Wetland management for better waterfowl habitat. Interested in wetland management for waterfowl (and I know from countless inbox requests for this topic that many of y’all are) then this 3-part series is right in your wheelhouse.  It’s no accident that we’re dropping this series when it’s time to start readying your wetlands waterfowl habitat for next season! Regardless of where you hunt, better understanding duck habitat needs will make you a more successful hunter. As USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wildlife Biologist in the Mississippi Delta, Kevin Nelms is a duck hunter that has spent the past couple decades designing and developing numerous private-lands waterfowl impoundments pursuant to Wetland Reserve and other Farm Bill-related programs. He’s worked extensively with private landowners throughout the region, improving desirable duck habitat conditions, enhancing duck utilization, even putting together a handbook that Ramsey considers must-have staple for waterfowl habitat management (refer to related links in podcast description for your own PDF copy). In today’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast episode, Ramsey and Nelms make introductions then cannonball off the bow into murky subject matter, discussing prevailing silver-bullet misconceptions to waterfowl habitat management; duck life-cycle requirements on the wintering grounds; why recognizing and satisfying certain life-cycle requirements may attract more waterfowl; managing vegetative succession; the importance of invertebrates; and more.

Related Links:

Wetland Management for Waterfowl Handbook (PDF)

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All About Wetland Management for Waterfowl 

Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. I’ve got a great podcast episode today with a long term, multi decade professional associate and friend Mr. Kevin Nelms. Kevin, how are you today?

Kevin Nelms: I’m doing great. Glad to be here.

Ramsey Russell: Good. I thank you for coming man. It’s a beautiful spring day and it’s that time of year, duck season’s over and it’s already time to start planning for next year. And you know, so many duck hunters I meet and then club members, they believe that habitat comes from a sack. By gosh, if it’s not an agricultural crop or something I bought at the co-op and go put in the mud flat, that it just ain’t going to attract the duck. You and I think we know better, don’t we?

Kevin Nelms: I get that question a lot in my job, what can I plant for ducks? What’s the best thing I can plant for ducks? And you know, I never answer that question. I’m moving toward management, toward natural habitats. The best thing you can plant for a duck is a disc in the ground.

Ramsey Russell: You know, you and I were talking over sandwiches earlier, and 20 years ago, Kevin now, with all due respect, I tend to disagree with you. I believed that if I wanted ducks on my property, I needed to go to the co-op, I needed to go to the elevator, I needed to go do some stuff and I needed get out there and whip this natural site into condition and make it look like a farm field because I guarantee you, when we go duck hunting, we hunt rice and soy beans, or corn, or harvested something. I mean we hunt in agricultural communities all the time. But I have learned, over the past 20 years, my opinions have changed. They’re not opinions, but my observations and hunting experiences have changed drastically. Especially what I’ve seen here on this property in the South Delta.

Kevin Nelms: I get invited – I’m a private lands biologist – I get invited to a lot of properties and our duck hunting is not what it used to be, what has changed? And it’s hard to see your kids, your property change. It’s kind of like your kids, you don’t realize how your kids have changed until you go to your grandparents or go to their grandparents, your parents and you know, they’ve grown so much. And you stop and think and yeah, that has happened. Plant communities are changing constantly. Wetlands are changing constantly and people don’t realize that. Ramsey, I go to a property and they’ve got a break. It’s fantastic break. They used to kill a lot of ducks on it and help kill me, don’t kill as much as they want to now and what’s happened to our break. Well, I’m looking at a break. And so I started asking some questions, and I’ve learned, don’t ask what changed because I can’t answer that question. I say, well, tell me what you all do? What were you doing 10 years ago? And it always ends up, well, 5 years ago, 6 years ago, 3 years ago we put a structure in and we drained it and now we plant Jap millet on it.

Ramsey Russell: Yep.

Kevin Nelms: Well you broke the wetland cycle of that break. You changed the way that break is working, you tried to fix something to make it better and you didn’t. Don’t fix something that’s not broke. Everybody wants to make their duck hole better. And it’s almost to the point where now I say, when did you start draining the break and planting corn or millet, or whatever in the bottom, because that’s when their duck hunting changed, or a year later or two years later when their duck hunting changed.

Ramsey Russell: Do you hit the nail on the head, Kevin? You know, we as duck hunters know, we feel obligated to our club, to our properties, to where we hunt, we feel obligated to make it better.

Kevin Nelms: Make it better.

