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waterfowl biology


Get to know our Prairie Research Team

Research on the prairies is long, hard work, and it requires a special breed to take on the challenge. Ducks Unlimited has three researchers working in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). Our research team has, combined, more than 16 years of undergrad and graduate work focused solely on biology.

DU & UND Nest Cam: Blue-winged Teal Duckling Investigates

This curious blue-winged teal duckling investigates the nest camera that was put by their nest.

Nestcam project wraps up

The field portion of the Ducks Unlimited (DU) and University of North Dakota (UND) 2016 Nestcam project is done. New partners, UND interns and technicians helped make this year a success.

Bakken team advances in brood survey

In August, Ducks Unlimited technicians will begin the second round of brood surveys in the Bakken oil field. They have completed the first two weeks of the brood survey in this area of the Prairie Pothole Region. The technicians are now compiling the data they found in the first round. The survey will end on August 15.

DU & UND Duck Nest Cam: Hen Returning from Recess

A hen returns from recess, which is one of two breaks she takes away from the nest each day. During this recess the hen goes to a newby wetland and feeds, which allows her to sit on the nest for extended periods of time.

DU & UND Duck Nest Cam: Ducklings in Nest

In this videos blue-winged teal ducklings in the nest bowl.. The hen has left the nest and is signaling for the ducklings to follow her to water.

Understanding Waterfowl: A Matter of Productivity

Biologists have known for decades that native prairie with a high wetland density is the gold standard for producing ducks. Large expanses of unbroken grassland offer secure upland cover for ground-nesting hens, and numerous small, shallow wetlands provide the invertebrate food resources female ducks need to produce eggs and successfully raise their broods. While both grass and water are important to breeding waterfowl, wetlands often prove to be the most unpredictable resources on the landscape.

DU & UND Duck Nest Cam: Hen Leads Ducklings Away From Nest

After over 30 days of laying and caring for her eggs, this blue-winged teal hen is finally leading her brood off the nest. Together, they might travel several kilometers before reaching a wetland that the hen deems acceptable for rearing her young. While there is still have much to learn about habitat selection for brood-rearing, hens tend to select wetlands with abundant food to help their broods grow strong enough for the fall migration.

DU & UND Duck Nest Cam: Deer Eats Egg

A white-tailed deer eats eggs from a mallard nest. While not typically considered a common nest predator, other camera studies have recorded depredation of songbird nestlings.

DU & UND Duck Nest Cam: Hen Prepares Nest for Recess

Nesting waterfowl are known to take several ‘recesses’ or breaks from incubating their eggs each day. During these recesses they replenish their own energy supply at a nearby wetland. This mallard hen is preparing to leave her nest for a mid-morning recess. She is covering her eggs up with grass to help disguise them from passing predators and aid them in thermoregulation during her absence.

DU's Bakken research in the PPR

The Bakken Formation overlaps one-third of the United States portion of the Prairie Pothole Region. This overlapped area may provide breeding habitat for more than 25 percent, or 1 million. of the duck pairs using the Dakotas and eastern Montana.

DU's partners in prairie research on the Bakken

Ducks Unlimited partners in research on the portion of the Prairie Pothole Region that overlaps with the Bakken oil field

Ducks Unlimited prairie science back in the field

The ducks are back and so is the research crew. Last week Ducks Unlimited’s Prairie Pothole research crew began training for a non-traditional duck season- a research season.

Ducks Unlimited Research in the Prairies

In one of the world’s most productive waterfowl nesting grounds, Ducks Unlimited’s scientists are looking for the best-of-the-best nesting habitat. Using this research, DU and its partners can invest in protecting and restoring the type of habitat that will produce the most waterfowl.

Understanding Waterfowl: The Amazing Egg

For waterfowl, the cycle of life begins anew each year with the eggs that are laid and carefully nurtured by nesting birds on their breeding grounds. An egg consists of three main parts: the yolk, albumen (egg white), and shell. Everything a duckling needs for its development is contained within these three components.

