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Ducknado: Coming to a Marsh near You

Oct 21, 2015

Since it is October it makes sense to have a spooky tie-in or Halloween related theme. However, I don't know if the image of "Ducknado", a play off of the SyFy channel's Sharknado, is exactly creepy. Simply put, ducks don't have teeth and so a tornado of blunt billed birds doesn't sound very intimidating. Now the merganser family does have serrated bills. I guess if you were an imaginative director and could put an evil gleam in their eye, packed them in densely enough, and added some dramatic lighting and music a cyclone of "sawbills" could perhaps be somewhat threatening if you were directly in their path.

Not Science Fiction

All that to say, terror and fear isn't really my thing. I prefer topics that are awe inspiring and make me think. "Ducknados" do that. Flight days are something to behold. It can be late in the season with an overcast sky and snow blowing in your face or an early fall day with a cool wind encouraging the oak trees to drop their leaves. There are certain days that the ducks decide to move. As most waterfowl hunters know, it typically occurs with a cold front. Recent research shows that depending upon the species of ducks, this motivation to move with weather varies by species. A fairly predictable pattern for waterfowl movement occurs when you look at the average temperature, number of consecutive days below freezing, the average snow depth, and number of days with snow cover. Mallards, which are later migrants, don't leave until harsh winter conditions usher them south. The triggers for other dabbling ducks like pintails, wigeon, and green-winged teal are not as extreme, which is why we see them fly south earlier in the season.

Mass Movements

No matter what the kind of critter, witnessing a mass migration is impressive. Seeing thousands of individuals moving in the same direction with a seemingly collective conscious is enough to make one stop and wonder. Sure, you can see this every now and then on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet as they highlight zebras moving across the African plain or caribou marching across the Arctic tundra. Or perhaps you've been lucky enough to visit Alaska and see millions of salmon congregate and run up ancient glacial rivers. This kind of experience doesn't just occur in faraway lands; it also takes place here in Missouri. On certain days in the fall, the opportunity to view one of nature's miracles is available for you and me.

A Sight to Behold

It might start as you notice a few birds on the horizon dropping into the marsh. But as you look closer, you realize that it isn't just a few birds. Your gaze starts to follow to where the original ducks were descending from and find another envoy of fowl with wings locked in place. As you look up further, you discover there are more and more ducks falling in a similar manner from the sky on a continuous string. Now that your eyes have adjusted and you are scanning the broader heavens, what you see appears to be a spinning column of waterfowl, like an invisible spiraling escalator guiding them down to that special spot in the marsh. This is what I call a "Ducknado". It is definitely not something to fear, but a special sight to watch and experience.

October is waning and November approaching. Early fall migrating ducks are beginning to build up on Missouri's marshes. As winds come out of the north, birds are beginning to move and it is not just the ducks. Like associated tornadic flying debris, other species of birds including swallows, snipe, sora, and shorebirds are also in the air and may be accompanying a "Ducknado" near you. And while it will depend on the weather as to when the influx of mallards will occur, every fall has the potential for some spectacular flight days in our own backyard. While witnessing a "Ducknado" isn't a common event, you'll never see one unless you go out in the marsh and gaze at the sky every now and then. It is something to behold and enjoy.


Descending Waterfowl
Descending Waterfowl
Early migrating waterfowl, like northern pintail, blue-winged teal, and green winged-teal, descend onto Missouri’s wetlands in October and November.


Plentiful Pintail
Plentiful Pintail
Every fall the abundance of mass migrations can be witnessed as waterfowl visit our wetlands to rest and refuel on their seasonal journey.


Recuperating Pintail
Recuperating Pintail
Shallowly flooded wetland in early fall are critical for northern pintail, green-winged teal and blue-winged teal as they migrate south each year.


I'll have that information in my next post. 

The fall colors are nearly full blown I have been raking leaves for over three weeks my question is will Pool 2 or Pool 3 be ready for opening day this year? Any water being applied to either area? How many spots will be open for the youth hunt this weekend?

