Each year beginning in late July through mid-August, state wildlife officials hire crop dusters to fly around Oklahoma lakes and drop seed from their planes that they hope will become an appetizing buffet for migrating ducks.
The meal that state wildlife officials are planting for ducks is Japanese millet, a common annual grass that is very similar to barnyard grass.
“It is ice cream food to ducks, particularly dabbling ducks,” said Alan Stacey, wetland habitat biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “They love it.”
This year, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation seeded a total of 4,300 acres on five Oklahoma lakes: Kaw (2,000 acres), Eufaula (1,000), Texoma (900), Oologah (300) and Keystone (100).
The seeding occurs in late summer when the lakes are low, uncovering the large, expansive mud flats on the upper regions of the reservoirs at the confluence of the rivers. The timing of the planting is critical. Ideally, the seed is dropped in the wet mud just as the water comes off it.
“They (crop dusting planes) will hit the shorelines down below the upper end of the lakes occasionally, but as a general rule, we are on the upper regions,” Stacey said. That's where the water is very shallow. That's where these mud flats get exposed. I am talking hundreds and hundreds of acres.”
The crop dusters drop the seed in the mud. Then as the water levels hopefully rise in the coming weeks, the seed will turn into duck food, just in time for the thousands of migrating ducks and other birds that fly through Oklahoma on their way south for the winter.
“Most of our migrant ducks, not the wintering ducks, but the migrants are going to get triggered by one of the cold northerners right around Halloween,” Stacey said. “That's typical in Oklahoma.”
If there is plenty of food available that means the ducks will stay in Oklahoma longer, which is obviously good for the duck hunters. Oklahoma is a refueling stop for the birds on their long flight.
“We're not just about the hunting,” Stacey said. “We are about keeping these birds in good condition and providing the energy and food base for them that is so critical during the migration period.
“These birds come down and they are hungry. We are just a steppingstone in the migratory journey. That's what we are in the business of doing, accommodating migratory birds. That's my job anyway.”
The Wildlife Department planted 64,500 pounds of millet seed this summer. The cost of the program is $65,000 and paid for largely by duck hunters when they buy their federal duck stamps.
The Japanese millet is intended to supplement the natural food that is already out there for ducks. In years where there is little natural food available for the ducks, the millet can be a lifesaver.
As any farmer can relate, state wildlife officials are rolling the dice each year. Some years it will be a bumper crop. Some years it will be a bust.
For the ducks to use the millet, the lake must come back up in the fall and winter.
“The millet, provided we get some timely showers on it, will provide some good supplemental food to the natural forage base,” Stacey said. “But we are dependent on Mother Nature. It's always a gamble.”
“It's a big-ticket item, but boy when things work out, it really pays off big time. It makes a huge difference in some years when there is very little natural food.”