By Ben Davis, Wildlife Biologist
When individuals or groups take an interest in providing waterfowl habitat, their first thought tends to be, “What can we plant to attract or produce more birds.” What magic crop will guarantee vast groups of birds during the fall/winter season? Rows of corn or acres of grain sorghum may be the popular answer to this question, but there are other options. Many aquatic plant species that can enrich waterfowl habitat may appear or “volunteer” naturally.
Submerged plants, characterized by having their vegetative parts entirely underwater, serve as a food source for diving ducks as well as an important diet item for many dabbling duck species. Pondweeds are among the most popular of these submerged plants. Sago pondweed is a favorite among this plant family because of its abundant production of fruit and tubers. The entire plant is relished by waterfowl. Water milfoil is another species that waterfowl feed on often. Water milfoil can be found submerged in the quiet waters of lakes, rivers and marshes. Wild celery is yet another plant species utilized by waterfowl. It grows in the deeper waters of lakes streams and backwaters. Growing up to 20 feet below the surface, many parts of the plant are eaten by waterfowl, especially canvasbacks.
Emergent plants, or plants that are rooted on the bottom and have parts growing well above the water surface, also provide a valuable food source for waterfowl. Plants such as bulrushes and wild rice are examples of these emergent plants. Other species may include wild millet, smartweeds, and some panic grasses. Not only do these species provide food in the form of seeds, they tend to attract insects, which are very valuable to ducklings.
These emergent species can also provide valuable nesting and cover areas. Many of these species may grow naturally in new areas created for waterfowl such as ponds or moist soil areas. Species like the pondweeds and wild millet may just seem to appear after a short time. They can also be transplanted or brought in from another area. Be aware of the growth habits and requirements of the plant species in your waterfowl area. The ability to manipulate the water level in a waterfowl area will also be a valuable tool. An area that can be seasonably flooded can be manipulated during the spring to provide a grater abundance of these food species. As with any wildlife improvement, advance planning can save many dollars, man-hours, and frustrations.