Southeast diet is popular with migrating waterfowl

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Southeast Waterfowl Diet is not a new fad that will help you fit into your waders this fall.

The table is being set instead for migrating and wintering waterfowl on our wetland conservation areas. During the fall, many waterfowl will begin to migrate through Southeast Missouri.

Many of them will stop at our wetlands to rest and refuel. They will dine on a variety of agricultural and natural foods.

Cultivated foods like corn and rice are great for energy but often lack the essential proteins and nutrients waterfowl need to make it to their destination in good shape.

Natural foods -- such as wild millet, annual smartweeds, sedges and aquatic invertebrates -- help balance out their diet. Even though waterfowl eat many of the same foods, individual species have adapted so they do not compete with each other.

One way to examine this is by comparing the shape and function of their bills.

Northern shovelers use their large, broad bills to skim the surface of the water. The hair-like structures along the edges of the bills called lamellae help them strain food items -- such as plankton, bugs and seeds -- out of the water.

Common mergansers have narrow bills with serrated edges, like teeth, that assist them in grabbing fish and aquatic insects.

A mallard's bill is not too broad or long and doesn't have as many lamellae as the shoveler. This green- headed duck can be considered a generalist. It seems to eat whatever food item is most available, whether it is natural seeds or waste grain.

Bills also vary among species of geese.

For example, snow geese have a short, stout bill ideal for digging and grubbing around for roots.

Canada geese have more slender bills that are better adapted at clipping new shoots and leaves.

As you can see, each species goes about finding its dinner in a different manner, which allows them to gather in large concentrations and not directly compete with each other for food.

Take a look at the distribution of different species if you are out and about in a wetland this fall. And if you do happen to bag a few birds, check out what's on the menu.

Nelson is a wetland ecologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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