increase the abundance and accessibility of foods important to black ducks. These resources should result in greater use of restored habitats, increased winter survival, and improved body condition among black ducks prior to the breeding season. However, it's unclear how many black ducks can be supported by existing habitats and how the birds are responding to ongoing restoration efforts. 

Through a cooperative research project, Ducks Unlimited and several partners are working to understand the relationship between salt marsh restoration activities and the health, behavior, and movements of black ducks. Data will be collected over four field seasons on three study sites in Connecticut: Silver Sands State Park, Great Harbor Wildlife Management Area, and Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Silver Sands State Park will undergo habitat restoration activities in 2014, while the other two areas will serve as control sites. Information gathered from this work will help guide coastal habitat restoration and protection efforts to benefit black ducks and other waterfowl along the Atlantic coast. Currently entering its second field season, this research is supported by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Black Duck Joint Venture, Waterfowl Research Foundation Inc., Camp Fire Conservation Fund Inc., and Ducks Unlimited.