Waterfowl Habitat; Ducks and Geese

Doug Leier

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For some reason, when North Dakota is singled out as a benchmark in agriculture or wind energy potential, few people discount or argue our place as a leader. After trying to find the perfect May day to cast a line or steer clear of white caps, who can deny the wind?

And, if you spend any time outside city limits, you'll quickly realize how agriculture is king in North Dakota.

However, when we're referred to as part of the Prairie Pothole Region - the duck factory of North America - for the most part it doesn't really seem to capture the attention of many, aside from waterfowl hunters who take pride in North Dakota's role for producing ducks. Sure, ducks are produced in other places, but subtract North Dakota from the duck factory and mallard hunters would have a lot less to get excited about each fall.

Mallard Ducks

As May rolls on, male and female duck pairing, and hen nest establishments are building the foundations for the 2009 fall flight of mallards and other prairie nesting ducks that rely on our shallow and temporary wetlands. In spring, with mating and nesting, ducks seek out those little ponds as a source of invertebrates rich with nutrients for breeding, forming eggs and raising broods.

Ducks need those small wetlands. Large permanent wetlands are extensively used in fall by migrating waterfowl, but in spring they are not the priority habitat for most ducks, and they are not a productive substitute for small wetlands. While larger wetlands are important as brood rearing habitat once eggs hatch, small wetlands are the key up until then. For ducks in spring, 20 one-acre wetlands are much better than one wetland of 20 acres.

These small wetlands are so important that in years when they are mostly dry, as has been the case the last few springs, ducks may not even try to establish a nest.

A recent Delta Waterfowl study, an analysis conducted by Steve Hoekman, shows that for mid-continent mallards, 76 percent of the factors limiting population growth occur on the breeding grounds. While this comes as no surprise to biologists, wildlife managers and waterfowl hunters, it verifies that nest success, hen survival and duckling survival are the key elements to increase duck populations.

As such, key work on behalf of waterfowl and waterfowlers needs to be focused on the breeding grounds. Today, with declining production and the losses of both wetland and upland nesting habitat, the task will be a difficult one.

Having lived in North Dakota my entire life, much of it in small towns such as Stanley, LaMoure and Bottineau, I know first-hand the passion state citizens have for the wildlife with which we share this land. I've seen a drought of last summer give way to record snow and floods of this winter and spring, and despite all the hardships people have endured, I still get a lot of questions on how this period of weather extremes is affecting wildlife.

It's true the weather in North Dakota can change rapidly, but what hasn't changed is our role as part of the duck factory. It's a given that national conservation organizations such as Delta Waterfowl Foundation and Ducks Unlimited, and government agencies like the State Game and Fish Department are committed to protecting and enhancing our waterfowl breeding habitat.

Even citizens who don't hunt, however, can take pride in knowing the important role North Dakota and its significant wetland habitat has in preserving our nation's natural resources.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: dleier@gmail.com

Posted by Doug Leier under Waterfowl on May 7, 09 07:31 AM | Permalink

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