Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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

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.

From 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.

Banding 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 crustaceans.

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 soldiers.

By 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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