By Jace Bauserman
Deep summer is here. The heat and life-sucking humidity are unbearable. The feel of a biting northern front and the sound of whistling wings seem far away. You’ve organized and reorganized your gear more times than you can count. You’re ready. All you can do now is plop down in front of the central air and dream about what type of waterfowl season you’re in for. Here’s some info to ponder.
Regarded as the “duck factory” of North America, the Prairie Pothole Region, according to recent data provided by Ducks Unlimited, is responsible for providing nesting habitat for up to three-quarters of North America’s breeding ducks.
The bad news: This once grassland-only system has been impacted for the worse over the past few decades. Much of the area now consists of large agricultural systems. This means many wetland areas have been drained by tile systems. The result has been a loss of native prairie and the destruction of massive amounts of breeding acres.
The good news: There are still millions of wetland acres and sizeable plots of native prairie for nesting fowl to access to pull off a successful clutch. In fact, the acreage of those breeding grounds should increase in 2020. The USDA Prairie Pothole Water Quality and Wildlife Program is providing funding to farmers in the Pothole Region to leave wetlands less than two acres in size.
What’s the current state of the Pothole Region nesting grounds as well as duck and goose breeding factories north of the U.S. border?
Brad Fenson is a waterfowl nut. In addition to his waterfowl obsession, he worked for Ducks Unlimited for seven years and is currently employed by Alberta Fish & Game. Fenson has a degree in Fish and Wildlife Resource Management and had some encouraging information about the status of waterfowl nesting grounds.
“The spring of 2019 saw snow storm after snow storm in the Dakotas, and copious amounts of the white stuff fell during the fall months,” said Fenson. “All that moisture has created solid water conditions in the Pothole Region.
“When it comes to popular nesting grounds in Canada, Alberta has above-normal water conditions, making great habitat for nesting ducks and geese. We may see, because of a late winter, late hatches.”
Central and northern Saskatchewan have excellent water conditions, but the southern-half of the province remains in a multi-year drought.
“Geese can still pull off a good hatch during a drought,” Fenson said. “They are able to nest on other dugouts and the like, but the ducks don’t do as well in a drought. Manitoba has solid water conditions and Ontario, due to its 1,000 lakes, always provides good nesting grounds. We are expecting good hatches of ducks and geese in the provinces as well in the Pothole Region.” Great news, but…
The Question That Remains
Where are ducks and geese going to find food during their fall migration? COVID-19 has crippled the economy and both ethanol and meat processing plants across the country have closed up shop. This will undoubtedly affect the number of golden nuggets farmers produce. Ducks and geese need grain. Grain provides carbohydrates that fuel migrating fowl.
In 2013, 40 percent of the nation’s corn harvest was used for ethanol production. That average has held true in recent years. Another 45 percent of harvested corn goes to feed livestock. With ethanol plants closed and feedlots losing thousands of dollars a day feeding cattle that should’ve shipped for slaughter, the price of corn has hit catastrophic lows.
What does this mean for you? It depends on the area of the country you call home. According to Randy Leka, Farm Manager for the famed Grigsby Farm located in Tallula, Illinois, it won’t affect the Corn Belt, but will likely cause farmers on the fringe to plant other crops.
Randy has a BS in Agriculture and majored in Agri-Business at Southern Illinois University. He is a bank of knowledge and manages an operation that plants roughly 4,500 acres of corn each year. What he refers to as “fringe” areas include the western, northern and eastern regions of the U.S. including the Mississippi Delta.
“The outlook for corn doesn’t look good,” Randy said. “However, we are in the Corn Belt. I do believe there will be some acres that flex to beans, but I don’t expect a massive shift here. There’s still going to be a lot of corn in the Midwest. Where I think you’ll see the big drop in corn production is in the fringe areas around the Corn Belt. This could really affect the amount of food available in certain areas for migrating fowl.”
Of course, corn isn’t all ducks and geese eat, but here’s something else to tie into the food equation. Over the past five decades, the amount of available rice for wintering waterfowl has declined by roughly 1.3-million acres. Corn production, however, has been up. On average, north of 50-million acres of corn is planted in the Mississippi River Basin each year. Corn has also become a popular crop in northern states like Minnesota and North Dakota. The aforementioned corn areas are considered “fringe” areas, and in 2020, may see a decline in the number of acres farmers dedicate to the crop.
“We aren’t growing a stitch of corn,” said southeast Colorado farmer and Colorado State University graduate Chris Tomky. “With all the ethanol plants closing, many farmers that could grow another crop did. We’ve seen low corn prices at other times, but this year is really, really bad. I hate it. We love to grow corn. We love to hunt ducks and geese. I’ve seen massive dips in the numbers of ducks and geese we hold during years where corn was limited. It could be scary this year.”
Good News and Bad News
It seems that’s about par for the course. Duck and goose numbers should be up. Great.Nesting ground habitat is in good condition.. The amount of grain production in 2020, however, could be dismal.
You know your area. You know the crops and the amount of birds that typically hold in your locale based on waste-grain left behind by combines. If grain is going to be lacking, you may need to start planning a few black-top burning missions to areas that grew plenty of gold. If that’s not possible, look to other food sources in your area.
Ducks have aquatic appetites. They will consume submerged and emergent, native and invasive aquatic vegetation. According to DU Chief Scientist, Dr. Tom Moorman, puddle ducks will key on what are loosely defined as “moist soil plants.”
“Gadwall and American widgeon rely more on leafy portions of submersed aquatic plants like pondweed, coontail, milfoil and others,” Moorman said. “Shovelers and blue-winged teal, in addition to eating the seeds of annual plants, prey heavily on invertebrates. Teal love small snails and aquatic insect larva. Shovelers will key on small crustaceans found swimming in the water column.”
Moorman went on to note that canvasbacks and redheads will eat submersed aquatic plants, but that canvasbacks in particular like to eat tubers/roots in addition to seeds and leafy portions. The shape of their bill allows them to dig the tubes underwater.
“It’s important for waterfowl hunters to know that corn is mainly attractive to geese, mallards, pintails, wood ducks and sometimes green-winged teal and American wigeon. Most of our other waterfowl may fill their bellies with wetlands-sourced foods.”
Do some research. Talk to farmers in your area. Prepare accordingly and make 2020 a memorable season in the waterfowl country.