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Waterfowl Management in Georgia

Important Waterfowl Species in Georgia

In his classic book, "Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America," Frank C. Bellrose describes 55 different species of waterfowl. In Georgia, only a few of these species are seen in any great numbers. Most of the common species of ducks can be divided into two distinct groups, dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Georgia's most common members of each group are described below, including life history information from Bellrose's book. Learning to identify the different species of ducks can be accomplished through the use of field guides that can  be purchased at most bookstores.

Dabbling or Puddle Ducks

These ducks are recognized by several common traits. They prefer shallow water and dabble or tip up to feed. Their legs are set near the middle of their body, and they are able to walk comfortably on land. When taking flight, they leap almost vertically from the water. They have a patch of bright colors, called a speculum, on each wing.

Wood Duck

The wood duck is the most common duck in Georgia. It makes up nearly 50% of all ducks harvested by Georgia hunters, and it is the only duck that breeds in significant numbers in our state.

  • Breeding Areas - Eastern half of the U.S., from Maine to Florida, and west to Texas.
  • Breeding Habitat - Forested wetlands, beaver ponds, river bottoms. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities or artificial nest boxes.
  • Average Clutch Size - 12
  • Incubation - 30 days
  • Average Nest Success - 40%
  • Adult Survival - 45-50%
  • Wintering Areas - Southeastern U.S.
  • Food Habits - The prime food item in the fall is acorns. Other important food items include smartweed, wild millet, duckweed, and panic grass.    

The wood duck was abundant in the forested wetlands of North America during the pre-colonial period. But as the human population grew, man's activities began to have an enormous impact on the wildlife populations around them. Loss of bottomland hardwoods and unregulated market hunting caused wood duck populations to decline drastically, nearly to the point of extinction by the early 1900's.

Protection by laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934 (the Duck Stamp Act) along with the development of the first artificial wood duck nest box in 1937 have helped wood duck populations to soar once again.

Today, the wood duck is the most common duck in Georgia, and it is the number one bird in the bag for Georgia's waterfowl hunters. In 1997, Georgia's hunters harvested over 52,000 wood ducks (43% of the total duck harvest). In contrast, in 1961 (the first year of available USFWS harvest data) only 4,100 wood ducks were harvested in Georgia (20% of the total duck harvest).

Currently, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources operates 90 Wildlife Management Areas across the state. On these areas, almost 2000 wood duck nest boxes are maintained annually. Other agencies (U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) maintain over 500 wood duck nest boxes on their properties. Many private landowners also erect and maintain wood duck nest boxes.

The wood duck, like all other waterfowl species, relies heavily on man's conservation efforts for its continued survival. With the continuing loss of mature, bottomland hardwoods, the naturally-occurring cavities that wood ducks use for nesting remain scarce. By providing artificial nesting cavities, conservationists can help enhance local wood duck populations. 

Mallard Duck

The mallard duck is another common dabbling duck found in Georgia. The mallard makes up 13% of our duck harvest.

  • Breeding Areas - The northern one-third of the U.S, extending northwest across Canada to Alaska.  Breeding mallards seen in Georgia are feral, i.e. escaped or released from captivity, there are no truly wild mallards breeding in Georgia.
  • Breeding Habitat - Prairie parklands, open grassy areas with isolated, small wetlands.
  • Average Clutch Size - 9 eggs
  • Incubation - 28 days
  • Average Nest Success - 35-40%
  • Adult Survival - 45-50%
  • Wintering Areas - Mississippi River delta between Cape Girardeau, Mo., and the Gulf of Mexico
  • Food Habits - Seeds of bulrushes, pondweeds, wild millet, sedges, smartweeds, acorns, and crops such as corn, sorghum, rice, and soybeans
Other Important Dabblers

Besides the wood duck and the mallard, there are several other species of dabbling ducks found in Georgia during the fall and winter. Green and blue-winged teal are some of the smallest members of the waterfowl family. Blue-winged teal are early migrants, and often pass through Georgia as early as September. Together, these species account for about 7% of Georgia's annual duck harvest. Other dabblers found in Georgia include American wigeon, northern shoveler, mottled duck, gadwall, and northern pintail. None of these species individually account for more than 3% of Georgia's duck harvest.

Diving Ducks

These ducks differ from dabbling ducks in several ways. They prefer deeper, more open water. They dive to feed, often to depths of several feet. Their legs are set farther back on their body, which allows them to swim better under water, but makes them appear awkward when trying to walk on land. When taking flight, they run across the surface of the water prior to becoming airborne, and their wing patches are usually white or gray.

Ring-necked Duck

The ring-necked duck is the most common diving duck in Georgia (Figure 5, inside front cover).  It makes up 18% of the duck harvest in Georgia.

  • Breeding Areas - Closed boreal forest of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
  • Breeding Habitat - Marshes at least partially surrounded by wooded vegetation.
  • Average Clutch Size - 9 eggs
  • Incubation - 26 days
  • Average Nest Success - 67%
  • Adult Survival - 45-50%
  • Wintering Areas - Eastern half of the U.S., from New Jersey southward
  • Food Habits - Water shield, pondweeds, sedges, smartweeds, coontail, duckweed, snails, clams, and fly larvae 

The canvasback was known as the "King of the Ducks" during the market hunting days of the late 1800's and early 1900's around the Chesapeake Bay, where it was preferred because of its large size and excellent table fare. Today, the canvasback still carries a high reputation with waterfowl hunters (Figure 6, inside front cover). In Georgia, the canvasback makes up just under 5% of our annual duck harvest.

  • Breeding Areas - Prairie parklands of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba.
  • Breeding Habitat - Small, shallow, intermittent ponds.
  • Average Clutch Size - 9 eggs
  • Incubation - 25 days
  • Average Nest Success - 45%
  • Adult Survival - 50-55%
  • Wintering Areas - In the Atlantic Flyway, primarily on the Chesapeake Bay
  • Food Habits - Wild celery, widgeongrass, eelgrass, pondweeds, clams, and mollusks.
Lesser Scaup

In addition to the ring-necked duck and the canvasback, the lesser scaup is another important diving duck for Georgia hunters (Figure 7, inside back cover).  Lesser scaup make up nearly 4% of Georgia's duck harvest.

  • Breeding Areas - Across Canada, from the Great Lakes to Alaska.
  • Breeding Habitat - River deltas and open boreal forest
  • Average Clutch Size - 9 eggs
  • Incubation - 25 days
  • Average Nest Success - 45%
  • Adult Survival - 45-50 %
  • Wintering Areas - In the Atlantic Flyway, mainly in Florida
  • Food Habits - Snails, clams, aquatic insects, smartweeds, bulrushes, pondweeds and widgeongrass
Other Important Divers And Sea Ducks

In addition to the ring-necked duck, canvasback, and lesser scaup, there are several other species of diving ducks that are found in Georgia during the winter. Redheads are seen on Lake Seminole during their migration to the Gulf of Mexico. Hooded mergansers can be found in the same forested wetlands as wood ducks. The small bufflehead occasionally is found on some of the larger reservoirs as they migrate through Georgia. In addition, ruddy ducks can be important species in some areas.

Another group of ducks is called the sea ducks, and this group includes species such as the eiders, scoters, oldsquaw, and harlequin. Very few seas ducks are harvested in Georgia, but they can periodically be seen in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast.

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