Several summers ago, my family traveled to wine country in southern France. Almost immediately, my husband noticed the absence of birds in the vineyards. In small towns we saw only cuckoos. Whatever the reasons—perhaps season, pesticides, disease, fragmented natural areas—the scarcity concerned us. When birds are missing, people have reason to worry.
Ducks are missing from Minnesota. Hunters have noticed a drop in fall duck numbers, and recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported a decline in the 2005 breeding waterfowl population. In this issue "Counting Ducks" explains how pilot-biologists conduct aerial surveys to come up with a reliable spring census.
Why the drop? What can we do to recover missing ducks? DNR wetland expert Ray Norrgard takes up these questions in his story "Wetland Complexity." Declining waterfowl numbers are tangible evidence of human impact on duck habitat—a mix of wetlands and grasslands.
Hunters and birders have rallied around the call to protect duck populations. About 5,000 of them and other conservationists showed up at the state Capitol this past April to speak up for waterfowl and wetland habitats.
The long-term consequences of that rally remain to be seen, but make no mistake: Speaking up can change the course of events. On page 58 of Field Notes, you'll find one striking example. DNR wildlife biologist John Schladweiler reveals the Minnesota connection to saving a bottomland forest where the long-believed-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker recently turned up. Forty years ago, the DNR and other wildlife agencies spoke up to save that cypress-tupelo swamp along the Cache River of Arkansas because it is duck country.
One of many partners in protecting that habitat was The Nature Conservancy. The nonprofit Conservancy purchased land along the Cache, then turned it over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986 to establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
Yet the refuge is but a remnant of what once was 8 million acres of forests rooted in the floodplains of the Mississippi and other rivers in Arkansas. Today, amid vast fields of agriculture, less than 10 percent of the forested wetlands still exist.
That loss parallels the loss of Minnesota's prairie wetlands. An 18-million-acre sea of tallgrass and wetlands once stretched across western Minnesota. Today, less than 10 percent of prairie wetlands remain. Minnesota's famed duck factory has given way to agriculture.
"Wetland Complexity" points out that degradation of Minnesota's duck country has taken place during the past 150 years and restoration will take a long time. Yet prevention of further wetland loss must happen now. And wetland protection and restoration require help from us all—government agencies, conservation groups, and individuals.
To restore prairies and wetlands in northwestern Minnesota, the Conservancy enlisted more than 30 partners, including the DNR. Last fall the Conservancy donated the first land for the new Glacial Ridge NWR. The heart of the refuge will be 8,000 acres of restored wetlands and 16,000 acres of prairie -- a waterfowl paradise.
To protect the ivory-bill's habitat, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—the first group on the scene of rediscovery—formed the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, which aims to add 200,000 acres of habitat for woodpeckers, ducks, bears—all kinds of wildlife.
Though never abundant, the 20-inch-long ivory-billed woodpecker once lived in old-growth forests from southern Illinois through Cuba. By the end of the 19th century, all of the ancient sycamores had been felled. The grand bird retreated to small havens of the Big Woods. Today, we all have a chance to do better both for this bird—the improbable ivory-billed survivor—and for the hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that still navigate the Mississippi Flyway.
Kathleen Weflen, editor
Sales of duck stamps help buy land for wildlife refuges. Learn about Minnesota waterfowl stamps.