Understanding Waterfowl: An Odd Duck

The harlequin duck is among North America's most unusual waterfowl species

DU Research Update: Techs finish first stage of brood survey

Our crew of 15 started our two-week brood survey July 1 and just finished. This period differs from the pair survey in that we survey two different times during the day. The first is before sunrise until noon, and then we complete our disturbance evaluation. Needing to wait until 4 p.m. to start the second survey of the day, we find creative places to take naps and eat lunch. Tired technicians with wet and worn out feet are capable of taking naps just about anywhere.

Nesting Camera Partnership with University of North Dakota

This year, even more video cameras will be bringing people an inside look at duck nests on Ducks Unlimited’s Coteau Ranch, near Bismarck, N.D. In its second year, the collaboration between DU and the University of North Dakota (UND) will include two new UND interns.

Understanding Waterfowl: The Nesting Period

The health of waterfowl populations depends largely on the ability of the birds to successfully nest and hatch broods

Montana DU team selected for wetland stewardship award

The Montana Wetland Council’s Stewardship Award Team has selected Montana Ducks Unlimited for a 2015 Montana Wetland Stewardship Award for exemplary professionalism and dedication to the conservation of wetland and waterfowl habitat. The Stewardship Award Team cited DU's accomplishments and commitment to Montana’s wetlands.

Understanding Waterfowl: Winter Weather and Waterfowl

For much of North America, the winter of 2013-2014 will not soon be forgotten, as it brought record snowfall and the coldest temperatures in at least 20 years to many locations. When duck hunters hear of extreme winter weather, they instinctively focus on how it may impact their hunting success.

State of the Ducks

A closer look at the remarkable diversity of North America's ducks and the status of their populations. Edited by Dale Humburg.

Understanding Waterfowl: Flocking Together

While most waterfowl seek isolation during the breeding season, the birds are often highly gregarious the rest of the year. By John M. Coluccy, Ph.D., and Kassondra Hendricks.

Understanding Waterfowl: Brood Ecology

A closer look at the amazing journey ducklings make from fuzzballs to fledglings. By Johann Walker, Ph.D.

Understanding Waterfowl: Duck Salad

Judging by the title, you might assume that this column is about how to prepare a healthy duck dinner for your family and friends. But, of course, that is wild game chef Scott Leysath's department. This column is about another type of duck salad—aquatic vegetation, on which many ducks thrive.

Photo Essay: The Redhead

After the canvasback, the redhead is the second largest member of North America's pochards, a family of diving ducks that also includes scaup and ring-necked ducks. As its name indicates, the redhead is named for the drake's striking reddish brown head.

Rice Lands Provide Vital Waterfowl Habitat

Each fall, millions of waterfowl migrate from their northern breeding grounds to historical wintering sites in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV) and along the Gulf Coast. Although the MAV once consisted largely of bottomland hardwood forests and the Gulf Coast was characterized by tall-grass prairie and shallow ponds, these regions have been transformed by agriculture and urbanization.

Understanding Waterfowl: Courtship and Pair Bonding

For waterfowl, timing is everything when selecting a mate. By Mike Brasher, Ph.D.

Understanding Waterfowl: Cross-Seasonal Effects

Habitat conditions on migration and wintering areas may influence waterfowl breeding potential the following spring. By J. Dale James, Ph.D.

Understanding Waterfowl: Fat Is Fit

Gaining weight is a good thing for waterfowl during fall and winter. By John M. Coluccy, Ph.D., and Jessica B. Ruthenberg.

September is National Rice Month

The USA Rice Federation has declared September to be National Rice Month.

Understanding Waterfowl: Tracking the Mallard Migration

Research has provided a wealth of new information about mallard movements and habitat preferences. By Luke Naylor and Andrew Raedeke, Ph.D.

Waterfowl Band Return Maps

Bands play an important role in the management of North America's waterfowl by providing important information on waterfowl movements, harvest and survival rates. View maps to see where your ducks come from.

Photo Essay: The Northern Pintail

In the world of ducks, the northern pintail takes the prize for elegance. Even its nickname—sprig—suggests a certain amount of refinement, as in the sprig of parsley a chef might use to garnish a fancy dish.

