In North America, there are three main flyways (the Atlantic Flyway, the Pacific Flyway, and the Central Flyway) and a few minor byways for migratory birds like ducks. Think of these flyways as highways in the sky. Ducks follow the flyways when they head south to escape the harsh northern winters. In February or March they travel back north to breed in the areas where the young birds can feed on the plentiful insects during extended daylight hours. More feeding time means they can grow more quickly and become strong for the flight south in late September or October when the northern days get shorter and the weather turns cold.
But don’t be fooled by the term “flying south for the winter.” Some birds go very far south, but others tough it out without going right down to the warm weather. All along the coast of British Columbia, ducks and swans can get through the winter, mainly because salt water doesn’t freeze – at least not here.
Mainly, ducks need food and open water. Here the ducks and swans feed side by side. The smorgasbord of potatoes left in the fields is just too good and too plentiful to squabble over. There’s enough for everyone.
Someone must have rung the dinner bell. The smorgasbord has begun.
When the potatoes are gone, these ducks might move to a field that once grew corn or grain. If the fields flood, there will still be dockweed or millet seeds floating on the surface of the water. Ducks are very opportunistic and this is why they are survivors. Can you see the potatoes these ducks are eating in the photo below? In a light brown circle I’ve marked a widgeon that is one of a few species of duck that is mixed in with the mallards who are by far the majority here. The odd pintail is also among the feeders, but not shown in this photo.
Sometimes we get a cold snap and the flooded farm fields freeze over or snow covers the ducks’ food source. This is when they head for the open salt water and feed on sea lettuce and mollusks near beaches and all manner of tiny water creatures in river estuaries. At times, the spawned out salmon carcasses still lie rotting on the edges of the tidal areas in the estuaries and this can be another food source for them.
In this poor quality photo, the ducks are sharing the table with seagulls, all tearing at the last bits of rotting salmon carcasses near the shore.
Just before we think too badly of the ducks for eating that stinking salmon, I should mention that this is only done in desperate times. The preferred food for the ducks is still in the farm fields. This works out well, because then the salmon carcasses remain available for the labrador retriever whose owner allows him to run unleashed along the shores. Coming back to his owner the lab sings to him to the tune of “Jingle Bells”:
Dashing on the shore,
Where rotting salmon lie,
I roll in them once more,
Before my boss comes by.
O’er the beach we go,
He yells for me to stop,
But I know all he wants to do
Is use me as a mop.
Oh! Stinky lab, stinky lab , stinking all the way,
Then at home I’ll get a bath and that will ruin my day, hey!
Stinky lab, stinky lab , stinking all the way,
Oh what fun it was to roll in rotten fish today.