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A series of pink, conical gorwing vertically from green foliage
Information icon Pennsylvania smartweed is a plant that is beneficial to waterfowl and can be found in moist-soil wetlands. Photo by Heath Hagy.

Primary habitat resources for waterfowl on Refuges in the Southeast

Moist-soil wetlands

Managed moist-soil wetlands consist of natural vegetation dominated by plants that produce an abundance of seeds, such as grasses and sedges. These plants also provide essential nutrients for waterfowl that may not be found in other wetland types. Examples of desirable plants include wild millets, panic grasses, smartweeds, and flatsedges. Also, flooded moist-soil wetlands are home to an array of aquatic macroinvertebrates, an animal without a backbone that lives in water and can be seen without a microscope. Freshwater shrimp, snails, fly larvae, and dragonfly nymphs are just a few protein-rich invertebrates that are commonly consumed by waterfowl.

Permanent marsh wetlands

Permanent and semi-permanent marshes provide water year-round to encourage growth of emergent (e.g., cattails, rushes) and submersed aquatic vegetation (e.g., coontail, shoalgrass) that provide food and cover for many species of waterfowl and other migratory birds. Some waterfowl and other waterbirds build nests in the emergent vegetation, such as coots and canvasback. Species like Canada geese and swans use the lodges of muskrats and beavers as nesting platforms. Managing semi-permanent marshes provides brood habitat for wood ducks and other wetland wildlife during summer when many wetlands are dry. Many species of submersed aquatic vegetation are excellent waterfowl food, but they also indicate water quality and wetland condition (e.g., wild celery, redhead grass, sago pondweed, southern naiad). Many small lakes, ponds, estuaries, and coastal marshes are managed on national wildlife refuges to provide these conditions for waterfowl.

Forested wetlands

Forested wetlands occur along rivers and streams throughout the Southeast. Many hardwood species such as oaks and gums produce mast that is readily consumed by waterfowl. These bottomland forests that occur in floodplains are periodically flooded in winter and early spring while the trees are dormant. Common tree species in the Southeast include oak, elm, ash, gum and cypress. Some waterfowl species, such as mallards and wood ducks, will use flooded forested wetland extensively for food as well as protection from predators and inclement weather.

A dozen or more mallard ducks in a flooded forest enjoying the rain
Mallards resting in a flooded forest at Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Cache River NWR, USFWS.


A black bird perched on a stalk of corn in a flooded agricultural field
Agriculture on national wildlife refuges can provide food for waterfowl and other species, as seen here with this American coot. Photo by Clayton Ferrell, USFWS.

Agriculture is a tool used by national wildlife refuges to meet their wintering waterfowl habitat objectives, control invasive species, and manage for early-succession vegetation (grasses and flowering plants that produce a lot of seeds). Agricultural grains provide the greatest energy density of any waterfowl food. In fact, unharvested corn provides 60 times more energy for waterfowl than harvested crop fields. Farming on refuges is often accomplished through a cooperative partnership with farmers from the local community. This partnership can benefit local economies and allow some portion of public lands to remain in production. In lieu of rent, farmers often leave 25% of the crop unharvested to provide food for waterfowl.

For more information about farming for waterfowl on national wildlife refuges, please see our fact sheet.


Heath Hagy, Waterfowl Ecologist, Southeast Region

Stacey Hayden, Chair, Waterfowl Working Group Communications Team

Troy Littrell, Chair, Waterfowl Working Group Steering Committee

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