I have a confession to make. I may be a different duck. During a crisp fall morning in the marsh, I get a kick out of seeing a variety of different waterfowl species flying overhead. I’ll admit that as the season progresses I won’t turn my nose up at a limit of mallards, but early in the season I don’t feel like I’m squandering the day by watching a variety of feathers flock together.
Ecologically, this is just a factor of time, place, and how species have adapted to take advantage of wetlands across the continent. Like people, certain species show up early, while others take their time in getting where they are “supposed” to be. Also like us, some waterfowl are picky eaters and others don’t seem to have many standards. When and where you hunt can affect which species you are likely to encounter. With a 60 day hunting season folks can takes advantage of many waterfowl species as they migrate to and through the Mingo basin.
These sharply clad birds that call the timber home love acorns, but will also eat other seeds like cypress, buttonbush, and bur reed when push comes to shove. At times they’ll forage on waste grain in wheat and corn stubble as well. When temperatures start to dip, we usually see a similar downhill trend in our wood duck harvest in Pools 2 and 3 as they head south.
Another sleek looking fowl, these birds prefer more open habitats and won’t be found weaving through the trees. These ducks forage on the small seeds of panic grass, rice-cut grass, chufa, and smartweed found out in Units A and B. In agricultural settings they will forgo corn, but dive into rice fields. Their numbers will increase in October and typically peak sometime in November before their numbers begin to decrease heading into December as their flock moves south. However, in January we will see large groups moving back north.
These little jet-fighters are like their early season cousins the blue-wings and like to eat on mudflats. Disked openings that show water early and incorporate the vegetation into the soil set the table for these birds. Here they grub on moist soil seeds and a variety of invertebrates. Instead of here one day and gone tomorrow, the migration curve of green-winged teal typically extends into a good part of our waterfowl season.
Also known as a baldpate because of the drake’s white crown, this duck would be considered a finicky vegetarian. Instead of preferring seeds like some of its fellow brethren, wigeon prefer the leaves and stems of underwater aquatic plants or the leaves of upland grasses and clovers. Pool 1, the vegetated open marsh sloughs, and the wheat along the higher rim of Units A and B have what this picky bird is looking for when it needs to refuel before heading on to warmer climes toward the end of November.
Rafts of ring-necks have been a common site on Pool 1 for years and there is good reason for this. These birds also prefer aquatic fare and will dine on the leafy parts of coontail and duckweed. However, some biologists consider a ring-neck as a puddle duck trapped in a diving duck’s body because they will also readily use shallow marsh habitats and feed on seeds and insects commonly found in moist soil units. Ring-necks aren’t the first ones heading south and they aren’t the last to arrive either. Duck Creek is an important stop-over for this species as fall surveys documenting over 10,000 are not uncommon.
Here is another duck that prefers to have its food all wet. Like the wigeon and ring-necks, gadwall prefer the stems and leaves of aquatic plants like pondweed and coontail, and often slurp down green algae for a slimy meal. They will also dine on the seeds of moist soil plants like millet and smartweed, which were very productive in Units A and B this year. Similar to the other “grey” ducks, gadwall numbers typically fall as we get closer to December.
These heavy billed birds often don’t get much respect. However, their foraging strategy is quite remarkable. Sucking up food where plants and seeds don’t exist, these birds use the bristles on the sides of their large bill, called lamella, to filter out the microscopic plankton in the water column. They also slurp down larger food items including snails, fingernail clams, and various kinds of aquatic larvae. In terms of arrival and departure times, shovelers are similar to wigeon.
Much like the progression of fall, in this article we have finally arrived at the large bodied, green-headed bird that dominates the bag of many a waterfowl hunter in the Midwest. These birds are highly adaptable and will eat a wide variety of natural and agricultural foods alike. To name a few, they will eat millet and smartweed seeds in the open marsh to get essential nutrients and minerals. As the fall rains begin to flow intothe tracts of bottomland timber in this region and further south and as temperatures get colder, these birds will also take advantage of the energy acorns provide. Not to overlook an opportunity, these generalists will also forage in flooded fields of waste corn, rice, and soybeans. This hardy duck is the last to join the party, but when they do, it is typically enough to pick up the slack and then some as the early migrants depart for locations further south.
As you can see, waterfowl diets are wide ranging and diverse. One size, literally, doesn’t fit all. However, by providing a range of wetland habitats at Duck Creek, each of these species can find what they need to refuel and move on to the next leg of their seasonal journey south. Whether it is early, middle, or late in the season and I’m able to be out in a wetland and see birds overhead, you can count me happy… but then again, that just may be because I’m a bit of a different duck. Good luck out there and I hope you have fun too.