What comes to mind when you hear “Muddy Water”? It all depends on the context right? If you are musically inclined and enjoy the soulful sound of the blues, well, the father of modern Chicago blues might come to mind. If it was springtime and we just had a torrential downpour, the sight of sediment laden streams and ditches might flood to the forefront. However, it is in the heart of duck season, and my reference to muddy water refers to ducks foraging in shallow water.
Waterfowl have many adaptations that allow us to categorize them into different groups. Wood ducks are considered perching ducks because they utilize the tops of trees to sit. Ring-necks and scaup are members of the diving duck family because of their underwater activities to find food. Dabbling ducks are in another main group of waterfowl, known because of their habit of foraging primarily on the surface of the water or however far their necks can reach down after they tip their hind-ends up in the air. This group includes teal, shovelers, gadwall, pintail, wigeon, and of course, mallards. Their foraging behavior limits the water depth in which they can successfully reach food. This is why they prefer shallower bodies of water.
During the course of the fall waterfowl season aerial waterfowl surveys are performed to monitor waterfowl migrations, distribution, and abundance as well as to account for habitat availability and use. Whether the birds are present or not, one of the indicators of dabbling duck use is muddy water. When the birds have found what they like, they create quite a disturbance in the shallows. From the air you can see muddy plumes in areas where puddle ducks have been rooting around searching for seeds and bugs to fill their bellies.
Granted, with time the muddiness clears up and the birds move on, but the effect of their activity makes a literal impression. As spring and summer roll around and water levels recede, you can occasionally see the imprint of a thousand hungry birds left in the drying mud. Last summer, at Dark Cypress, you could see such a site. The drying ground undulated and swelled within a range of 1 to 5 inches to form a shallow landscape of “duck craters”. Their probing and grubbing beaks sifted through the soft saturated soils and essentially turned the earth during their fall dinner.
In this way, dabbling ducks and other waterfowl such as snow geese, seasonally pass through wetland habitats and can set back succession just by using an area. By tilling the earth with their beaks the soil is cleared and ready for annual plants to respond the following spring, hence setting the table once again for the upcoming fall. Wetland managers mimic this natural process by disking, but if the conditions are right and the birds are plenty, the work can be done for the price of meal set aside for some willing travelers.
So if you are out wading in the marsh this December and happen to come upon a spot with muddy water, perhaps you’ll start humming the ole Muddy Waters’ tune, “Got My Mojo Working” as you’re setting out your decoys to prepare for a successful hunt. Undoubtedly, the ducks have already been working, which is good for you and will also pay off in the year to come. Good luck and safe hunting.