Understanding Waterfowl: Drakes and Ganders

A closer look at the fascinating mating strategies of male ducks and geese

Ducks in Wild Abundance

Just how good were the good old days? Waterfowl biologists explore how large the fall flight might have been in early America

Dr. James D. Nichols honored at 2013 Wetland Conservation Achievement Awards Ceremony

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – April 1, 2013 – Ducks Unlimited announced today the winners of the 2013 Wetland Conservation Achievement Awards during the 78th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference held in Arlington, Va., at the Crystal Gateway Hyatt. This year's recipient in the Research/Technical category is Dr. James D. Nichols.

Waterfowler's Notebook: Patterning Late-Season Ducks

Biology plays a bigger role in duck hunting than most hunters realize. Duck behavior is governed by instincts such as feeding, mating, and surviving. In winter, for example, ducks spend much of their time seeking mates for the spring breeding season and building energy reserves for the coming northbound migration.

Understanding Waterfowl: Mallards and Their Relatives

Widely distributed across North America, Asia, and Europe, the mallard is the most abundant duck in the northern hemisphere. Mallards are successful because they are adaptable, which allows them to exploit diverse habitats and resources. Mallards are also one of the most prolific breeders in the waterfowl world. In some cases, hen mallards have been observed making up to six nesting attempts in a single breeding season.

Understanding Waterfowl: Story of the Giants

A closer look at the remarkable comeback of the giant Canada goose

Understanding Waterfowl: Drought and Deluge

We can't control the weather, but conserving wetlands and grasslands on the prairies will help ensure the long-term health of duck populations

2012 Duck numbers remain strong as habitat declines

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - July 3, 2012 - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released its preliminary report today on breeding ducks and habitats, based on surveys conducted in May and early June. Total populations were estimated at 48.6 million breeding ducks in the surveyed area. This estimate represents a 7 percent increase over last year's estimate of 45.6 million birds, and is 43 percent above the 1955-2010 long-term average. This year's estimate is a record high and is only the sixth time in the survey's history that the total duck population exceeded 40 million.

Habitat conservation priority for healthy bird populations in Canada

The North American Bird Conservation Initiative in Canada (NABCI-Canada), a collaborative group made up of federal, territorial and provincial governments, conservation non-government organizations (NGOs), and private sector organizations, released The State of Canada's Birds, a new national report that draws on 40 years of data to explore the current health of Canada's birds.

Duck Numbers Remain Strong as Habitat Declines

Total populations were estimated at 48.6 million breeding ducks in the surveyed area. This estimate represents a 7 percent increase over last year's estimate of 45.6 million birds, and is 43 percent above the 1955-2010 long-term average.

Understanding Waterfowl: The Amazing Molt

Waterfowl replace all of their feathers with new plumage at least once a year

Understanding Waterfowl: The Blue-Winged Ducks

Northern shovelers and blue-winged and cinnamon teal are among the most closely related of North America's ducks

Research Seeks to Unravel Sea Duck Mystery

The 15 species of waterfowl known as sea ducks constitute 42 percent of all duck species breeding in North America. And yet sea ducks are the least understood of all waterfowl.

Story of Survival

As a waterfowl biologist, I am often asked how long ducks and geese live. Well, it all depends.

Finding the Way

Waterfowl have amazing navigational abilities that guide their migrations

Waterfowl of the Boreal Forest

Many of the ducks harvested in the United States are raised in this remote northern region

Duck Numbers Remain Strong as Pond Counts Approach Record Levels

Excellent wetland conditions have set the stage for above-average waterfowl production

Waterfowl Feeding Adaptations

Ducks and geese are well equipped to find food in a variety of habitats

Whooping cranes benefit from NAWCA and NET funded DU restorations in Nebraska

While elected officials were determining the fate of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, whooping cranes were spotted enjoying two Ducks Unlimited properties in Nebraska.

