Wild Geese and Ducks Fly North
Nature Bulletin No. 4 March 3, 1945
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Superintendent of Conservation
WILD GEESE AND DUCKS FLY NORTH
Any day now, perhaps before you read this, you might be lucky enough
to hear a faint chorus of honking from far overhead and look up to see a
long, wavering V of big birds flying with slowly-beating wings, high in
the sky. These would be wild geese returning to their summer breeding
grounds in the far north. Saturday morning, February 17th, just at
daybreak, a flock flew west over Blue Island.
Some of the wild ducks, too, are working their way back from their
winter homes in the south. The mallards, black ducks and pintails
(sprigs) come first. The ducks seem to do much of their long-distance
travelling at night and make no sound. So you are not apt to see them
unless you travel out to McGinnis Slough Refuge in the forest preserve
at Orland Park, or to Tuma Slough in the Palos area south of Willow
Springs. Thousands of them stop at McGinnis on their migration south
in the fall, and again in the spring on their return north, to rest and feed,
So do some wild geese and a few whistling swans. They feed on the
seeds and the juicy roots of the plants that grow in the marsh. They also
search the farmers' cornfields for waste grain.
We happen to be on a major migration-route for water fowl: a route that
is part of the great Mississippi Flyway used each spring and fall by
millions of birds. Each year since 1940 the Forest Preserve District has
trapped thousands of ducks at McGinnis Slough, banded each one with
a numbered aluminum leg-band, and released them. A record of each
duck, giving its species, sex, age and band number, is sent to the U. S.
Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C . Under a treaty agreed
to by nearly all the countries in this western hemisphere, all persons are
urged by their governments to notify the Fish and Wildlife Service
when they kill or capture a banded bird, giving the kind of bird, where
it was killed (or captured) and when. From thousands of these records it
is possible to learn many things about our migrating birds: where they
spend the winter, where they spend the summer, what routes they travel,
how long they live, whether they are increasing or decreasing, etc. All
sorts of birds are banded by different people -- even a few humming
birds. The hunting regulations for wild ducks and geese are determined
partly by what is learned from such records.
1940 to 1944, inclusive, the Forest Preserve District has banded
20, 440 wild ducks. Up to January 10, 1945, "returns" have been
received on 1,478 of these that were killed or captured elsewhere, and
324 that were banded in other years, have been recaptured at McGinnis
Slough. A few ducks have been recaptured every year since they were
banded first in 1940. Some have been killed in northern or western
Canada; some as far south as Venezuela and Columbia in South
America; some in California; and many on the Atlantic Coast. About
40% were shot by hunters in Illinois. Many are killed in other states as
they travel southward.
The mallards, black ducks and wood ducks almost all fly down or
parallel to the Illinois River, to the Mississippi, and thence to the big
swamps all along the gulf of Mexico. The majority of the blue-winged
teal, however, turn here and fly southeast to Florida, then to Cuba and
the West Indies, then to South America. Many of the coots (mud hens)
turn here and fly due east to Virginia and then down the Atlantic Coast.
One coot was killed at Tampico, Mexico, 64 days after it was banded at
McGinnis Slough. The pintails seem to follow any one of several routes
after they leave here.
is started during the first week of August each year, when the
wood ducks and the blue-winged teal start to come through, and
continues until the slough freezes solidly in December or January, when
the last mallards and black ducks leave. This winter some 1500 to 2000
of these ducks stayed all winter in Cook County, using a stretch of open
water in a lake about 3 1/2 miles southwest of Barrington. The owner of
that large farm put out corn as feed for the ducks and, since January
3rd, has trapped and banded several hundred.
Many ducks stay on the lake front at Chicago all winter but these are
mostly the golden-eye, the old squaw, and the merganser: diving ducks
that feed on crustaceans, water insects and small fish. Mallards, black
ducks, pintails and blue-winged teal are known as "puddle" ducks or
"dipper" ducks because they seldom dive and feed by sticking their
heads down in shallow water, with their tails in the air.
A few ducks stay in Cook County all summer -- most of them in the
forest preserve -- to nest and rear their young. Of these, the mallard hen
is apt to lay its eggs in a nest located in a meadow, or even in a woods,
a quarter-mile or more from any water. The wood ducks nest in hollow
trees. But all ducks take their broods, after hatching, to the marshes
where they can hide in the cattails and bulrushes, to feed on the seeds
and tiny leaves of water plants, insects, snails, molluses and
In July and August, if you sit very still in sight of any large pond or
marsh in the Palos, you presently will see at least one (sometimes more)
hen duck with her ducklings, swimming about in search of food.
Generally the ducklings swim along behind the hen in a single file, like
the time you read this there should be many wild ducks in the Palos
at McGinnis Slough (U.S. 45, or LaGrange Road and Southwest
Highway) and at Tuma Slough (95th St. and 104th Ave., near Willow
Springs). They will either be swimming about or up-ended, with their
tails pointing toward the sky, eating seeds and roots on the mud bottom
of the marsh.
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Update: June 2012