Odds & Ends
By John A. Vance, Environmental Eng.
Tech., & Outdoor Writer: Forty year as a 'Pro' waterfowler,
Outfitter/Guide ( emeritus) and member, Outdoor Writers of Canada,
Generally, ducks and geese pursue a daily pattern, which can and will be altered somewhat by the weather, and predator/hunter pressure. For the most part, they, like us, are creatures of habit. Here, we'll look at some of their general daily patterns, and introduce some hunting strategy explanations. We'll be dealing primarily with the autumn/fall period when migration is imminent. I won't go into detail here about the bird's life cycle for non-hunting seasons. If you're an ardent waterfowler, I hope you learn from this - and enjoy!
Ducks, (puddle) including mallards, pintails, black ducks, wood ducks, teal and to a lesser extent GEESE, have two major life cycle events that they are constantly involved with. These two events are their migrations, both north and south, and breeding/propagation of their kind. I mention geese to a lesser degree than ducks, because we have huge Canada Goose populations which rarely migrate very far anymore. These birds are what most people regard as a 'resident' population. None-the-less, there are still many Canada geese that do follow the migratory/breeding cycle mentioned above, as do other species of geese.
We will discuss here, the daily and relatively routine events occurring in this life cycle of these birds during their fall seasonal activities. Not rocket science - not complicated - but definitely 'variable' depending on circumstances, sometimes weather, sometimes predators, and sometimes the interaction of their natural instincts to do waterfowlish things, all geared at/to survival!
Early Morning, about a half-hour before sunrise, waterfowl, especially ducks, become restless. However; "Resident" Canada geese are often relatively 'late risers', but for the most part, the true and full migratory geese also will follow this pattern.
Any time now (shortly before to shortly after sunrise), the birds, likely still within their family units, will take to the air for a morning 'practice fly', building the muscle/stamina needed for their impending long journey south.
After about a half-hour flight, sometimes a bit longer;(but while actually on migration, and during a stop-over, this 'practice flight' will be a much shorter - if at all) - then the birds will go to food.
Birds, especially ducks and geese, can and do live to be what is regarded in wildlife - to be 'ripe old ages', with some birds living to be twenty + years old. Usually the older birds of the flock, and (within) the family unit just mentioned, will know of past areas to forage food. This is where they will go. They do search-out food somewhat, though, and are opportunists in this regard. If one feeding ground is dry/non-productive for example, or one grain field is not ready(usually picked/harvested), or has an alternative crop growing, they may search out another, relying on past instinct/memory of where other potential feeding grounds will be.
These feeding grounds may be grain fields, or wetlands settings etc, where they can find such foods as wild rice, bulrush seeds and other wetland produce.
After feeding, which can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours, these birds again take to the air. This second flight is usually to water, especially for those birds that have been feeding in grain fields. This second flight is usually of shorter duration, usually right to where they are going/directly, and is where they will (most of the time) spend the day. I have seen both ducks and geese stop over in a place, grab a quick drink, then continue to their daytime resting/staging place. The watering hole may or may not be where they stage over for the day.
Most often their roosting area, feeding area, and daytime resting areas are not one-in-the-same, but will be at different area/locations. Ducks/geese actually on migration will be much more direct in their traveling, and may not travel far from each of these roosting/feeding/resting areas; they're tired, trying to build more needed energy for the next long leg of their flight south. Geese are large birds and it takes a considerable amount of energy to fly great distances.
Diver ducks, including redhead, canvasback, bluebills (both lesser & greater scaup), goldeneye, ruddy, and ringneck ducks follow a similar daily routine to the puddle ducks, but differs because they are primarily water birds.
These divers are what most people regard as 'bay' or 'big water' ducks. These ducks often roost, where they have chosen to do so, largely due to the weather conditions on the evening of their roost. If it has been relatively rainless, and calm/wind-free, they'll be way out on open water somewhere - a long way from anything. In the smaller lakes, this is where most people would regard as the 'middle' of the lake.
As daylight approaches, they may move into shallower water, but will likely not move much. They're likely resting after an already arduous long trip south, to this, a 'stop-over' feeding/resting refuge, often referred to as a 'staging' area. They will likely swim a mile or so, as divers are great swimmers, preferring to swim than fly during this rest/stopover 'leg' of their journey south. But they do fly, for exercise, and to look for others of their kind. They are birds that like to congregate in often huge flocks, which are called a 'raft'. These rafts are often out in large open expanses of water, and in my former area of southwestern Ontario, on Lake Erie, some of these rafts may be almost solid bluebills, canvasback, redheads - etc - that may be from several, to ten acres in size to a single raft! And yes - that's a lot of birds! Where I now live in northern Ontario, the pattern is similar, with ducks of a kind flocking up and foraging on deeper dwelling weeds etc. Many of these birds will have never seen or experienced people before. The diver ducks often nest in remote areas away from people.
