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Waterfowl Species Wintering in the Mississippi Delta

Types of Duck in Mississippi


Last updated : 03/24/2016

The species of waterfowl wintering in the Mississippi Delta, which are of interest to hunters, fall into three main categories: dabbling ducks, diving ducks, and geese. When the weather patterns become unusually cold and vast expanses of the flood waters freeze, it is not unusual to find a large array of duck species congregating in areas of flowing water which have not frozen. Habitat Complex areas also attract a variety of ducks. The mixture found in these areas is a dream for those looking for a variety of duck mounts – filling the taxidermist shops with excited hunters eager to share the hunting stories. Mallards and gadwall populate the timber sloughs during the late season while local wood ducks can be found here from opening day. Ponds, harvested grain fields, wetland areas and lakes are inhabited by mallards, gadwall, northern shovelers and teal with pintails joining them in the seasonally flooded agricultural areas. Blue-winged teal and northern shovelers are among the most abundant, widespread, and frequently harvested of North America's ducks. Many green-winged teal are found in Mississippi waters as well. In 2011, populations of all species of dabbling ducks wintering in the Mississippi Delta reached record highs. With 8.9 million blue-winged teal and 4.6 million northern shovelers tallied in the traditional survey area, teal are among the first ducks to migrate south in the late summer and the last to return north in the spring. Blue-winged teal cover up mud flats during early teal season into late November but are a challenge to scout. Here today-gone tomorrow. From December through January the blue-winged teal are rare but are replaced by a large number of green-winged teal. Northern shovelers are also among the first ducks to migrate in the fall, usually just behind their cousins. December game-haulers traditionally boast large numbers of teal, northern shovelers, and gadwall. The best time for mallards is in the month of January.

 

Dabbling Ducks

 

The group of waterfowl known as the dabbling ducks includes six (6) species that commonly winter in the Mississippi Delta: gadwall, green-winged teal, mallards, pintails, shovelers, and wood ducks. Dabbling ducks up-end to feed mainly at the surface rather than by diving. The sources of food range from aquatic vegetation to aquatic invertebrates, insects and crustaceans, to grass seeds, hardwood tree nuts and field grain. As with all species, the dabbling ducks hang out where the food is found. They will only fly into an area that holds enough food to justify the energy expended in the flight over.

Gadwall

Gadwall are some of the most abundant and hardy of the dabbling ducks. According to Ducks Unlimited, their population held steady through the 1970s and early 1980s when the populations of other duck species generally declined. The current population is at a record level.

 

Because they prefer to feed on aquatic vegetation, gadwall are found most commonly in oxbow lakes, brakes and Mississippi sloughs of the Delta. This food preference makes management of the wintering gadwall population a little more problematic. One Delta hunting club drained a slough in the summer and raised a crop of millet before closing the water control structures to capture the fall-winter rains. The level of pondweeds and algae in the water was reduced which in turn reduced the number of wintering gadwall. Instead of having the desired effect of increasing duck numbers, this management practice actually reduced the overall numbers. The duck hunting club now lowers the water level so that the surrounding green-tree area is dry but allows the low-lying area in the heart of the slough to remain wet throughout the summer months. They also plant grain in surrounding agricultural fields which are then flooded in the fall-winter. By utilizing these management practices, the duck club attracts the grain and nut seeking dabbling ducks without reducing the gadwall numbers.

 

Gadwall are a medium-sized duck without much bright color. Our neighbors from Louisiana commonly refer to them as grey ducks. They do not respond well to duck calls and tend to fly into the feeding areas that they have chosen - without much regard to hunter influence. Because of the dull color, smaller size, and lack of workability, gadwall have tended to be less popular with duck hunting groups than mallards. However, as populations have continued to increase, many duck hunters have come to the realization that the plentiful gadwall are good to eat and fun to shoot. The percent of gadwall harvested by our hunters increased during the 2014 – 2015 and 2015 – 2016 seasons. They were harvested in the flooded fields as well as sloughs and timber. We like the trend.

