Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Missouri
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Weller, F.W., W.S. Beatty, E.B. Webb, D.C. Kesler, D.G. Krementz, K. Asante, L.W. Naylor. Environmental drivers of autumn migration departure decisions in midcontinental mallards. Movement Ecology


The timing of autumn migration in ducks is influenced by a range of environmental conditions that may elicit individual experiences and responses from individual birds, yet most studies have investigated relationships at the population level. We used data from individual satellite-tracked mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) to model the timing and environmental drivers of autumn migration movements at the landscape scale.
We combined two sets of location records (2004-2007, and 2010-2011) from satellite-tracked mallards migrating to winter in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and identified records that indicated the start of long-range (≥ 30 km) southward movements during the migration period. We developed candidate models to predict the departure date, conditional on daily mean environmental covariates (temperature, snow and ice cover, wind conditions, precipitation, cloud cover, and pressure), at a 32×32 km resolution. We modeled selection of departure date by individual mallards using a discrete choice model accounting for heterogeneity in individual preferences. We ranked model performance with the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC).
Departure was best predicted (60% precision) by a “winter conditions” model containing temperature and snow cover depth and duration. Models conditional on wind speed, precipitation, pressure variation, and cloud cover received lower support. Number of days of snow cover, recently experienced (snow days), and current snow cover had the strongest positive effect on departure likelihood, followed by experienced days of freezing temperature (frost days) and current low temperature. Distributions of dominant drivers and of correct vs incorrect prediction along the movement tracks indicate that these responses applied throughout the latitudinal range of migration. Among recorded departures, most were driven by snow days (65%) followed by current temperature (30%).
Our results indicate that the dominant environmental driver of departure decision in autumn-migrating mallards was the onset of snow conditions, and secondarily the onset of temperatures close to, or below, the freezing point. Mallards are likely to relocate southwards quickly when faced with foraging that is impeded by snow, and could use declining temperatures as a more graduated early cue for departure. Our findings provide further insights into the functional response of mallards to weather and climate factors during the migration period that ultimately determine distribution.