Understanding Waterfowl: Ways of the Wigeon

These fascinating ducks have many characteristics and behaviors that set them apart

Picture Perfect

Stunning images from the winners of our 2nd annual Ducks Unlimited magazine photo contest

Photo Essay: The Spectacular Wood Duck

A photographic tribute to one of the world's most colorful ducks

Understanding Waterfowl: Tracking the Black Duck

DU research sheds new light on this prized bird's migration habits

DU Celebrates Second Consecutive CRP Sign-up

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced another general sign-up for CRP, which will begin March 14, 2011, and continue through April 15, 2011, marking the second year in a row that USDA has offered a general CRP sign-up.

Photo Essay: Wonders of the White Goose

A photographic tribute to North America's magnificent light geese

Understanding Waterfowl: Waterfowl Feathers

Feathers are indeed among the defining characteristics of waterfowl and other birds. Birds, in fact, are the only animals that have feathers. And while feathers have many specialized functions, their most important jobs are to protect birds from the elements and to enable flight. In bitter cold, wintry conditions feathers are a duck's first line of defense.

Photo Essay: Waterfowl Feathers

Enjoy the vibrance and beauty of waterfowl feathers

Cleaning and Maintaining Wood Duck Boxes

Tips for keeping your wood duck nesting boxes in good condition season after season

Waterfowl Diseases

Ducks and geese suffer a variety of illnesses that are seldom evident to people

Summer's End

After the breeding season, ducks must molt and must build energy reserves in time for fall migration.

Shortcuts to Duck ID

By observing these and other characteristics, you’ll soon distinguish ducks you once thought impossible to identify.

Why Waterfowl Migrate

Ducks and geese fly long distances to find the resources they need to survive and reproduce

Danger From Above

Raptors are common predators of waterfowl in many areas of North America.

Duck Nesting Success FAQ's

What is it and what impacts it?

Duckling Survival

A variety of factors influence how many young ducks fly south each fall.

The Moveable Feast

During spring migration, waterfowl need an abundance of food to return to the breeding grounds in good condition.

Waterfowl Mating Systems II

How ducks and geese select their mates and maintain pair bonds varies among species.

A Bird's-Eye View

What a hunter believes to be effective concealment can be viewed very differently by the ducks. A brief look at how birds actually see may explain why situations like this occur countless times during duck season.

Florida Mottled Duck Research Project - Methods

Methods and objectives of Ducks Unlimited's Florida Mottled Duck Research Project

Ducks After Dark

An inside look at the nocturnal behavior of waterfowl.

Waterfowl Sex Ratios

A variety of factors influence the proportion of males and females in waterfowl populations.

Diving Ducks: Into the Deep

Diving ducks are perfectly designed for feeding in deep-water habitats.

Life in the Egg

A look at the incubation process and the amazing transformation that occurs within each egg.

Nest Site Selection

Selecting a nest site is an important decision in the annual cycle of ducks. Nest site choice can influence whether the female survives the nesting season and her eggs survive to hatch.

Waterfowl Energy Demands

Ducks need an abundance of carbohydrate-rich food to meet their needs during migration and winter.

Nature or Nurture

Both instinct and learning play important roles in shaping waterfowl behavior.

Aleutian Geese: Back from the Brink

Once on the verge of extinction, the Aleutian goose has now surpassed population goals.

Amazing Waterfowl Facts

Incredible information from the world of waterfowl

Stay Off My Pond

Gregarious throughout much of the year, waterfowl seek isolation during the breeding season.

Flying Machines

Like high-performance aircraft, waterfowl are built to fly.

Webbed Wonders

Waterfowl use their feet for much more than just standing and swimming.

Birds of a Feather

Plumage colors result from pigments and from the structure and reflective properties of feathers.

The Great Scaup Mystery

Research efforts have uncovered important clues in the puzzling decline of scaup populations and have raised new questions biologists must explore.

Waterfowl CSI

Isotope analysis is helping researchers solve waterfowl mysteries.

Getting Ready for the Migration

After the breeding season, ducks must molt and must build energy reserves in time for fall migration.

The Incubation Period

For female waterfowl, hatching a nest requires a big investment of time and energy.

Winter Homes for Waterfowl

Farm Bill programs help ensure that wintering grounds across the continent continue to meet the needs of ducks and geese.

The Salt Marsh Sovereig

New research is looking at the food and habitat resources that must be in place for wintering black ducks to thrive.

