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Waterfowl and Wetland Ecology and Management

Habitat Ingredients for Wintering Ducks

Most waterfowl conservationists know the basic ingredients of their favorite duck gumbo or other fowl cuisine. But, do most know the habitat ingredients of Mississippi Delta landscapes that attract abundant mallards and other dabbling ducks during winter?

That’s the question that waterfowl ecologists in the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries addressed recently as part of a doctoral research project. For three winters (2003-2005), thousands of miles of aerial surveys were flown 500 feet above ground following east-west transects across the entire Mississippi Delta. Important objectives of the surveys were to estimate the abundance of mallards and other ducks during winter and determine habitats used by the birds.

Each flight, ducks were observed along transects, identified, and recorded with a total number and location using a GPS receiver. The wildlife scientists were especially interested in determining the associated types of wetlands over 12,000-acre parcels of the Delta that attracted the largest observed groups of mallards and other dabbling ducks during January, when duck numbers generally peak in the state. The 12,000-acre landscapes were based on the average size of state and federal wildlife management areas in the Delta, and the largest groups observed were a minimum of 100 mallards and 200 other dabbling ducks.

Large numbers of mallards and other dabbling ducks used complexes containing several wetland types common in the Delta. Both mallards and other dabblers were attracted to areas composed of about 50% flooded cropland, 20% forested or scrub-shrub wetlands (button bush, willow, privet), 10-20% seasonal wetlands (moist-soil), and the remainder using permanent water impoundments such as rivers and catfish ponds. Additionally, researchers found a high diversity, percentage area, and mixing together of wetlands were positively related to the occurrence of ducks in high numbers.

Indeed, duck habitat, like good gumbo, contains a diversity of ingredients. So, to develop duck holes and management areas, scientists recommend including all the important wetland ingredients: flooded cropland, forested and scrub-shrub, moist-soil, and permanent wetlands. Moreover, permanent sanctuary areas where ducks can feed, rest, and form pair bonds in peace and quiet during the hunting season are important.