The 2022 edition of Greenhead marked the debut of a feature that aims to separate some fact from fiction in the duck hunting world. This waterfowler’s version of “Mythbusters” proved popular, so it’s back for another round.
Last year’s inaugural feature took on the belief that Mississippi Flyway ducks have shifted west, the common complaint that food sources in the Midwest have led to ducks short-stopping in Arkansas, and the notion ducks are getting to Arkansas in February based on significant concentrations of numbers seen after the season.
Once again, the experts have been turned loose to to tackle certain common beliefs in the waterfowling world, clearing up misunderstandings, deciphering misquotes, fighting false facts or confirming a truth.
MYTH: The number of curly black tail feathers determines a mallard drake’s age.
Beyond the metallic green head of the mallard drake, the black curled tail feathers, called drake feathers, are one of the iconic features of the planet’s best-known duck. The drake feathers appear when a mallard transitions to its adult, flight-worthy plumage around two to three months old. Interestingly, after each breeding season, adult mallard drakes go through eclipse molt and lose all their distinct male plumage, including their drake feathers, and have to grow them anew each year.
Drakes typically have one to two pronounced curly tail feathers, but some have showcased four to six. Regardless, the number of drake feathers is not a determining factor for age. Especially given that they lose them each year and grow them back intermittently up to the next breeding season.
According to Delta Waterfowl Chief Waterfowl Scientist Frank Rohwer, the age of ducks cannot be exactly determined in the field, but they do have distinguishing marks that separate hatch-year birds from adults. Early in the season, the white tail feathers will be notched at the tip and ragged-looking for hatch-year birds while appearing sleek and well-defined for adult birds. As the season progresses, by November or December depending on when the duck was born the previous spring, the ragged tail feathers fall out and are replaced by adult feathers.
Rohwer says another quick, in-the-field trait to look for is the color of a drake’s feet. If the feet are a clear, bright orange, those belong to an adult bird. If they are a dull orange, that would be a young bird. The brightest of bright feet that look almost red belong to mallard drakes with a temporary, increased hormone level as they seek a mate for the upcoming breeding season.
Other age determining techniques involve feathers on the wings, but those are tricky for a layperson. Some readers may have participated in the USFWS annual parts survey, in which recruited hunters clip the wings of ducks they shoot and mail them to the service. USFWS biologists can determine the ages of ducks through this process, which provides statistical data on the age ratios of mallards harvested. Age ratios are vital to monitoring nesting success, survival and other key waterfowl management metrics.
And there is one more fun fact regarding the age of mallards that has an Arkansas twist. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest known mallard living in the wild was 27 years and seven months old. The greenhead was banded in Louisiana in 1981 and harvested in Arkansas in 2008.
On average, mallards will live around two years in the wild. Hens have a much higher, faster mortality rate due to predation on the nest, malnourishment after the hatch, the brutality of mating season and other factors (that’s why it’s recommended to avoid shooting hens).
MYTH: Out-of-state hunters are overcrowding public land and making private land harder to lease and purchase.
Overcrowding, which typically leads to increased pressure on ducks, is a hot topic nowadays, especially among the hunters who frequent the AGFC-managed Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs). While overcrowding is a significant issue to some and no big deal to others, out-of-state hunters (also known as “oosers” in social media circles) get a lot of the blame.
To combat overcrowding on the WMAs, the AGFC has blocked out three windows during the season, amounting to 30 days, where non-resident waterfowlers are allowed on the state-managed hunting areas. While easing the perception of a “hunter behind every tree” during the resident-only portions of the season, these windows do not apply to the NWRs. So the non-residents, especially those who spend a good chunk of time in Arkansas during duck season, shift to the federally managed lands.
But in reality there are exponentially more hunters, regardless of residency, primarily hunting private land because significantly more of it is available for duck hunting in Arkansas than public land. The influx of out-of-state hunters has increased competition for duck hunting grounds for sale and lease, pushing some residents out of the market. Non-residents own numerous, well-known Arkansas duck clubs.
While that sounds like the basis for an “anti-ooser” stance, Arkansas needs any and all dollars that hunters generate from license and duck stamp sales that, in turn, fund management and improvements to habitat and resources. The small towns throughout Arkansas need the influx of money that duck season brings. Arkansans alone can’t sustain the state’s reputation as the duck hunting capital of the World without participation from both inside and outside the state.
So, back to the myth that there are more out-of-state duck hunters who cause overcrowding. The AGFC began separating resident from non-resident waterfowlers in 2005, and out of 81,958 stamps sold, 39% were to non-residents. This past season, the AGFC sold 109,629 stamps, and non-residents accounted for 51% sold. It was the first time the majority were non-residents, though the numbers have been close to 50-50 a few times, including 2021. Since 2005, non-resident stamp sales have grown 77%, while sales to residents have grown a meager 6.8%.
Interestingly, only 6,074 non-resident, five-day WMA permits were issued last season, down from an all-time high of 8,173 in 2015. As a percentage of duck stamps sold, that is only 11% of non-resident hunters accessing state-owned hunting grounds. The rest are either hunting private ground they own or lease, or using a guide service or targeting the federally managed public opportunities.
Non-residents have been coming to Arkansas for more than a century specifically to hunt ducks. Not only does Arkansas have the habitat and the famed flooded green timber, it also has the history, traditions and a sheer dedication to duck hunting.
It’s hard to say that out-of-state hunters aren’t contributing to overcrowding in some way, but they are hardly the only culprits, and the numbers also show them using private lands. Arkansans should be proud of their heritage but also be willing to share with those from states lacking such opportunities, as waterfowling needs everyone to preserve the sport for future generations.
MYTH: Mallards don’t eat acorns.
Not necessarily armed with facts or contextual evidence, duck hunters nonetheless love to entertain wild reasons why hunting is less successful than they believe it should be. The declaration, “I’ve never killed a mallard with acorns in its craw in the timber,” is made by far too many waterfowlers and is a battle cry for those who disagree with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s (AGFC) efforts to save struggling greentree reservoirs (GTRs).
The AGFC has changed the timing for flooding the popular, public-use green timber to delay damage caused by the trees’ prolonged exposure to spring and fall floodwaters outside their dormant winter status. Also, clearing unhealthy or unproductive, water-tolerant white oaks (acorns are too big for ducks) promotes the growth of the more duck-friendly red oaks.
The public land hunting community was up in arms over the new flooding plans. Duck hunting thrives on tradition, and what the AGFC put in place differed significantly from previous seasons.
This pushback resulted in some hunters forcefully stating that the trees didn’t need any help because ducks don’t eat acorns anyway. They come to the woods for shelter and to eat invertebrates, so who cares what kind of trees survive there?
As mallards seek refuge from the wind and aerial predators in the flooded bottomland forests of Arkansas, they also gorge on invertebrates when their diet suggests they need to fuel up on proteins. But every waterfowl biologist will agree that mallards need and eat the acorns from nuttall, willow and pin oaks.
Bottomland hunters don’t encounter many mallards because they either disturb them or shoot them before they can get into the woods to gobble up a bevy of acorns that day. Brian Davis, James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation at Mississippi State University, said, “If people take the time to get to quiet places, working hard at it on foot, specifically, and watch mallards after shallow flood events, you’ll find that they scarf the nuts when conditions are just so. Water levels must be right, the acorns must be there and you cannot disturb the birds, as you’ll rarely see what they do. But they forage for acorns like no tomorrow when all things line up.”