Wings in Action

Differences in wing size and shape determine the flight capabilities of waterfowl.

Waterfowl Hybrids

Crossbreeding produces rare and interesting birds but also threatens the survival of some species.

Dressed for Success

A drake’s bright colors and a hen’s dull plumage both play crucial roles in breeding.

Extrapair Paternity

Many waterfowl broods include offspring from more than one male.

Waterfowl Diseases

Ducks and geese are vulnerable to a number of illnesses, and habitat loss increases the risk of major outbreaks.

Fueling the Engines

Natural selection dictates that the fittest individuals (i.e., those best at survival and reproduction) dominate the population, while those less adept at making a living contribute less to the gene pool, or are eventually eliminated altogether. Fundamental to this concept is the notion that the physical and behavioral attributes of the animals we see today are well matched to the environmental challenges they face.

Teal Time

During the dog days of August, when much of North America is still sweltering under intense summer heat, blue-winged teal are already beginning their long migration south.

Redhead Hens: The Parasite Queen

Redhead hens are one of the most common duck species to engage in nest parasitism, laying their eggs in the nests of other hens and leaving their young to be reared by them.

If at First You Don't Succed

For breeding hens, producing a brood of ducklings requires perseverance as well as good nesting habitat

How Ducks Navigate

Birds use several visual and nonvisual orientation mechanisms to navigate. Some of the visual cues include the sun, polarized light, the stars, and even landmarks.

Birds of a Feather

Waterfowl rely on their feathers for much more than flying.

Waterfowl Renesting

For many species of ducks, persistence is crucial to reproductive success.

The Curious Lives of Sea Ducks

The breeding and feeding habits of these remarkable maritime birds differ greatly from those of dabbling ducks.

The Importance of Wintering Habitat

Food availability on the wintering grounds may have a significant impact on waterfowl populations.

Pintails: A Love-Hate Relationship with Spring Wetlands

Upon arriving in the prairie pothole country in early spring, pintails find a cold and often frozen landscape. To pintails, the spring thaw can provide a virtual paradise of spring wetlands, or a dry, barren desert.

Waterfowl Vocalizations

Interpreting their odd assortment of whistles, grunts, quacks, honks, coos, clucks, and trills

New Breed of Goose

Waterfowl Mating Systems

Some species pair for life, whereas others invest a lot of time forming new pair bonds each year—an activity that at first glance would seem too costly and time consuming.

Status of the Wood Duck

The survival and recovery of wood duck populations in North America are renowned wildlife success stories.

Mallards & Flooded Timber

Bottomland forested wetlands are havens for wintering waterfowl.

Whistling Ducks

There are eight species of whistling ducks in the world, but only two-the black-bellied and fulvous whistling ducks-occur in the United States.

The Shotgun Approach to Nest Success

Did you ever wonder why some species have a lot of offspring and provide only short-term limited care for their young, while others have few offspring and provide long-term intensive care? These differences in reproductive strategies have been the object of scientific investigation and debate for years.

Mallard Life Cycle

In the space of one year a duck experiences the full spectrum of seasonal changes that usher in opportunities and challenges. Follow the life cycle diagram from breeding to wintering for a better understanding of the activities and energy requirements in different phases of a duck's annual cycle.

Waterfowl Research & Science

Learn more about waterfowl biology, research, identification and much more! You'll also find links to the popular "Understanding Waterfowl" features seen in past issues of DU Magazine.

Parental Care

Early life for young waterfowl can range from surviving in a single-parent family to living a bird’s version of an Ozzie and Harriet-style childhood.

Ducks Out of Water

Ducklings and Goslings

Young waterfowl face many challenges but are amazingly well-adapted to their new environment.

A Brighter Future for Great Lakes Mallards

Ducks Unlimited researchers explore the needs of mallards in the Great Lakes and the implications they have on DU's conservation strategy.

Banding Together

Band recoveries reported by hunters are an essential source of information for waterfowl managers.

The Scoop on Duck Bills

These specialized feeding tools come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Trials of the Tundra

Once Arctic-nesting geese reach their breeding grounds, they are in a race against time.

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