 

The best method of hunting gadwall in the timber is in a camouflaged boat or a permanent, tree blind nestled among the cypress and tupelo gum. Of course for those who prefer openness to the confines of a blind, waders and a good tree to lean on can provide an excellent opportunity to shoot a limit of gadwall, and, after all, a duck hunter returning to the cabin with a limit of gadwall has a satisfied look on his face. Maybe it gets better, but not much.

 

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged teal found in flooded grain fields or a shallow-water slough are an added bonus to a good fall-winter Mississippi Delta Ducks morning. Also, a teal hunt during the early fall season can produce favorable results in a tupelo or cypress slough. Teal tend to appear very quickly in the duck hole and the opportunity for shooting passes in a flash. They fly in tight groups, swooping down and through the trees in the slough or dip rapidly over the flooded field. Green-winged teal are the smallest of our North American ducks but are good to eat and make colorful mounts to add to your collection. Habitat managed for gadwall or mallards will also be attractive to the wintering teal. They feed on seeds and grain as well as naturally occurring aquatic plants, insects and invertebrates.

 

Mallards

Mallards are by far the most popular duck for Mississippi Delta duck hunters. They are the most recognized species of duck and the most responsive to wildlife management. Historically, mallards preferred the protected confines and abundant food sources found in flooded green-tree areas. As the acres of harvested rice fields and other flooded grain fields grew in number and the acres of mature hardwood declined in number, mallards adapted their feeding habits. Naturally, the duck hunters followed the wintering ducks from the woods to the fields. However, mallards still prefer to return to the confines of flooded timber to rest – protected from the cold winter winds found in open areas.

 

The magnificence of mallards cupping and tumbling through the air into a decoy spread is unsurpassed by any other duck hunting experience. Any duck hunter who is a part of a mallard limit duck hunt will continue to brave the cold winter weather in search of that next great greenhead morning. In addition to responding favorably to managed areas, mallards react to decoy spreads as well as the sound of a duck call. Almost all the duck hunting strategies and management practices are designed with the mallard in mind. A seasoned mallard hunter can significantly increase the success of a duck hunt by putting his knowledge and experience into action.

 

Mallards are hunted from sled and pit blinds in flooded grain fields and from camouflaged duck boats and tree house duck blinds in brakes and sloughs. Share the experience of the ultimate buddy hunt by joining a group of friends in a duck blind on a cold Mississippi Delta morning. As the light of dawn breaks on the horizon, blow the duck call and watch as the mallards tumble majestically from the sky. It definitely doesn’t get any better!

 

Northern Pintails

Northern pintails are another bonus duck migrating in significant numbers through the Mississippi Delta. They feed extensively on waste grain and can be found among the mallards in flooded Delta agricultural fields. Pintails do not respond well to duck calls and are not a predictable source of duck for the Delta hunter. Their long central tail feathers give the pintail a unique look and hence, their name. Any avid duck hunter relishes the opportunity to add a pintail to his morning haul.

 

Northern Shovelers

Northern shovelers are another dabbling duck that frequents the Delta region via the Mississippi Flyway. They derive their name from the shovel-shaped bill which they use to sift seeds, grain and aquatic life from shallow Delta waters. The males have colorful plumage and make good mounts. Shovelers are mistaken by some hunters for diving ducks because of their tendency to gather in large groups or "rafts" on lakes and agricultural ponds. However, they are definitely a member of the dabbling duck family and are fun to hunt and good to eat. The breast meat is prepared following the same recipes as for other dabblers. Northern shovelers work in the decoy spreads and are one of the most common species harvested in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta region (yes they kill them in Stuttgart too). They are particularly an attractive target in December and early January before the arrival of the main mallard duck migration. In perusing the countless pictures of hunters and harvested ducks, you will notice a trend of greenheads stacked on top of shovelers (who are always ready to smile for the camera even when their eyes are closed). Expect some "smileys" in your bag and on your grill.

