Waterfowl in Bloom
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May-June 2012 issue
By now, little gosling balls of fluff are everywhere.
Where I live in north-central Montana, goose hatching peaks from the end of April to the first week of May, and the parades of goslings usually appear around mid-May. That means the mother goose began incubating her clutch of typically six eggs at the end of March. Duck hatching peaks from late May to early June.
Though both are classified as waterfowl, geese and ducks are different with regard to nesting habits. Even among duck species there are differences. Let’s begin with geese.
In north-central Montana, it’s all Canada geese all the time. Other waterfowl species, like snow geese and most ducks, migrate through. But honkers, along with some mallards, live throughout the year in areas with open water. Even in winter Canada geese and mallards stick around, though their numbers drop with too much cold and snow. During years when several weeks of subzero temperatures freeze large areas of the Missouri River and deep snow covers grain stubble fields, many mallards and honkers move farther south. Fortunately, these conditions aren’t all that common.
By March Canada geese have begun to nest. Though they especially like islands, the birds will choose any area near water with an elevated spot that has sparse vegetation so they can see danger approaching. Woe to the red fox that tries to take on a mated pair of honkers guarding a nest. Woe also to the unwary angler wading too close.
Geese usually defend their nest unless the threat is severe. Ducks won’t defend a nest; they just leave. Then again, geese usually do not re-nest, while ducks do, so in the end both types of waterfowl have enough
Predators abound. Coyotes are thought to be big threats to nesting waterfowl, but it turns out they often are not the villains many people take them for. While coyotes will not pass up an easy meal of anything, they are first and foremost rodent exterminators.
The animals that take the biggest toll on ground-nesting waterfowl—by eating eggs and killing ducklings and brooding hens—are red foxes, raccoons, skunks, and any member of the weasel family in the neighborhood. And that’s just the wild mammals. There are also hawks, owls, magpies, crows, and roaming house cats and dogs.
No wonder nesting success for ducks ranges so widely, from 15 percent to 60 percent. Geese, barring severe weather like a spring blizzard, are much more successful at nesting, usually with a 50 percent or better success rate.
Speaking of ducks, there are two general categories: puddle ducks and diving ducks. The divers—lesser scaup (bluebills), redheads, and canvasbacks—are rarely seen when nesting. They nest next to big bodies of water far from most humans.
Puddle ducks, such as teal, mallards, and gadwalls, nest in grassy upland habitat, sometimes with no water in sight. That’s why people sometimes find a mallard nest in the middle of town or in the prairie up to a mile away from a pond or marsh.
Though puddle ducks don’t require nearby water for nesting, they do need tall prairie grass, and lots of it. By building her nest in the middle of a large, grassy area, the hen keeps herself and her eggs safe from predators hunting the water’s edge and field perimeters. Once the ducklings hatch, the water becomes a safe haven—as long as they can avoid upland and avian predators while making the long and perilous journey to get there. When you see a hen and her ducklings crossing a road in town, that’s where they’re heading.
It’s a tough life for a goose or a duck. But when I watch a migrating flock fly over a northern marsh at sunrise, it seems like the ones that survive sure have fun. .
Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.
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