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Waterfowl

Ducks, geese, and swans are worldwide in distribution. Forty species inhabit the continental United States in habitats that include coastal shoreline areas and estuaries, fresh water lakes, rivers, and ponds, and inland wetlands such as marshes and swamps. Due to the diversity of waterfowl species and their migratory nature, waterfowl management must be shared among various countries, states, provinces, private organizations, and individuals. As with all wildlife, food, water, cover, and access to specialized habits for breeding and rearing young are essential for the management of waterfowl. Although the protection and management of essential environments such as Lake Champlain, riverine systems, and large wetlands are primarily within state and federal responsibility, much of the habitat needed by waterfowl in Vermont involves small privately-owned wetlands. You can help waterfowl by supporting state and federal programs to preserve, enhance, and restore quality habitat, or by directly implementing proven waterfowl management practices on wetlands in their ownership.

Vermont Wildlife Fact Sheet

Physical Description

Waterfowl is a general term used to describe a wide variety of aquatic bird species that includes swans, geese and ducks. Although there is considerable variation among these birds, there are some common physical features. All waterfowl have webbed toes, enabling them to move swiftly through their watery environments. They also have long necks, narrow pointed wings, and generally short legs with a few exceptions. Waterfowl are covered with down from birth, which provides them with excellent insulation from cold air and water temperatures. in northerly latitudes and spend the winter months in more southern climates. This results in semi-annual migrations during which the birds utilize a variety of habitat types to feed, rest, preen and escape from predators. Waterfowl nest on the ground, or in cavities, stumps, or tree crotches. Clutches are relatively large; ten to 16 eggs, which are then incubated for 24 to 30 days by the hen. She generally rears her brood to flying age in eight to ten weeks. Although adequate nesting cover should be near a wetland, waterfowl nest up to one-half mile from brood-rearing habitat, so it may not be necessary to provide for nesting immediately in or around the wetland. Mallard and black ducks usually nest on the ground in areas with dense vegetative cover. Over-water tree stumps and tree crotches or small islands with good cover are also preferred locations. Nesting begins shortly after ice-out for these species, with hatching peaking near June 1. Bluewinged teal nest later almost exclusively in hayfields. Delaying the mowing of hayfields in close proximity to wetlands until after July 1 will increase nest sites and decrease nest destruction by mowing equipment. Livestock grazing is usually incompatible with the maintenance of nesting cover. Intense grazing in lands adjoining wetlands should be prevented prior to July 1. Rotate grazing areas to ensure adequate nesting cover, and avoid livestock damage to wetlands with suitable perimeter fencing. Wood ducks, hooded mergansers, and goldeneyes are tree hole nesters. They select natural cavities in larger trees for nest sites up to one-half mile from water. Live trees are preferred, although snags may be used. Ensure the availability of tree hole nesting sites by retaining

Waterfowl Fact Sheet 1

Life Cycle

Although natural history and habitat preferences vary among species, waterfowl share many common traits. They usually breed and rear their young

trees 15 inches or greater in diameter which have natural holes three to five inches across. Maples and oaks make very good nest trees. Where suitable nesting sites are scarce, tree-nesting species benefit from nesting boxes placed on sturdy poles within the wetland. It is important to build nest boxes to specific dimensions, fill them with dry wood shavings, then clean and maintain regularly. Most important is the installation of a predator guard to protect the hen and her nest. Specifications and technical advice on nest box construction and placement are available through the district offices of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Food Items

Food preferences range from insects and small invertebrates found in shallow wetlands, to snails, clams, and small fish in deeper water. Aquatic vegetation and seeds in shallow and deep water comprise a major portion of the diet for many species. Agricultural field crops and grains have become important food sources, especially for geese. Waterfowl food and cover plants are usually well established on older wetlands and will appear in a reasonably short time on new impoundsments without a helping hand. Seeds from aquatic plants adapted for this climate are dispersed naturally by several means, including waterfowl themselves. So, in most situations, it is unnecessary to supplement native food and cover species with artificial plantings. Noxious weed plants such as

phragmites, purple loosestrife, and water chestnut should be eradicated as soon as they are discovered. These prolific plants have little value for waterfowl and quickly crowd out desirable aquatic plants. Before planting supplemental vegetation within a wetland, review the readings pertaining to waterfowl food plants and the criteria for successful introduction and growth. A close match between the plant requirements and the soil and water chemistry of a particular wetland is crucial. Care must be exercised in selecting species for planting with an emphasis on native wetland plants compatible with existing wetland systems, and avoidance the nonnative species that cause problems in aquatic ecosystems.