Ramsey Russell: That’s the great thing about duck hunters is because time and money is conservation. Most hunters I know are willing to roll up their sleeves or dig down their pockets and spend money to make habitat better. That’s why it was so important for me to have you come on because you have influenced a lot of the way I think, and I know the way my club behaves, and a lot of ways the people in the Mississippi Delta think about duck hunting and think about habitat. Now, let’s back up and explain why. What is your title and position?


Kevin’s History & Education in Wildlife Management 

I’m a duck guide, a wetland manager, we do a lot of wetland restoration. And that’s my passion and so that’s why I came here 20-something years ago.


Kevin Nelms: I’m a wildlife biologist with Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a USDA Agency. It’s the only federal agency that’s tasked to work on private lands. And our mission is to work with private landowners, whether it be Ag landowners, woodland landowners, whatever kind of land that person has to promote and conserve and manage their natural resources. That’s what NRCS does. So as the wildlife biologists for NRCS and the Mississippi Delta, a lot of the Delta is wetland habitat and around wetland habitat. And that’s one reason I came here for this job. I’m a duck guide, a wetland manager, we do a lot of wetland restoration. That’s my passion and so that’s why I came here 20-something years ago.

Ramsey Russell: Whereas when you get out west, the landscape is predominated by public lands in the state of Mississippi, for example, if you’re going to meaningfully impact habitat, you’ve got to get on the private lands spectrum because 90% of properties in the state of Mississippi is private lands. Same could be said for Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, the whole deep South, Texas. A lot of what you’re going to hear today are going to be applicable to wherever you’re standing. It’s just basic wetland habitat management.

Kevin Nelms: Plant community management.

Ramsey Russell: Plant community management. Kevin, how I know you, at a professional capacity for all these years, is you came to the state of Mississippi back in the late 90s, you came from a background doing plant community management in the wetlands and then you became extremely active in the wetland reserve program. What is your formal background? I know Lee Fredrickson, Missouri State. Explain to people what your educational background is? How you ended up being this guy, we can talk about this stuff.

Kevin Nelms: Well, at 13 years old when I realized there was such thing as a wildlife biologist, I said that’s what I’m going to do. And I never wavered from that. My dad was an engineer for IBM, which is about like being an army brat. So we moved around a lot and I was in North Carolina when I got time to go to college, so I got an undergraduate in Wildlife at North Carolina state. Then I knew I needed to get a Master’s degree to be employable, that’s the world of wildlife as you know. I had three offers for graduate school, one was Syracuse, New York and I realized they had the highest rate of snow of any place in the nation with lake effect snow and so I checked that one off the list, and then the other two were LSU and Auburn. I went to Auburn. I was born in Alabama and I knew my dad would be moving back there when he retired. So I had that connection to Alabama. So I went to Auburn and got my Master’s degree. Started working, my first job out of school was Fort Stewart Army Base. I had the title of game biologist at Fort Stewart Army Base. I went in there and they talked to me a little bit and I mentioned ducks and a passion for wetland management. They told me we don’t have enough duck habitat on Fort Stewart, go find some areas you can manage. I spent 2 years there developing a kind of a waterfowl program, a wetland management program on Fort Stewart Army Base. That was actually a temporary position, it was a 4-year position and so it wasn’t going to last forever. A permanent position came up in the Missouri Boot Heel, it was a wildlife biologist and with NRCS so I went to Missouri. Well, I had talked to some people in Georgia and I actually made a trip to the coast of Georgia. Fort Stewart is dang near touching the coast anyway. And had a look at some moist soil management on the coastal marshes. There are some coastal marsh management which is plant succession management, early succession management, not really moist soil so to speak. I’d seen some of that on the coastal marshes of Georgia that the state was doing. I knew what moist soil management was but really didn’t know a tremendous amount about it. When I moved to Missouri and started working up there, Missouri Department Conservation was paying NRCS for half of my salary, so I was treated as a MDC employee as well. They kind of treated me as one of their own. Lee Fredrickson is kind of the father of moist soil management and he was University of Missouri professor, Wildlife professor. He had a wetland research lab at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge which also has a part of it that is a state management area. I got to know Lee and kind of his right hand man at the time, Mickey Heitmeyer.

Ramsey Russell: Mickey Heitmeyer.

