Developing Waterfowl Habitat on Farm, Ranch, and Recreational Hunting Properties

IMG_1796Developing waterfowl habitat on your farm, ranch, or recreational hunting property is probably one of the most cost-effective and rewarding types of wildlife habitat development there is. If properly planned out and implemented the fruits of your labor can be experienced in a relatively short amount of time, in some cases within the same year. In terms of most other types of wildlife habitat development that’s “warp” speed. First a basic understanding of the habitat and foraging requirements for waterfowl is in order.

Quality waterfowl habitat must provide water, food, and shelter. Ducks are divided into two major groups, dabbling ducks (dabblers) and diving ducks (divers). Dabblers include species like northern pintail, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, mottled duck, gadwall, wigeon, mallard, and northern shoveler. These species forage for food on the water surface or by tipping up to feed just below the surface. The optimal foraging depth for dabblers is 6″ – 12″. Divers include species like redhead, canvasback, ring-neck, lesser and greater scaup, goldeneye, and ruddy duck. These species dive beneath the waters surface to forage on the bottom or on submergent vegetation. Typically the cost of constructing large deep impoundments precludes developing diving duck habitat. In addition, most shallow water impoundments are readily utilized by diving ducks as well.

Most recreational hunting properties with hydrology that has been altered or modified by agriculture lend themselves well to development of quality waterfowl habitat. These areas typically have some, if not most, of the infrastructure such as water delivery systems already in place. Areas that are poorly drained and with a reliable water source to allow shallow winter flooding are well suited for waterfowl habitat development. Land that contains clay or silty clay loam soils are best suited because they compact well, creating a tight seal when flooded with little or no seepage.

IMG_0946Waterfowl habitat development on most recreational hunting lands will typically always require the construction of levees and proper design and placement of water control structures to replicate natural hydrologic regimes. Levees and water control structures should be designed based on topography to maximize the amount of flooded habitat at optimal foraging depths. A detailed topographic survey will help determine proper placement of levees, water-delivery and water discharge systems, and ultimately determine the optimal size of the wetland.

Longevity and maintenance are the most important considerations when constructing levees on recreational hunting land. Permanent levees that are designed to withstand fluctuating climatic conditions will ensure long-term integrity of levees with minimal maintenance. The increased initial investment in time and money to properly construct permanent levees will save time and money over the long run. Only soils with a high clay content should be utilized for levee construction. All woody and herbaceous vegetation should be removed from the levee right-of-way and borrow area (area adjacent to levee where soil for levee will be taken) prior to construction. A clean surface free of vegetation is necessary to assure a tight seal is formed between the ground and fill material to prevent seepage.

The width and height of levees is dependent on the size of the impoundment and specific management objectives. Large impoundments (>20acres) may be subjected to severe wave action and erosion and consequently may require more substantial levees. Depending on the size of the impoundment, the height of levees should be constructed with 1 – 2 foot of free-board (the height of the levee above the maximum designed water level). The initial fill height of the levee should be 10 percent higher than the finished levee to allow for shrinkage. Levees should be constructed with a minimum crown width of 6 – 8 feet. If levees will support vehicular traffic a 10 foot minimum crown width should be utilized. Levees should be constructed with a minimum 4:1 side slope (the width of the levee extends 4 feet from the edge of the crown for each foot of elevation) to provide easy and safe operating conditions for mowing the levee.

Foerster Unit 1 WCSOne of the most critical components of any managed waterfowl impoundment on recreational hunting property is an efficient water control structure. Successful waterfowl habitat management requires the ability to maintain water at precise depths and discharge water in precise increments to make forage available to waterfowl, to encourage establishment of preferred food plants, and to control undesirable vegetation. Water control structures come in a variety of different designs and are fabricated from a variety of different materials, each with its own advantages and limitations. Structures fabricated from aluminum tend to have a longer life span compared to other materials and work well for most applications.

The topography and size of the impoundment will determine the number of water control structures needed. Structures should be placed at the lowest elevation to allow complete removal of water from the impoundment when needed. Structures must be properly sized to assure that they adequately carry the runoff from the impounded watershed. Consideration should be given to locate structures where they can easily be accessed for management purposes with minimal disturbance to the impoundment.

The flash-board or stop-log water control structure is probably the most effective and widely used design. It allows precise incremental regulation of water through the addition and removal of flash-boards. Once the proper number of flash-boards are in place to maintain the desired water level, the structure is self-regulating. Excess storm flow above the desired water level is allowed to free flow over the top flash-board and out the discharge pipe, maintaining the impoundment at constant optimal water level.

Thousands of SnowsThere are a multitude of state, federal, and private grant programs available that offer funding for the development and management of waterfowl habitat on recreational hunting properties. By enlisting the services of a professional that is knowledgeable in both recreational hunting land and wildlife habitat development and management, you can ensure you take full advantage of these available funding opportunities and that your habitat development project is properly planned out and implemented. When properly planned out and implemented waterfowl habitat development on your farm, ranch, or recreational hunting property can be extremely rewarding, cost-effective, and substantially increase the value of your property.

Ed Ritter
Owner / Certified Wildlife Biologist / Real Estate Broker
Wildlife Management Enterprises, L.L.C.