Where are the ducks?
That's the question Rick Kaminski of Mississippi State hears constantly from duck hunting enthusiasts throughout the Golden Triangle area and beyond. The waterfowl ecologist, a university faculty member since 1983, also listens as many speculate how folks up North intentionally are feeding the game birds to keep them from the South.
As for the latter conjecture, his response is: "That's absurd." He adds, however, that "recent mild winters, which keep open water and food available, may be allowing waterfowl to winter farther north.”
Kaminski, who holds advanced degrees in wildlife biology from Michigan State University, said "it is a fact that continental, regional and local weather have significant effects on waterfowl migration, abundance, and distribution. But, weather alone doesn't attract and meet annual needs of waterfowl, only habitat does.”
Waterfowl enthusiasts can play a key role in increasing and improving wetland habitat locally and beyond, the professor of wildlife and fisheries added. Without habitat, waterfowl don't have places to live as they move up and down the flyways.
"We continue to hear about and see habitat losses for many species of wildlife,” he said. "For example, Golden Triangle soybean fields that covered more than 300,000 acres in 1979 have plummeted in the last 25 years to about 37,000 acres, providing significantly less open land for ducks, quail, deer, and other wildlife.
Many area landowners who previously farmed soybeans have opted for other land uses such as catfish farming, conservation programs, natural forest regeneration, pine plantations, and rangeland. As a result, soybean acreage has fallen in Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha, and Noxubee counties at a time when it is rapidly increasing across the United States.
Soybeans don't provide complete nutrition for ducks--"they rank low on the ladder of common duck foods in terms of energy and protein,” Kaminski said. On the other hand, mallards and other ducks do eat soybeans and acquire energy from them.
Kaminski said the once-abundant Golden Triangle soybean fields and associated weedy low spots provided a smorgasbord of foods for ducks. "The ‘carrying capacity' of the region for waterfowl likely was much greater when soybean fields and other open lowlands flooded in winter,” he explained.
With loss of bean fields and other habitats, ducks wintering in the Golden Triangle have come to depend heavily on public and private managed habitats.
"Over the past 25 years, we've observed a fluctuating, but generally increasing, trend in winter duck abundance on Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps due in part to decreased flooded soybean lands and other habitats in the region,” Kaminski said.
"If we want to attract, hold and hunt waterfowl during winter and condition the birds for spring migration and breeding, we must actively manage currently existing waterfowl habitats on both public and private lands and develop additional ones,” he said. "If soybean acreage increases in the region, duck populations may respond. Nonetheless, we should focus on waterfowl habitat development and management.”
For enthusiasts wishing to attract and retain waterfowl in the region, Kaminski suggests the implementation of "moist-soil management.”
An economical technique to promote native plant growth, the process involves an annual or biannual disking of lowland areas in spring or summer while keeping the areas moist or shallowly flooded during the growing season. In mid-to-late autumn, the moist-soil areas are flooded up to 18 inches to provide excellent foraging areas for migrating and wintering waterfowl.
"Moist-soil management encourages growth of natural grasses, sedges and other annual plants that produce abundant and nutrient-rich seeds ducks and geese relish,” said Kaminski, who also suggests combining croplands in the moist-soil management process.
"High-energy crops such as corn, millet and rice elevate available energy for waterfowl, while moist-soil habitats contain a wide diversity of natural seeds and aquatic invertebrates,” he explained. "Mixing cropland and moist-soil habitat within waterfowl impoundments provides a variety of foods, helping the birds acquire a balanced diet in one general area.”
While waterfowl migration, abundance, and distribution are complex issues influenced by environmental and biological factors, waterfowl are "sampling specialists” and highly capable of locating suitable habitats, Kaminski said. "With only a fraction of the agricultural lowland remaining in the area, well-managed public and private waterfowl habitats are pivotal to keeping ducks in the Golden Triangle,” he said.
For other recommendations or technical assistance with waterfowl habitat management, contact the local MSU Extension Service office.