Kevin Nelms: Yeah. Mickey took that lab over after Lee retired. And I got to know those guys and was really welcomed in and allowed to pick their brain. And they, because they were there, those guys in Southeast Missouri, were doing the excellent wetland management on state lands and the federal lands. I got the benefit of seeing and asking questions and all that there and then had the opportunity to move here, and it just kind of developed as my passion at that time. That’s what led me to sitting here now.


Hired as a Biologist in the Mississippi Delta


Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. So you show up in the Mississippi Delta. And I would describe, because I was involved on the tree planting side with Fish and Wildlife Service at that time, but I would describe that as like the onset and the boom time of WRP Wetland Restoration in the Mississippi Delta.

Kevin Nelms: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: At the time you were the head knocker, you were kind of in charge, because so much of that activity is in the Mississippi Delta and your area covers the entire Mississippi Delta, you were kind of the guy, I remember. I know this property here and several others that you’ve designed and been very incrementally.

Kevin Nelms: Well, I was hired in that position because of the wetland restoration and wetland management experience that I gained in Missouri. They hired me as their biologist in the Mississippi Delta to lead wetland restoration and subsequent wetland management on WRP properties and CRP and all the other programs that we have.


Can you Remember Your First Duck?

It was a green wing teal, sitting on the water, landed in decoys, on the Tennessee River in North Alabama with my dad and uncle.


Ramsey Russell: It’s important to me to know this when I have a guest on, but I know you’re also a duck hunter.

Kevin Nelms: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: Kevin, do you still remember your first duck?

Kevin Nelms: I do.

Ramsey Russell: What is it? Tell me about it.

Kevin Nelms: It was a green wing teal, sitting on the water, landed in decoys, on the Tennessee River in North Alabama with my dad and uncle.

Ramsey Russell: I’ll be darned. And you’ve been a duck hunter ever since?

Kevin Nelms: I was in the blind a lot before that, but it was the first time I was old enough to shoot something. I had spent at least a year, maybe 2 years going duck hunting with them before that but absolutely, my dad thought that there was only two good things that water was for, and that was fishing and duck hunt.

Ramsey Russell: I wouldn’t disagree with him.

Kevin Nelms: Bathing to me is probably tertiary to that.

Ramsey Russell: You and I are on the same exact page. That’s a good way to remember your dad too.

Kevin Nelms: He grew up in West Tennessee near Reelfoot Lake and O’Brien River bottoms. He came from a well-known, well populated duck area and he grew up hunting there and then at a young age we were in North Alabama with him with IBM and he was going to hunt where he could hunt.


The All-Drake Green Wing Hunt

I looked at him and said okay we’re going to try to do the all-drake green wing hunt, I’ve never done that.


Ramsey Russell: Speaking of green wing teal, you told me over lunch about you and your son, who is about Forrest’s age, you all went out and targeted drake green wings. Was it this season, you all did that, or the past season?

Kevin Nelms: It was this season. I’ve never been wanting to keep up with hunts, I’ve never been wanting to keep up with numbers or anything, but hunts stand out. I told you it wasn’t the best duck season ever, but it was a good duck season. Me and my son one day, Hayward, this is all green wings, that’s the only thing that’s going to be here, we’re going on the green wing hunt and just so happened, he had three birds and I had two birds, I think, and they were all drakes. I looked at him and said okay we’re going to try to do the all-drake green wing hunt, I’ve never done that. He had never done it and he bought into it and we actually passed up a couple of mallards later in the hunt just so we could do the green wing slam, or whatever you want to call it.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Kevin Nelms: So yeah, absolutely. I’m a duck hunter and still have that passion and enjoy it every time I can.

Ramsey Russell: What kind of habitat do you like to hunt? If you could pick just one type of habitat to hunt, what would it be?

Kevin Nelms: Where I scouted the ducks yesterday.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That’s where I want to go. I want to go where the ducks are. I was telling you, I do like flooded timber. I like natural marsh but it’s something about the sanctity almost of a cypress break, I really got a thing for. You will shoot green wings, you shoot gadwalls, you shoot some ringnecks, you shoot some mallards, it depends on how big the hole is and how you’re going to shoot anything in there but is something about a cypress break, I just have a strong affinity for I really like that habitat. But anyway let’s get into it. Let’s talk about this – true or false – to have good habitat it’s got to come out of a seed sack?

Kevin Nelms: False.


Duck’s Feeding Needs: Protein vs Carbs 

They’ve got to migrate, they need fat, they need energy, and then the protein for muscle reabsorption.


