It takes lots of fuel to fly. According to studies conducted by Ducks Unlimited, migrating ducks spend up to 80 percent of daylight hours feeding. “When they’re not feeding,” says Scott Yaich, DU’s director of conservation programs, “they’re looking for food.” Yet too many waterfowlers know too little about which plants ducks favor–and where to find them. Here’s a primer:
**( Flooded Timber ) **Deer aren’t the only animals that love acorns. Wood ducks, mallards, and even occasional greenwing teal flock to flooded oak stands to feed. Size matters: Overcup oaks, for example, grow low in the floodplain but produce large, rough-shelled nuts that ducks shun. Focus instead on oaks with smaller acorns. “Nuttall and willow oaks produce acorns as big as a thumbnail-the perfect size for ducks,” Yaich says.
( Marshes, Above the Waterline ) The abundant seeds of wild rice and the tubers of duck potato are among the birds’ favorites. Both grow in shallow water near shore, and their visibility above the waterline makes them excellent indicators of good duck habitat. “Typically, if you see emergents, you know a marsh is worth investigating,” Yaich says. But finding weedy water is just the beginning. “It’s like fishing. You look for structure first, then move in for a closer inspection. But in this case, you’re looking for prime duck foods.” A field guide can help with identification.
**( Marshes, Below the Waterline ) **Marsh stalwarts such as eel grass, wild celery, and pondweed attract waterfowl in two ways. Vegetation and seeds growing underwater or floating near the surface are rich sources of carbohydrates; they also shelter aquatic invertebrates–bugs, snails, and insect larvae–that provide protein. Some species of pondweed also have tubers that grow just beneath the mud, drawing divers. “Look for clear, shallow water,” Yaich says. “These plants need sunlight, and the clearer the water, the better the production of seeds and vegetation.”
**( Moist Soil) **Wet, open areas such as washed-out corners of cropfields or forest clearings prone to flooding can harbor seed-rich grasses, rushes, and sedges. Chufa, a common sedge with nutlike tubers, is a particular favorite. Smartweed and wild millet also thrive under moist conditions. While such habitat is usually limited to remnants in farmlands and forests, state agencies often flood entire fields in the spring to spur weed growth and again in the fall to provide habitat. Call your state agency for details.
( Cropfields ) “Some of the easiest foods for hunters to focus on are farm grains,” Yaich says. Whether it’s wheat and barley in the North, corn and grain sorghums such as milo in the Midwest, or rice in the South, waterfowl readily adapt to farm feed. Japanese millet, a domesticated variant of wild millet, is popular with ducks but overlooked by hunters. While some ducks will browse dry fields, flooded croplands are a better bet. Look especially for late-planted fields, which were likely washed out in spring. If fall rains hit these flood-prone areas again, ducks will find the combination of water and standing grain irresistible.