No problem, I’m happy to help.  The first publication shows the leaves turning red, but as you’ve seen the whole plant will turn crimson. I actually was kicking around doing an article on this very topic. There are a few spots around here where the toothcup came in really thick and is really striking. Hope you all have a good one with the kids. Good luck!

Thank you for the moist soil information. I saw toothcup in my research, but did not find a picture in it's red color. We are in the north zone and are getting ready to flood that lake this week. We have lots of pintails hanging around in the first lake we pumped that is a mix of beans, corn, and we have moist soil areas around the ditches. Hopefully our youth hunters can get into some birds tomorrow.

I believe the moist soil plant that you’ve described is toothcup, Ammannia coccinea.  It turns a scarlet red and can be quite a striking sight. This plant has these small “seedboxes” at the base of its linear leaves and the stem as you have described.  I encourage you to break one open to see all of the tiny seeds inside. It is wetland plant that germinates in similar conditions as the grass, sprangletop, which is Leptochloa fusca.  You’ll find these plants growing when you’ve had a wet summer, a late summer drawdown, or along the edge of semi-permanently flooded slough or basin.  What is kind of cool about these plants is the relation to where they germinate and when ducks use them.  These plants typically are in areas that flood first in the fall. Coincidentally, early migrants like teal and pintail like to devour the small seeds of both of these plants. There are a couple online sources you can check out these and other wetland plants along with whether or not they have value for ducks. There is the “Waterfowl Habitat Management Handbook For the Lower Mississippi River Valley” found here: A similar publication is “Wetland Management for Waterfowl, A Handbook” found here: If you want to go out and purchase a book, I like the recent “Guide to Moist-Soil Wetland Plants of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley” that can be ordered online too.  There may be a few species in these pubs that don’t make it this far north, but far and away most of what you’ll encounter are there. All of these publications place the “value” for ducks based upon the nutritional breakdown of these individual species. Do the seeds or tubers contain fats, protein, etc?  Some plants may not directly be as nutritious, but their structure may be good for bugs when flooded, which is another food item ducks key in on early fall for feather development.  I know this answer has gotten a little long, but I think you’ll still have some duck use this fall even if things got a little wet this summer.  That is the great thing about moist soil management, although the plants may change from year to year there are typically calories and nutrients in some form or another that ducks will use if given the opportunity. 

With pumps running and another front moving through this weekend, you could say habitat conditions and bird numbers are rather fluid at the moment. Waterfowl numbers for all of the areas will be posted by Wednesday next week under “Reports & Prospects” and “Waterfowl and Habitat Survey”.  We’ll do a post for Duck Creek’s outlook around that time as well. Thanks for the question. 

I believe that is why the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together”.  Granted, large movements of birds don’t happen every day.  However, pintails are one of the first to start heading back north and so in January and February you may come across large flocks with sprigs.  Sounds like a pretty cool sight, I’m glad you were able to experience that. 

Is there a good online source to see pictures of the different moist soil plants we have in Missouri? We had some water on a corn field for some time and now it is full of a crimson colored plant. The plants is around 2ft tall and has what appears to be seeds on the main stem. I don't have a picture but I believe the leaves are pointed and thin like a willow. When I saw it at a distance I though maybe it was a smartweed, but that does not seem to be the case. Could you identify this plant from the description and if it is beneficial for ducks? Thanks.

Hope to see Ducknado over my decoys this year every day.

With youth season right around the corner I would like to know how many positions will be available for the youth hunt and water levels in unit A and waterfowl populations if at all possible? Thanks any information will be helpful..

I had the good fortune to be goose hunting late in the season in unit A last year and saw what I thought was a large group of White front geese coming into the lake from the south. As they got closer to crossing over the lake I realized it was a huge flock of Pintails heading back north. No idea how many there were but at least several thousand. I did not see any other specie of duck flying with them as they spiraled into the north end of the lake. Is it common for pintails to group up like that?

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