Ramsey Russell: Why? Come on now Kevin, because recently I had this conversation, you see it all over the internet man. So powerful is flooded corn that it is short stopping ducks and is ruining duck hunting and it’s like crack cocaine to ducks and if you don’t have it, you don’t have ducks.

Kevin Nelms: Well, you know the first thing I’d say is ducks were in North America and in the lower Mississippi Valley where we are eons before corn was ever introduced to this landscape. They were coming here for a reason, and it was to meet needs in their life cycle. So that’s the first thing I tell you. The second thing I would tell you is what is in corn or a hot food or whatever, you know, somebody wants to call it. Everybody likes to talk about hot food. You know, a cultivated crop, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking corn, rice, milo, millet, we’ve cultivated it for two reasons. We’ve cultivated it to meet our needs and we’ve cultivated it into a growth form to go through a combine so we can harvest it, which means we’ve given up some other things for that. So what’s really in one of these crops? Well, there is a whole lot of carbohydrates, carbohydrates are high-energy. They provide energy, they keep body temperature regulated, and for that reason they are used during cold weather, they are used overnight. Think about our nights in Mississippi where we are, or Missouri or wherever you want to talk about, probably even Southern California. You got a day, our average day in the Mississippi Delta during duck season is about 50°. Our average night is about 30°. That’s a 20° temperature swing overnight. So we’ve got to make it through that night as a duck. So we’re looking for a high energy food to get us through that temperature swing to regulate our body temperature and that’s what a carbohydrate does for us. And so whether that carbohydrate is an acorn, because acorn is basically the same seed as a corn plant is. Whether it’s acorn or corn or rice, it’s regulating our body temperature because it’s high energy. It’s also fat storage. It’s the reason that I’m fat, carbohydrates. So that’s what it is, important during cold weather and important overnight and important for fat storage, but that’s not the complete life cycle. You know what’s not in it, what’s not in corn or any other cultivated crop is adequate protein.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

Kevin Nelms: It doesn’t have adequate vitamins and amino acids, it doesn’t have essential minerals, all those other things that you need, that I need, that the duck needs. You know, it’s not there. So to say that you’ve got to have to pour that out of a sack, as you say, for duck habitat. Okay, it’s a small part of duck habitat. All that other stuff I just mentioned is not in corn. So a duck’s got to go find it. So what habitats is that? Where are they going to find that stuff?

Ramsey Russell: Exactly. And you bring up a good point because it begs the question of why our ducks come into the Deep South during cold fronts? Why are they overwintering here instead of where they’re located? We know there’s snow, but generally it’s like a duck sitting in Prairie Canada or Prairie Pothole Region anywhere versus the duck on his wintering grounds. He’s in a total different lifecycle. We start talking protein. I’m thinking feathers – they’ve got to molt and they’re growing feathers. That’s a tremendous protein sink. They’ve got to migrate, they need fat, they need energy, and then the protein for muscle reabsorption. The contrast of being a duck now, a duck on the breeding ground to the staging areas up in the Prairie Pothole Region, versus the duck down here in the wintering grounds. As you know, if you go hunt early enough on the Prairie, dry field hunting, let’s say, out in the grain field barley up in Saskatchewan, there’s going to be a period of time depending on when the hatch failed that all you’re going to shoot is adult birds because those little birds have to grow to a point before they can even consume grain and get nutritive value. Months later, they’re down here in Mississippi, Alabama, Southern California, parts of Delaware, their dietary needs in their life cycle requirement has changed drastically.

Kevin Nelms: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: You’ve got to give that duck what he needs and eating is just one small part of his life cycle requirement but it’s an important part. I mean, have you ever raised pet ducks?

Kevin Nelms: No, I have pet turkeys but not ducks.

Ramsey Russell: We gave some extra ducks to my kids one time and they grew up big white quacking flightless ducks and all I can tell you about those ducks as they eat, and they shit, and they quack that was their total life cycle in my backyard. But ducks have to eat and have to eat constantly but it’s not the end all, be all of the ducks lifecycle requirements, which we’re talking about. Can you elaborate on why ducks are coming South and what their needs would be?


Why are Ducks on Wintering Grounds?

And then finally somebody said, what are the ducks doing when they’re in the South?