Abundance

Over thirty species of waterfowl have been found within Vermont as breeders or migrants throughout the seasons. Some, like the mallard, are commonly seen and abundant in large numbers in any wetland environment. Many species vary in numbers throughout the year due to seasonal migrations. Snow geese, for example can be seen in large flocks at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison during the months of March through April and October through November, but are fairly uncommon at other times of the year.

Habits & Habitat

Wetlands are the single most important habitat required by waterfowl. Whether seasonally covered by water, such as flooded fields, or permanent features like marshes, wooded swamps, and bogs, aquatic habitats meet the life needs of many species of birds, mammals, fish, and lower animals in addition to waterfowl. Wetland productivity is a measure of how well the needs of wetland species are met. For waterfowl, this translates into the quality and quantity of available water, food, cover, and nesting sites. Pollutants and disturbance are important factors when assessing wetland productivity. Most Vermont wetlands have excellent productivity and are worthy of continued protection and enhancement.

History

The rich and diversified system of wetlands of which we are custodians was left in place by the last ice age. Waterfowl have used these wetlands for thousands of years. Because most natural wetlands are balanced plant and animal communities, they need little if any human manipulation. Protection from draining, filling, livestock grazing, shoreline development, and harmful chemicals is strongly recommended for all wetlands. Minimizing these impacts from noise, pets and human intrusion, especially during the nesting and

Waterfowl Fact Sheet 2

brood rearing from April to July is also important. Wetlands are dynamic ecosystems and continually undergo changes in appearance, productivity and wildlife values. The sequence of wetland succession occurs as shallow waters areas fill in and become vegetated marshes, then shrub swamps, and finally forested areas. Although all areas are important to individual species of wildlife, waterfowl derive optimal habitat value from intermediate wetland stages.

Resource Utilization

Waterfowl are appreciated by hunters and non-hunters alike. Many species are commonly harvested in the fall by hunters. Birders find great enjoyment too, in observing the numerous species that frequent our state's wetlands. Additionally, waterfowl are a vital component to maintaining these ecologically important areas throughout their range.

Management Efforts

Although many waterfowl species visit Vermont from early spring to early winter, management practices are useful only for those with specific habitat needs. The black duck, mallard, wood duck, blue-winged teal, hooded merganser, common merganser, goldeneye and Canada goose are Vermont's principal breeding waterfowl, and they may benefit from the creation or enhancement of habitat. Improvement in habitat aimed at these species will generally also benefit migrating species such as green-winged teal, pintail,

gadwall, wigeon, shoveler, and perhaps diving ducks such as ring-necked ducks. The increase in beaver populations in Vermont has led to the creation and maintenance of excellent natural waterfowl habitat. Management of beaver colonies provides a great opportunity to assist waterfowl. Maintaining a water to cover ratio of 50 percent should be a goal whenever possible. Waterfowl broods, molting adults, and fall migrants need areas of emergent plant cover, shrub vegetation or fallen timber for concealment. These features should be interspersed with swimmable water. Excessive mats of thick vegetation are not desirable as they lessen the diversity of plant and animal communities and restrict waterfowl movement. Water level manipulation is the most important management tool for keeping vegetation density in balance with swimmable water. On a small scale, mechanical cutting or pulling of undesirable species can be beneficial. Use of herbicides to kill aquatic plants is not generally recommended. The Vermont Departments of Environmental Conservation and Agriculture oversee herbicide use in or near wetlands and require stringent precautions. Adequate water depths are important for waterfowl to completely utilize all available food and cover resources in the wetland. This is especially true during the drier summer months when broods are mobile and need access to all portions of the wetland. Water levels of 12 to 24 inches are generally ideal, although bottom contours and

seasonal water changes produce a range of depths in any wetland. Periodic cycles of high and low water increase productivity over time. Soil nutrients are renewed and diversity in food and cover resources is increased. Seasonal water cycles or beaver activity regulate this naturally. Artificial water level control structures may be constructed where more intensive water level regulation is needed. Landowners who may want to restore drained wetlands can look to the Partners for Wildlife Program. Optimal water depth for surface feeding waterfowl is 12 to 24 inches with some deeper water also desirable. As a rule of thumb, small wetland units are best managed in their natural condition. Improving specific deficiencies in open water to cover ratios, nesting and brood rearing habitat, or enhancement of wetland soil productivity may be beneficial in certain situations.

Illustrations by Tom Kelley

Waterfowl Fact Sheet 3

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Waterfowl

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