Canvasbacks and reds, in all fairness, don't raft together in nearly as large flocks as the scaup (bluebill) family of ducks. They may though, especially if inclement/stormy/gale-force winds/weather makes them 'raft-up'.
These above mentioned divers are not particularly after 'meat', such as fish or zebra mussels when they dive, but primarily eat water celery, coon tail and similar plant-life. They may, and can, and do though, eat fish/crustaceans, but not much in comparison to the plant life they consume. Bluebills or scaup as they are really called, as well as goldeneye are now eating a LOT of zebra mussels. Bluebill populations have declined dramatically since I originally composed this web site, sad to say. It is believed that partially, the decline may be to the bio-accumulates contained in the zebra/quagga mussels the ducks are foraging, as to the culprit. Personally, I'm not so sure about this as the reason for their decline - but possibly. The actual amount of time they spend foraging on these mussels is small on the overall, during each of their migratory flights. So for me, sitting here updating this page in 2010 - the 'schools still out' on this topic. Perhaps by the time I update next, more conclusive info will be in.
After feeding until roughly 10 am, they'll look to join-up with another group of their similar species, as the feeding/diving makes them seemingly oblivious to where they are in accordance to the larger flock they may have been rafted with during the night. These smaller groups of birds will likely be a family, or several family units.
They will be flying around, often low to the water, looking for a place to go, and will decoy readily.
Bad weather also make these birds 'cluster-up', and they will decoy very readily in terrible weather conditions. This weather may also be unsafe for hunters to - so keep a sharp eye. During these sad/bad weather bouts, these ducks will fly into the wind, at an almost 'crawl', and a decoy spread in some location in the lee of a bluff, point or island will be a deadly set-up location for these diver ducks. This same location will likely not be all that good during what we regard as 'nice' weather.
Just as a mention, some of the diver ducks - including mergansers (often called sawbills, both lesser and American) coots, rails etc not mentioned before - I don't hunt/harvest these birds, - so I can't really do a good job of what these birds do/don't do! - Sorry!
Geese- 'Resident' Canada Geese (primarily, but other goose species do similar things, most of the time - while they are on their southerly migration)
These birds are for sure, 'creatures of habit'; they have wickedly keen memories, and remember well - locations where they've been shot at - from before - and even from other subsequent years as well! When we successfully ambush them at any given spot, any of the surviving birds will remember that HOT SPOT very well, and will avoid such a place with a passion.
Generally, resident Canada Geese will start stirring about a half hour AFTER sunrise, as the sun (if it isn't cloudy) seemingly has warmed them up. Compared to ducks, most of the time they are 'late risers'. They'll most often roost in a sanctuary, or wildlife preserve where hunting isn't permitted. (They seem to have a built-in map of every one of these refuges within all of North America) But they must (usually, and unless they are fed in these sanctuaries - some do and some don't) leave these refuges/sanctuaries to feed. They will often feed in a cut grain field of corn, winter wheat, barley etc. that isn't more than five to ten miles from the roosting place. As always though, there are exceptions, and I've followed a flock, during my reconnaissance for guiding a goose hunting trip the next day - over twenty miles before the flock finally set down to feed in the afternoon - but this is getting ahead of myself.
They feed, during this morning feed period, from about a half hour to a two hour duration, then they will usually 'go to water' for a drink. This may or may not be in the roost area.
They'll then 'stage over', most often near water ( may or may not be in a refuge area, especially if the actual nightly roosting area is a long ways away) lounge/loaf around until late afternoon (by sun time - not actual hours), then they'll head to their chosen feeder field. Usually, unless they've been pressured (being shot at, headed of at 'the pass' or intercepted etc.) they'll feed in a field in the afternoon - and most often WILL RETURN TO THAT SAME FIELD THE NEXT MORNING -(see note in brackets above ) They'll feed here, and if undisturbed, often until it is getting quite dusk like, and leave just in time to get back to the roost before absolute dark. If this feeder field is a long way away from the roost area, they will leave the field sooner than if the field was close to a nearby roosting area.
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