Kevin Nelms: Yeah, I’m glad you circle back to that because you said that a minute ago, why are ducks on the wintering grounds? And that’s an important question that people understand. Any animal that migrates, it’s migrating for a reason. Either to escape inclement weather, or to follow food resources, and for ducks it’s kind of both. It’s following food resources because in the Northern climates, most times those food resources are getting covered up with snow or maybe frozen wetlands. What are they doing while they’re on the wintering grounds? It’s always interesting to me that wildlife research started in the 1930s. Basically there was never a study done on the wintering grounds. What are ducks doing when they’re South until about the 70s? First 40 years was just looking at breeding and nesting and all those kinds of things. And then finally somebody said, what are the ducks doing when they’re in the South? You look at it, they’re here for six months of their life cycle. They’re here basically October to March or maybe November to April whatever you want to say. Basically, six months. So what are they doing? Well, when they first get here, they’re recovering from migration, they just had a huge event that took a lot of resources, and depending on how hard the migration was, did they have a good front that they rode all the way or did they have to stop over a few times and make it over a few days, depends on what they need when they get here. They trying to restore some fat or are they just trying to get some protein because they only got two days of life left? So they’re recovering from migration, then while they’re here, they’re building nutrient reserves to migrate back North at the end of the winter and then when they’re getting there, they’re nesting.

Ramsey Russell: Right. 

Kevin Nelms: If you think about an egg, an egg is a big old ball of calcium with a whole bunch of protein on the inside.

Ramsey Russell: No doubt.

Kevin Nelms: Every bit of the calcium that is in an egg has to be carried back North with that hen, she can’t find it on the nesting grounds. So she has to store it in her bones and then reabsorb it out of her bones to lay an egg. So calcium is extremely important while they’re here, they’re getting ready for nesting. Courtships going on the wintering grounds, then pair-bonding is going on. Equate that to humans if you want to, they’re dating and then they’re getting serious dating and living together, let’s say.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.


Molting Habits of Female and Male Ducks

I mean it’s a major, so she’s got to have the energy to produce all these wonderful new feathers that are high in protein and she’s got to migrate.


Kevin Nelms: All that’s going on the wintering grounds and then all that’s being taken back North when they go with them. Then the females, I think you mentioned the molting a while ago. The females are going through their basic molt while they’re here for the most part. Some of them have started it and then finished it here. But generally, they’re going to do the female basic molt, which is ducks twice a year. They molt on the breeding grounds after they breed, they go through a flightless molt where they molt their wing feathers and everything else. The females actually go through a basic molt while they’re here to put on their drab body feathers that they’re going to use while they’re nesting.

Ramsey Russell: This brings up a good point because I have noticed in seeing and notice to be true that female ducks that are actually producing a clutch of eggs, they have a delayed molt.

Kevin Nelms: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: I mean it’s a major, so she’s got to have the energy to produce all these wonderful new feathers that are high in protein and she’s got to migrate.

Kevin Nelms: Yeah. Sometimes that basic molt is finished on the wintering grounds after they migrate but most of it occurs here. How many times have you gone into a duck hole? You’re going in to hunt that morning, you’re going into a duck hole. You got your light on putting out decoys or whatever and you go look at all the feathers.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Exactly. 

Kevin Nelms: Have you ever seen a drake feather in that.

Ramsey Russell: Good point.

Kevin Nelms: It’s always female feathers and they don’t just drop feathers like that. I mean actually that’s part of that molting process going on. And how many times have you actually seen that in the early duck season you know if you think about it, that’s always late duck season – that’s that female basic molt occurring.

Ramsey Russell: Good point.

Kevin Nelms: So there are tremendous things with migration and food needs, egg laying, that they’re preparing for and food needs. And molting and reproducing feathers and food needs for production of feathers. That’s really what’s going on here. It’s six months of their life cycle that’s all going back around to go North and lay eggs.

Ramsey Russell: Constant.

Kevin Nelms: Constant. That’s right. People don’t think about is, animals have one thing on their mind and that’s survival.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Kevin Nelms: To get to the next day.

Ramsey Russell: And procreation, make a future generation to keep those genes going.

Kevin Nelms: That’s not on their mind all the time.


How Should People Manage Their Properties to Attract Waterfowl?

Really what I’m talking about is managing succession.


Ramsey Russell: How does that translate into this habitat, these wetlands vegetation cycle, you keep talking about. How does all that translate into how people on the wintering grounds should or could possibly manage their properties to attract waterfowl?

