Starving Ducks in Winter

Incoming-Scaup

Last post I mentioned that many ducks become floaters come winter, dying from starvation. What is just a nuisance for us humans…

becomes a death sentence for ducks. The problem has been a bitterly cold winter around the Great Lakes region. February was the coldest in recorded history for our area. Cold equals ice and ice is found on the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan is covered 80.4%, Lake Huron 90.9%, Lake Superior 90.3%, Lake Erie 95.9% and Lake Ontario, a deep lake, 53.6% covered in ice by March 5th. (source)

4-Buffleheads

If ducks stay through winter or arrive here from somewhere else, many must dive for their food and with little open water that creates a problem. Necropsy revealed just how horrid the situation had become. Birds studied had their stomachs filled with feathers all the way down through their intestines.

3-Scaups

Others feeding on zebra mussels had toxic levels of selenium in their bodies, but most, their stomachs were empty. This is not unexpected, because each winter some ducks will perish without finding enough food. But is has been especially bad this year and last.

The affected ducks are the diver ducks, like greater and lesser scaup, redheads, goldeneye, canvasbacks, buffleheads, and red-breasted mergansers.

Most of the deceased birds collected for study were red-breasted mergansers, ducks whose small mouths can only eat small fish, like minnows that live in shallower waters.

Scaup-Landing

The waters in the shallows have been frozen solid for weeks, and the Niagara River has had ice up to 100 yards off shore, creating a shelf where minnows could hide.

Although Lake Erie was largely frozen over, some open water remained on the Niagara River throughout winter. Lake Ontario is a much deeper body of water and was largely open.

Landing-Scaup

While at Dunkirk Harbor on Lake Erie, I saw so many floating or frozen in place ducks, much more than I did last year. Photographers were commenting that there was far less ducks in the harbor. Less available food is likely why. They asked where I have been seeing a large number of ducks and I mentioned I live along the Niagara River where ducks numbered in the thousands. Like I mentioned above, the river is frozen well off shore and it appears many of the ducks are in distress. I shot all these images on Grand Island, which lies in the middle of the river, the West River on one side, the East River on the other. Flocks of ducks have been visible most of the winter. Right now, the Grand Island ducks are well off shore.

Many-Ducks

I also told the photographers that I have been seeing young eagles in and on the river ice here in Niagara. The increase in eagles is likely because of the number of dead, dying, or distressed ducks since ice does impede their fishing.

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27 Responses to Starving Ducks in Winter

  1. Oh, no, that is so sad…
    And as if the ice and cold wasn’t enough, they have the eagles to top up their misfortune.
    Beautiful photos [as usual], my dear Donna.

  2. Poor ducks, how horrible for them. At least they provide food for the eagles. I especially like that last picture.

  3. A sad state for the ducks in such cold weather…something we don’t hear about enough.

    • donna213 says:

      This year and late last winter it was in the news quite a bit. It was pretty easy to notice the hundreds of dead floating ducks in the lakes and river. I was shocked because I never saw that before. This year rehabilatators are coming to the rescue, but many times too late. They ducks are too far gone to help.

  4. aussiebirder says:

    Great post Donna, with exceptional shots! It is so sad when creatures are cut off from their food source in this way.

  5. alesiablogs says:

    I could hardly handle this post. I love the photos and that is about it. I guess I don’t want to know the truth of the situation. It breaks my heart too much. This makes me want to go out and feed my ducks in the park tomorrow!

    • donna213 says:

      The funny thing, it happens everywhere. In your coastal area sea birds are washing ashore from starvation. The world is getting less and less of many things and more and more of others. No balance means suffering for some, eventually for all.

  6. lauramacky says:

    How sad. :(. We have ducks in our little lake outside. Mallards and hooded mergansers. I love seeing them so happy. Nature is brutal sometimes,

    • donna213 says:

      So are local rehabilatators. We are advised to bring them in if we find them. The problem for most ducks is they die out on the ice. That makes an impossible situation for those rescuing.

  7. Nick Hunter says:

    Excellent update. Thanks for the detailed information.

  8. What a tale of woe for these poor ducks. It’s hard to even imagine the Great Lakes being covered with that much ice!

  9. Phil Lanoue says:

    Sad about the ducks for sure but so it goes in nature which can appear cruel at times.
    Around here we had more young brown pelicans die then any other species this winter.

  10. Pat says:

    It’s sad to hear all the reports of the devastating effects of the brutal weather.

  11. bittster says:

    I was wondering how this year compared to last. I guess there’s a reason so many migratory birds travel to places which appear so much further than necessary, a winter like this makes a trip to the gulf more worthwhile and I could imagine this happening over the eons and leading to generations of far-fliers. Still sad to hear about.

    • donna213 says:

      I did not here the comparison numbers. I may ask my birder friends. The photographers did say they saw less ducks over an hour from Niagara, but I saw more in my area. I think the way the climate has been fluctuating from year to year, birds will be making major adjustments.

  12. Emily Scott says:

    To be both cold and hungry must be agony. Have the actions of humans reduced the amount of food available, do you think?

    • donna213 says:

      I believe it would be terrible. The ducks are very insulated, but lack of food would me they are generating less body heat under all that down. I never thought about finding that out.

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