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home : columns : columns
January 27, 2021


12/2/2020 10:53:00 AM
Waterfowl migrations; changes in a lifetime

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist


No one really knows exactly when ducks began inhabiting North American. For sure it was after the last ice age.
Where we sit today, ice from the last glacial period was estimated to be around 700 foot deep. It extended as far south to what we now call Des Moines, Iowa, hence the name, the Des Moines Lobe.
As it melted and retreated it left behind two main rivers in Iowa, the Raccoon River and the Des Moines River. They come together in that city of the later name. If you use your imagination just a bit, and expand it into time lapse photography, it's easy to see how they came together at the tip of the Des Moines Lobe.
The river Des Moines was probably named by Joseph Nicollet, the courageous French explorer who was a genius at surveying and mapping. He was hired to map the entire area between the Mississippi River and the mighty Missouri River shortly after the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
His findings and recordings even surpassed those of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery in my opinion. The Riviera Des Moines in French meant the middle river between the Mississippi River and the Missouri River.
All these findings indicated that rivers and lakes generally flowed northwest to southeast. And, that became the general migration direction for the ducks as they increased in numbers for those thousands of years. It took 12,000 to 14,000 years for the glacier to thaw in Iowa. The Minnesota melt took 10,000 to 11,000 years to disappear.
The ducks probably slipped over from Europe then drifted down our way from their summer homes near the Arctic. Winters declared you can't survive in what is now Canada, so, the migration south probably evolved as the glaciers retreated.
Today we have divided the waterfowl migration flyways into Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic, as if the ducks know. They don't. So, the ducks themselves choose where they want to fly. They decide where they can best sustain a couple thousand-mile flight. Food and water influence their choice.
Here in southwestern Minnesota we are assigned to the Mississippi Flyway. Cross into South and North Dakota and you are in the Central Flyway. Actually, here in southwest Minnesota we should probably, more accurately, be in the Central Flyway.
The big change
I can well remember one of my first years in Windom. Coming in from the west along Highway 62 a large flock of northern mallards was feeding in a picked cornfield to the south.
Corn in those days was harvested mostly in November. That was when the big flocks of mallards from the boreal forest of northern Canada arrived.
The corn was "picked" as an ear after a long drying period. We had no "picker-shellers" in those days. The ear corn was stored in a narrow corn shed to let air flow through it. Later, after freezing, it could be stored inside round cribs made with wooden slatted "snow fence". Commonly called cribbing.
The harvest left behind those early two-row corn pickers a half standing stalk and plenty of corn kernels. Pheasants flourished in them. Migrating northern mallards soon discovered these high carb kernels.
Well, on that day I quickly drove up to Ray Anderson's farm place on the northeast quarter section of land. Further south was John Hedquist Sr.'s Lazy H feedlot. The ducks loved that flat area.
I asked Ray as he sat at their noon dinner table if I could try for some mallards he quickly replied, "Sure, go ahead."
I drove back to the ducks that were now feeding southward at a fast pace. One after another of that flock, they tried to get ahead for first chance at the golden kernels.
As I grabbed my Model 12 Winchester and stuffed three shells into it, Jim Bregel drove up in his telephone company van. "Mind if I go along?" he said.
Sure, let's go, must be nearly 500 in that flock. He had his single shot in the cab that I suspect was for the many rooster pheasants that hid in the road ditches of that era.
We crossed the ditch and found unpicked corn next to the harvested corn. The already fat ducks were moving rapidly into the south wind. We nearly ran to catch up with them.
Then as we came to the picked end rows, the entire flock turned in front of us. We raised up, fired four times, and we knew it was enough. We put four each in our game bags and left two in the corn wagon for Ray.
It was a memorable moment, as you can tell. We enjoyed those northern mallards for 30 to 40 years but they are no more. To have a late season for mallards, as the Minnesota DNR now does, is a spoof. They are probably gone forever as our northern mallard flyway now moves down the Central Flyway. Along the Missouri River they go to Kansas City, then down to Arkansas and Louisiana via the Mississippi River.
In my lifetime that migration of big greenhead mallards with a large bronze breast separated by a big white band around its neck has disappeared from our area.
It's about land usage and clean water. They have gone the way of our canvasbacks, about 40 years before them. But, I'll keep looking and hoping.







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