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How Will The Flooding Of The Mississippi Affect Waterfowl?

More than a million acres of Arkansas cropland are already underwater, and that's just one state. Arkansas duck hunter and Waterfowl & Retriever contributor Keith Sutton notes that ducks and geese are gone from the area until fall, so "the effects on waterfowl won't be evident until later. The biggest problems will no doubt relate to food sources for wintering birds. It's highly likely many crops that ducks and geese feed on won't be planted or will be lost. And the crop of acorns and other mast might likewise be lower than average."

We'll know more in the coming weeks, but much of the damage to crops will depend on how long the water stays on the landscape. If it recedes in time for farmers to plant a late crop, hunters might still have their favorite food-source honeyholes available to hunt next fall. But if the water sits around for very long, no crops will be planted.

And as Delta Waterfowl Scientific Director Dr. Frank Rohwer notes, birds will just keep on flying past ground that holds little food. But he adds, "Flooding in the South can be a good thing," as it creates more habitat on the coast. Floodwaters carry silt and sediment to areas that have long been starved of it due to the channeling of the river and the levees, and that should improve the habitat in the long run.

Rohwer also notes that the South, particularly Louisiana where he's based, might lose a lot of wood duck nests and mottled-duck territory, as those birds are wintering in this area and many of the nests and wood-duck boxes are now underwater.

Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited biologist Mike Checkett agrees with Rohwer's idea that a redistribution of waterfowl might occur. "Waterfowl have wings and have evolved to migrate and exploit habitat wherever it is," Checkett reminds us. "They don't care how far south they have to go or in any direction as long as they avoid the cold freeze-up. They might not be in the river bottoms long if the food resources they need are not there, much like we saw two years ago when the river bottoms were flooded too deep for waterfowl to exploit. In that year we saw ducks in some very untraditional spots."

Checkett offers hope, though: "The breeding grounds are really wet and loaded with ducks. Production should be outstanding this year."

Where a problem might occur is on the human side. Duck clubs, cabins and blinds are being flooded all along the Mississippi (and some smaller rivers like the White, the Black, the L'Anguille and the Yazoo) and it's too soon to tell how much damage they'll sustain. Checkett's heard from his sources that, "A great number of lodges/clubhouses are underwater and their ability to house hunters in the fall will be limited. The clubs' opportunity to plant and manage wildlife habitat will be limited this year as well."

Tennessee guide and Avery representative Tommy Akin adds that the problems aren't limited to the Delta and the Deep South region. "I think the big problem is going to be in Missouri where they blew the levee," he says. "There are 200,000 acres of prime duck habitat that will be gone not only this year, but in some places, for years to come. It is total devastation there. Ducks probably will fly right through that area.

"It will be a very interesting year. Mother Nature is hard to control; I think the Corp of Engineers will attest to that."

And it's not just ducks that are affected by floodwaters. Sutton says, "No doubt this will have devastating impacts on some wildlife populations. There won't be a turkey hatch at all this spring, so wild turkeys will take a hit. And deer are being pushed into herds on high ground where they're more susceptible to diseases."

So although it's too soon to be sure and we are still in the early stages of this flooding event, the news is far from all gloom and doom. Food supply will probably suffer in affected areas, but habitat is likely to benefit in the long run. We'll continue to bring you updates on the flooding and how it will affect waterfowl, but as Rohwer summed it up, "I don't think this is a duck disaster, by any means."

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