With Ducks Unlimited Canada’s help, agriculture and waterfowl co-exist on Vancouver Island. British Columbia’s Comox Valley is home to many waterfowl species but is perhaps best known for its winter population of trumpeter swans.
This majestic bird has recovered in this area from fewer than 100 individuals to an average winter population of over 2,000 and this has remained fairly stable for the last five years.
As other natural habitat areas continue to be changed or lost, agricultural lands have become a vital part of wintering habitat for waterfowl. This can become a problem when the birds begin using perennial grass (hay) fields which are expensive to plant, and are important to dairy and beef producers for cattle feed. Waterfowl using these lands can negatively impact farm production and profitability and lead to conflict between agricultural communities and wildlife.
How DUC is helping in Comox Valley
Ducks Unlimited Canada has been working as part of the Comox Valley Waterfowl Management Program for over 20 years to address some of the issues regarding wintering waterfowl habitat and agricultural concerns.
“Most recently, we have been focusing on the technique of planting winter cover crops,” says DUC conservation specialist Jeanine Bond. “Winter cover crops are grain or grass crops that are planted to cover the bare soil for the winter period, usually after an annual cash crop. They can have many benefits including improved soil structure and erosion prevention, but they can also function as additional habitat for wintering waterfowl. Increasing the amount of quality cover crop on the land can attract waterfowl, especially swans, away from areas where they could cause damage to agricultural lands without reducing the habitat available to them.”
Ducks Unlimited Canada continues to look for ways to improve the program and recently completed an evaluation of cover crops, especially Italian ryegrass planted with corn. Additional funding for the evaluation was provided by B.C.’s Agriculture Environment Initiative.
“We found that these crops can attract waterfowl away from perennial forage fields, and when established early enough, Italian ryegrass can continue to provide a significant alternative feeding source through spring,” says Bond.
Cover crops prove to work
The results show that cover crops are an effective lure for waterfowl and that trumpeter swans spend on average nearly half of their time on cover crops over the winter. In addition, increasing the availability of alternative food sources such as cover crops across the landscape showed a reduction in the amount of damage to perennial forage fields, protecting this precious crop. This means winter cover crops can be a win-win technique to lessen damage caused by wintering waterfowl while improving soil and farm productivity – and providing important habitat.
A recent DUC evaluation revealed that trumpeter swans spend on average nearly half of their time on cover crops over the winter.