Decoding the Duck Buffet
At their core, ducks have simple needs.
Much like every other animal on the planet, food and shelter take priority and as long as those things are present, waterfowl thrive. Arkansas provides thousands of acres of both, hence the eastern side of the state is at the bottom of a natural funnel for wintering birds.
Between bottomland hardwood forests and agricultural fields dotting the landscape, ducks have all they want and need for the winter.
Or do they?
Efficient agricultural practices and modern equipment — along with some struggling, duck-friendly, acorn-producing red oaks — have reduced Arkansas’ “duck energy days.” Duck energy days are a metric used by waterfowl biologists to estimate the number of dabbling ducks that can potentially be sustained in an area for a specified time period.
The formula takes into account food availability and the value of that food in terms of kilocalories (kcals), compared to what a duck actually requires. The more duck energy days an area has, the longer ducks will stick around, even in times of extreme cold. The opposite is true when duck energy days decrease and move on to a better buffet.
Given that ducks don’t like being out of groceries, hunters and land managers have taken matters into their own hands by developing waterfowl habitat either through unharvested crops, intense management of greentree reservoirs and now, in growing popularity, moist soil units. All provide different benefits and food resources for waterfowl.
The ability to manicure habitat specifically for waterfowl is separating the haves and the have-nots in the modern era.
Through strategic management of water, moist soil units are seasonal wetlands with the ability to produce native, seed-producing plants loved by various species of ducks. The areas also provide valuable cover and are typically inundated with high-protein invertebrates that ducks fuel up on before starting to move north. The total energy in foods found in these impoundments often is as high or higher than that in corn, milo or soybeans.
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) Wetlands Biologist Specialist Jason “Buck” Jackson and his Brinkley-based team manage all of the state’s moist soil units. Additionally, Jackson has provided consultation on units used by a hunting group on a farm south of Humphrey.
Jackson says a well designed (and followed) plan on managing moist soil units can be a cost-effective way to provide bushels of food and desired cover for ducks.
The fundamental key is figuring out what type of wetland you have. This will dictate pretty strongly how you manage it. Going against the “grain” will not work out. After you have figured out whether you have a backswamp-type wetland or bottomland prairie, you can begin to make a plan. The soil type plays a huge role in the wetland type as well. Soil type will tell you how to start managing the moisture levels.
The second key element of a moist soil management plan is checking the soil chemistry. This means merely pulling soil samples to see what you are working with and what needs to be adjusted to help the site perform as Mother Nature intended. Soil samples can be sent to local extension offices or private entities like Greenpoint Ag or Simplot for analysis. Moist soil units are dynamic environments, but knowing what type of soil exists in your impoundment provides a baseline.
The third key strategy is soil moisture and manipulation. Moist soil units must have an overflow dam, called a flash board riser, in them in order to create primo stands of moist soil communities. Timing the gradual drawdown of water in the spring is paramount to getting the right native plants to come up and keeping undesirables at bay.
A staged drawdown over the course of a month is better than draining all of the water at once. The staged effort is to keep the soil from drying out so much that it crusts over and produces coffee beans, cockleburs, common ragweed and other unwanted growth instead of duck-desired plants like barnyardgrass and sprangletop.
Once the drawdown is complete in late spring/early summer, managers should perform a combination of spraying, disking, mowing, burning, fertilizing or finite cropping to grow the good stuff and put a halt to the bad. Manipulation varies year to year depending on rainfall, so a plan has to be flexible.
Every three years, best practices suggest rolling the impoundment to bring all those favorable native grass seeds to the top and refresh the good growth. Habitat managers can also supplement the natives with various duck-desired variances of millet after some disking and dragging.
Now we are getting ready for duck season. Fall is the time to put the boards back in your water control structures and gradually return water to the impoundment.
Just how much and when will change year to year depending on rainfall, or lack thereof. Staged flooding will help seed production but requires a lot of attention. “Set it and forget it” won’t work and you will end up with too much water that compromises habitat value before the ducks even show up to your spot.
A range of water depths within a unit will produce different varieties of eats, providing a literal smorgasbord for ducks as their diets change during the winter. Anywhere from 1 to 18 inches typically gets the best results.
6. Rinse and Repeat
After duck season, the management process starts over, and managers learn lessons and make adjustments with each passing year. For additional, in-depth information, The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has produced a playbook for managing these wetlands. (Download the playbook.)
Between private land management firms specializing in duck habitat management and the knowledgeable AGFC staff, there are plenty of resources to get landowners headed in the right direction for producing rich, resourceful duck habitat in what otherwise might be useless ground. The more habitat and food offerings hunters and land managers can create, the better chances there are to perpetuate the sport of waterfowling.
The ducks are counting on us.