Develop a mind like a duck – Part 2
By mid-December, most of the waterfowl population have arrived at their wintering grounds throughout the southern U.S. and Mexico. This brings the basic needs of food, safety, and finding a mate. This courtship activity will increase as winter progresses, and the wintering fowl will gravitate to areas with the abundant food needed for competing mates. This food supply is dictated by the amount of rainfall. In winter, heavy rainfall can flood agricultural fields and produce new waterfowl habitat. Dabbling ducks will hoard into the new habitat and take advantage of the new food sources.
There are other factors that dictate habitat selection besides food sources. Mate selection sends waterfowl into heavy cover, such as flooded timber, emergent vegetation, and buckbrush, where they can separate into small courtship groups. Wetlands offering heavy cover also provides good thermal protection for waterfowl. This protection also allows the birds to conserve energy.
As far as wintering ground predators, ducks and geese have very few. On these grounds, hunting is the number one cause of waterfowl death. As a result, hunting makes a big impact on waterfowl habitat choice. Birds will change their roosting and feeding habits because of hunting pressure. Watch the birds when the season closes between splits. Ducks and geese will use every available food resource. As soon as the season reopens, the waterfowl will quickly change back to their previous roosting and feeding habits. To help overcome this behavioral change, hunters have to manage their hunting pressure wisely. If you continually hunt the same area day after day, you can actually have less success. This is a hard concept for hunters to grasp, but hunting fewer days in the same location can increase your success. In this era, hunting has increased its impact on waterfowl habitat. We see waterfowl using the same locations only one to two times a week. Add to that the desire to seek out seclusion for pair bonding activities, hunting pressure intensifies the tendency for seclusion. More and more waterfowl are using remote beaver ponds and swamps with almost no access. It pays to put in the time and effort to find these areas. The ducks and geese will find and use them. If you find them, you are almost guaranteed success.
As the season progresses, waterfowl will respond to decoys and calling differently. The behavior of the ducks and geese will transition from mate selection to pair-bonding. As a result, the birds will congregate differently. From large rafts of waterfowl, they will shift to small pair groups. Your decoy spread needs to reflect this change. Instead of dozens of decoys in your spread, try using less than a dozen decoys. Set them in pairs or as single drakes vying for mates. The courtship rituals create a lot of movement and commotion. In this late season, decoy motion is critical, especially in areas of thick cover or are sheltered from the wind. As many waterfowl become shy to spinning wing decoys, a jerk string and kicking the water is more effective. By late season, hunting pressure makes waterfowl call shy. The birds will respond better to minimal calling, such as feeding chatter and soft quacks. With the remaining single drakes, a lonesome hen call can be the ticket to success. On clear, calm days using decoy motion without calling can put the birds in your blocks.
As hunting pressure changes and waterfowl behavior adapts, every hunter must make the effort to learn everything they can about ducks and geese. This knowledge will make you a better and more successful hunter. It will also impart a greater appreciation of the way these birds interact with their surroundings. Waterfowl are amazing creatures and can provide a lifetime of challenges and rewards.