By Craig LeShack
When discussing habitat management and what attracts ducks, many landowners automatically think agricultural crops. While it is true that grain crops provide a good source of energy, principally carbohydrates, there are other things to consider, not only from a habitat manager's perspective (cost, equipment, baiting, and other issues) but also from a duck's viewpoint (nutrition, food availability, etc.). When managing for waterfowl, native plant species should be considered whenever possible, especially in areas where a local agricultural base already exists. The real question you may ask is: Why?
There are several major advantages, for both the landowner and the ducks.
First and foremost, native plants (referred to as moist-soil plants when they grow in seasonal wetland areas) are more nutritionally complete than agricultural grains. Seeds from these plants contain various proteins and amino acids essential to waterfowl sustenance. While grains can be important to waterfowl at certain times in the winter, they lack the nutrients needed during the birds' annual life cycle. Another advantage that native plants have is that they last longer in the water, giving birds a food source throughout winter. Foods such as soybeans and corn decompose more rapidly after being submerged in water and, therefore, lose their nutritional value. In addition, moist-soil plants provide a food base for a large and diverse invertebrate community that is important to waterfowl, especially females as they prepare for breeding. Some native moist-soil plants that are beneficial to waterfowl include various sedges, smartweeds, wild rice, and pondweeds, to name a few.
Not only do ducks benefit from native plants, but landowners can also realize several advantages to planting them. In general, moist-soil plants are easier to manage than are grains. Good waterfowl food plants need a period of drawdown in order to grow. If you have the ability to remove water from a pond (via a water-control structure or pump), you can manage for moist-soil plants. The entire pond or impoundment may not have to be emptied since most puddle ducks prefer to feed in water depths from six to 18 inches. Managing shallow-water wetlands for moist-soil plants needs to include some sort of ground disturbance. Lightly discing (two to four inches in depth) managed ponds is the best method for accomplishing this and can be done every year or every other year. Don't worry if you do not have water-level management capability, however, because wetlands normally go through an annual drying cycle during the summer months. At this time, shallow areas are exposed, allowing seeds to germinate. Planting agricultural crops requires specialized farm equipment, seed, and fertilizer just to get started. In addition, you need to plant every year, whereas native plants re-seed naturally and will germinate with little or no disturbance. In addition, native plant seeds are more abundant in a wetland than waste grains are in seasonally flooded agricultural impoundments, especially considering the efficiency of modern grain-harvesting equipment. Finally, many landowners enjoy seeing other species of wildlife using their wetlands, and native plants are attractive to a variety of species, for some of the same reasons as they are to waterfowl.
One other critical advantage of managing for native vegetation relates to the issue of hunting over a baited field. If you are going to waterfowl hunt on a pond, you cannot manipulate agricultural crops to scatter the seeds (e.g., mow or disk) unless as a byproduct of an acceptable agricultural practice such as harvesting. Otherwise, those types of manipulations are considered baiting. However, you can manipulate native vegetation by means such as mowing, discing, and burning, and it is not considered baiting. For clarification and to learn the exact rules on baiting, contact your local wildlife agency or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
So, the next time you are considering how to manage wetlands to attract wildlife, consider going native. Waterfowl and other wildlife species will find it attractive for many reasons. Just remember, wetland management is not an exact science and it may take a couple of growing seasons to really see results. One solution might be to gradually phase out or limit crops by planting several grain strips until your moist-soil plant management scheme takes hold.
Contact a DU regional office or local state wildlife agency for additional information on managing for native vegetation.