 

Northern shovelers are closely related to teal. They have similar migration habits and are often found in the same wetland habitats. The social foraging habit of northern shovelers is also common to teal. Northern shovelers often feed by huddling in rafts with their heads down and swimming in a tight circle as they stir up the water with their feet. This form of social foraging, known as "whirling" concentrates the aquatic life on which they feed.

Wood Duck

Wood duck is the final dabbling duck frequenting the Mississippi Delta in significant numbers. The wood duck is unique in that it calls the Delta’s rivers, bayous, oxbow lakes and cypress-tupelo brakes and sloughs home. They nest in cavities of trees, laying an average of 12 eggs. The mother pushes the newly hatched ducklings from the nest where they follow her on the ground and in the water in pursuit of food. It is not unusual to look across a Mississippi Delta yard and see wood ducklings scampering about.

 

Because the wood duck breeding areas coincide with the areas of greatest hunting pressure, the population suffered a devastating decline. However, good management practices revived the wood duck population in the forestlands of the Delta. The wood duck is a delicacy as well as a beautiful mount. More than with any other duck, Mississippi duck hunting clubs can manage the wood duck populations and increase the success of the fall-winter waterfowl season. By placing a number of nesting boxes throughout the moist, lowland areas, wood duck numbers are greatly increased. The wood duck boxes are designed so that predation is significantly decreased. Native wildlife that likes to feed on wood duck eggs include: skunks, raccoons, snakes and other rodents.

 

During the fall-winter duck hunting season, wood ducks can be taken in flooded timber areas as well as flooded agricultural fields. More than 1 million wood ducks are taken by duck hunters each year – making them much more than a bonus duck.

 

Diving Ducks

 

Unlike dabbling ducks, diving ducks dive to greater depths and feed on small fish as well as other aquatic life and seeds. They are most often found in the Mississippi Delta on farm raised catfish ponds. Diving duck species tend to be very colorful and small to medium in body mass. These ducks are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning due to ingestion of spent shot while feeding and are the primary beneficiaries of the lead shot ban.

 

With the decline of the catfish industry in the Mississippi Delta, many of the fish ponds have been restored to irrigated, row crop land or planted in timber under either the U.S. Government WRP or CRP programs. As a result, these abandoned or converted ponds have become prime duck hunting grounds. Practices have been put in place to attract dabbling ducks. The four (4) species of diving ducks frequenting the Mississippi Delta region are: bluebills, canvasbacks, hooded mergansers, and redheads. Be informed about current limits when hunting diving ducks. Because the populations of some species are still depleted, the bag limits are restricted or hunting is banned entirely.

 

Geese

 

Migrating geese have begun wintering in the Mississippi Delta in record numbers. They pour into flooded and moist agricultural fields with a vengeance. Standing on the edge of a field, an observer can often see a funnel of geese landing in the field with the appearance of a tornado followed by arriving geese for as far on can be seen on the horizon. They are noisy, messy and still, for the most part, considered a nuisance to Delta waterfowlers. An exception is speckle-belly geese who will often break off from the hordes and work a duck decoy spread. Our hunters increase the number of specks harvested each year, and now specifically request holes that are known to produce specks. They are fun to hunt, good to eat and a welcome addition to the duck hunter's bag.

 

Geese are grubbers and grazers, feeding in the Delta on waste grain and winter wheat crops. Gazing across a goose-filled winter wheat field, it will be green in front of the geese and brown behind. They will literally consume all of the food in their path. After hunters have managed native grasses and agricultural grain through the summer in an effort to feed wintering ducks throughout the fall-winter season, it is frustrating for geese to arrive and consume all of the food in one to two days. Good waterfowl management practices now require restricting the geese access to certain areas so that ample food is left for wintering ducks. This demands daily, on-site diligence and has greatly increased the value of resident wildlife managers. The three (3) species of geese frequenting the Mississippi Delta region are: greater snow geese, specklebelly geese, and Canadian geese. Canadian geese often remain in the Delta to breed and nest. Greater snow geese are not good to eat while specklebelly geese can be prepared properly as a wild game meal.