Kevin Nelms: Well, I’ve said a couple times now, managing plants and managing plant communities. Really what I’m talking about is managing succession. You got to go back to 7th grade science class, 9th grade science class or something. Succession. Every plant community is going through stages until you reach climax community. You remember that and so wetlands are the same way, there’s wetland plant succession until you reach a climax community, and what’s the climax community and wetlands? It’s forested wetlands. From the standpoint of wetland management, you start with a mudflat, water comes off, whether the river goes down or whether we pull the board. Water comes off, you get a mudflat, and you start germinating plants. Typically, that’s going to be an annual plant – and we’re going back to science again now – the difference between annual and perennial plants. So that’s probably about 5th grade science or whatever. Annual plant, it lives only one year and its sole purpose is to produce seeds so that it reproduces a future generation. Just like you said with ducks, a perennial plant comes back every year from the roots and it doesn’t necessarily have to produce seed. So when we start talking about these ducks that are seed eaters, then we’re talking about an annual plant community is what’s really preferred. Not so much of a perennial plant community. But wetlands are, successions occurring, wetlands are changing. So we got the mudflat, we go to an annual plant community. If we don’t make any change to the annual plant community, it’s going to a perennial plant community.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

Kevin Nelms: Then the next thing that’s coming in is some woody plants. You start out with small woody plants, shrubs and then you go to big trees. And so as we’ve got names for that, wetland types. So we’ve got the moist soil plant communities, the annual plant community. Then the perennial plant community is what we typically call emergent marsh. An emergent marsh is plants are emerging through the water. So rooted in the soil, we’re still talking shallow water here, rooted in the soil but emerging through the water. So emergent marsh is your perennial plant community. Your first woody communities, what we call shrubs, scrub, willows and button bush and that type stuff. Then your forested wetlands are either going to depend on the side and it’s bottomland hardwoods or it’s your cypress tupelo break that you talked about a while ago and that’s really what’s dependent there is his hydro period, how long the waters on it, how deep the water is. Hydro period is depth duration and timing that’s what determines hydro period. Each one of those wetland types meets different duck cycle needs.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I mean they all provide habitat value to the duck.

Kevin Nelms: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I mean like I know, I think of a cypress break. You may have some coon tail moss and some different food sources like duck weed. But man, some of the best duck hunting on that type of habitat is when the ducks are coming in just to land, swim up into shade, swim up in the cover, hold hands with his girlfriend, or just get out, climb up on a log and dry themselves. All of these are important. I love to hunt rice fields that’s really an artificial surrogate for that more soil plant environment. It’s open, it’s food, it’s cover, it’s shallow, right? I mean that’s kind of working.

Kevin Nelms: It can actually be an artificial surrogate as you say, for emergent marsh.

Ramsey Russell: It could be.

Kevin Nelms: You think about rice, it’s rooted in the soil emerging through the water and it’s had water on the plant community for a year, just about.

Ramsey Russell: Right. 

Kevin Nelms: And so it can provide some of the same benefits of an emergent marsh.

Ramsey Russell: And when we’re talking, all of those habitats can provide important habitat values. During a 24-hour cycle a duck needs to train, a duck needs to eat, a duck needs to just go off by himself, be with his other ducks, and needs safety and things of that roost. But really when we start talking about plant food, we are focusing now towards the front part of that succession moist-soil plant communities and emergent marsh community. That’s where the bulk of their food is going to come from. That’s what I’m hearing you say.

Kevin Nelms: It’s not only the plant seeds that I’ve talked about. They dabble up and pull up the roots and the tubers of some of those perennial plants too, so it’s those food resources. But what’s huge is invertebrates and crustaceans and how they fit into those habitats is extremely important.


Japanese Millet and Invertebrate Biomass

Detritus is dead and dying vegetation on the bottom of a wetland that’s breaking up and that’s what drives the system.


Ramsey Russell: It’s funny, you should say that because I feel like back in the day slogging through mud on feet, just slinging Jap Millet or spreading it with a hand spreader, or a back of a four-wheeler, golly, I feel like I have planted a million acres of Japanese millet, because here in the South, July, we can get some water off some of these low-lying places and I’m going to put some Jap Millet on it. And not that you can’t fly rice or do something else. But Jap Millet. And I’ve got a friend who also plants a lot of Jap millet on some old retired catfish ponds and I asked one time I said, I’ve never killed a duck, ever killed a duck, with a crop full of Japanese millet. He said, well you know it’s funny cause I never have either, but they had some kids doing some research, some college kids come down. I just imagine these great big butterfly nets that they were walking through the marshes and sweeping up moist soil. And then it got the Jap Millet and had a whole lot more invertebrate biomass in that Japanese millet, which I think most of us are out there slogging tend to over plants, that would be a lot more stem value out there than actual seed hit. That brought up a very good point about the invertebrates, because that was their best pond and they never shot ducks with crops full of Jap Millet. You know, apparently, they were out there to get those invertebrates.

