Photo Essay: Spring on the Prairies

A look at what breeding waterfowl will find as they return to the Duck Factory
By Chris Jennings
 
Early waterfowl biologists called the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada the "Duck Factory" because of its incredible productivity for breeding waterfowl. Dotted with millions of small "pothole" wetlands, this region remains this continent's most important waterfowl breeding ground. In especially wetland-rich areas, duck breeding densities can exceed 100 pairs per square mile. Following is a visual tour of the prairies and why it's so important to conserve this region's wetlands and grasslands for waterfowl and other wildlife.  
 
April is a time of renewal on the prairies. Winter slowly releases its icy grip on the landscape and the first waterfowl pairs begin to return as snow melts and ice thaws. Returning ducks should find favorable wetland conditions across the pothole country this spring, thanks to a good frost seal and runoff from a solid snow pack. (photo by Jennifer Kross)

A recent DU Canada habitat conditions report shows good to excellent wetland conditions across Prairie Canada. Late fall precipitation created a solid frost seal that will ensure that runoff from melting snow will fill wetlands instead of seeping into the ground. This image shows a prairie landscape dotted with wetlands filled with recent snowmelt. (photo by DU Canada)

The combination of abundant small wetlands surrounded by expanses of native grassland is what makes the PPR the Duck Factory. These native grasses provide secure, attractive nesting cover for breeding ducks and other wildlife. 

Unfortunately native prairie is being lost at an alarming rate across the Duck Factory. In addition, many former Conservation Reserve Program lands in the Dakotas are returning to crop production. Consequently, waterfowl will find less suitable habitat on the prairies this spring than last year. Ducks Unlimited is working closely with the agricultural community in both the United States and Canada to conserve prairie wetlands and grasslands on working farms and ranches. 

Ducks Unlimited is also working with Bayer Crop Science in a partnership known as Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action, which encourages farmers to plant winter wheat in important waterfowl breeding areas. This fall-seeded crop provides more secure upland cover for nesting ducks, especially compared to spring-planted crops, and gives farmers a way to diversify their cropping practices. (photo by Ron Spomer)

Waterfowl aren't the only wildlife that benefit from conserving native prairie. White-tailed deer utilize the cover provided by healthy wetlands as well. Today America's grasslands support an estimated 20 million deer, 500,000 pronghorn antelope, 400,000 elk, and many other wildlife species. (photo by Ron Spomer)

Waterfowl use a variety of wetlands of different sizes, shapes, and depths during the breeding season. In the public-policy arena, Ducks Unlimited is working to restore Clean Water Act protections for prairie wetlands weakened by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. (photo by Scott Stephens)

Once out of the nest, ducklings feed heavily on protein-rich wetland invertebrates. Dense vegetation provides essential cover for ducklings as they grow to flight stage. (photo by Marissa Gnoinski)

Of the top 10 most commonly harvested duck species, six of them achieve their highest nesting densities on the prairies. If you are an avid waterfowler, the prairies likely raise many of the birds you harvest during the duck season. (photo by Bill Houghton)

0 Hens often lead their ducklings long distances in search of ideal feeding areas. The loss of wetlands and grasslands not only limits breeding habitat availability, but also reduces the survival of hens and ducklings. 

1 Every year, DU conducts a variety of research in different parts of the Duck Factory. This research helps DU learn more about how habitat changes affect waterfowl breeding populations. This spring DU will begin its second year of research comparing duck nesting success in winter wheat fields compared to that of spring-seeded wheat fields and perennial grasslands. (photo by Ron Spomer)

2 For waterfowlers and other conservationists, the Duck Factory is a special place. The future of waterfowl populations and our waterfowl hunting heritage depends on the health of this region. Through grassroots fundraising, public policy work, and leadership giving, DU has been able to conserve more than 5.2 million acres of prime waterfowl habitat in the Duck Factory. 

3 America's Grasslands: A Threatened National Treasure



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