Kevin Nelms: Yeah, and clubs with multiple units that they can manage, I always recommend that they keep a unit flooded for the year as an invertebrate pond or a bug unit, whatever they want to call it. So yeah, it’s humongously important. But you bring up a good point about the Jap Millet and invertebrate biomass. There’s a lot of different suites, different families of invertebrates, whatever you want to say. But the first ones are – probably the biggest group – is the detritus eaters. We’re back into science class again. Detritus is dead and dying vegetation on the bottom of a wetland that’s breaking up and that’s what drives the system. That’s what gives it the fertility and that’s what the invertebrates eat. 

Ramsey Russell: By detritus is dead, you are talking about invertebrates.

Kevin Nelms: Invertebrates. Yeah, the aquatic insects that eat, that detritus is, its breaking down. And so if you think about what that detritus is? What that detritus is made of? How fast it breaks down? The other thing is these invertebrates, they don’t start at the middle of leaf that’s breaking down to start eating, they start on the outside. So the more leaf margin, the more food there is, so you’re longer linear leaves, our preferred leaves for invertebrate, let’s just say. And the ones that break down faster are the ones that don’t have a hard waxy cuticle to them, like your Oakley, for something like that. So now that we’ve defined what good detritus is, you start thinking about it and you’re talking about smartweed leaves, long and linear. You’re talking about grass, long and linear. You know, very few grasses have a hard waxy cuticle to them. Willow, when you think about a willow leaf, it’s not a hard waxy cuticle like some of your other hardwood trees. So willows are extremely valuable detritus. You know, so we’re talking about long, linear leaves, but it also has to have that soil contact. It has to be sitting on that bottom with soil contact to start breaking down with water on it. So that’s invertebrate food. So that’s that millet, that’s that rice that we were just talking about a minute ago. But willow breaks, that shrub scrub habitat that I was talking about. Moist soil is extremely important from invertebrates’ standpoint and a crustacean is invertebrate, but it’s a different class of invertebrates. What’s important for crustaceans is the length of time water has been on the habitat. So, basically if you break that wetland cycle for more than a couple of months, basically you’re saying it needs to be flooded about 10 months out of the year. At least 9 months out of the year for the crustaceans to be there. And they’re eating different types of invertebrates at different times of the year. Crustaceans being so important late because if you think a crustacean has a shell, right? Its snails and clams and even crawfish. So what’s that shell? That shell is calcium. That’s what they’re using to put calcium in the bones to go back to the breeding grounds to lay those eggs. So that’s late season food, extremely important in late season along with spiders, spiders are a huge calcium source.

Ramsey Russell: Wow. Eat more.

Kevin Nelms: Think about when you step on the spider, it crunches.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Kevin Nelms: That’s that hard exoskeleton, that calcium exoskeleton. And where do you see the most spiders? It’s not a moist soil habitat. It’s in your forested wetland habitat. 

Ramsey Russell: That’s true.


What’s the Daily Lifecycle of a Duck?

And so that’s basically what a day is: feeding, loafing, roosting.


Kevin Nelms: So really important all those things. But you mentioned a little bit of this preening and holding hands with a girlfriend, and I like the way you say that because I always kind of try to relate it down to the least common denominator. I like that myself. So what’s a duck doing during the day? We talked about life cycle over a year. What’s the daily life cycle? When they’re not feeding, what are they doing? And so we talk about loafing, which is what you’re preening and holding hands with a girlfriend. And I always say plant, duck, grab ass. So when they don’t have to feed, we typically call that loafing, roosting overnight. You know, sometimes that’s feeding, sometimes that’s just getting through the night. And so that’s basically what a day is: feeding, loafing, roosting.

Ramsey Russell: Maintenance.

Kevin Nelms: Yeah. During courtship, then you got courtship flights and pair bonding, and that kind of thing but that’s kind of the day in a nutshell. And those different habitat types, some of them are better at providing some of those things than other habitat types.

Ramsey Russell: Folks. You’ve been listening to my buddy Kevin Nelms. We’re getting deep down in the bushes on more soil habitat management, join us next time to hear more.


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