Wetlands and wildlife
Hanah Hefner, MCCB Naturalist Technician
Wetlands are one of the most diverse ecosystems in the natural world, but not many know just what they are or why they are important. To understand wetlands’ importance we need to know what a wetland is, how diverse a wetland can be, and how a wetland becomes more diverse.
What is a wetland? There is no trick to its name. A wetland can be a pool of water with land around it that is also typically wet or land that is heavily saturated. There are many types of wetlands such as marshes or swamps but small ponds are also included.
There are hardships and diversity in wetlands. The wetland habitat is good for just about every creature: mammals, snakes, spiders, turtles, frogs and toads, insects, and birds. Wetlands are home to many ducks and their hatchlings in the spring. However, raising these ducklings isn’t all fluff and games. The ducklings are delicate and must overcome many obstacles as they grow into adults. Obstacles to survival include weather, predators, people, and even the time of year they hatch can affect whether or not the young survive.
Weather can be unpredictable, be it an early or late spring, a light sprinkle or a downpour, or snow in May and can affect the lives of the animals. While a cold, heavy spring rain doesn’t affect our meals—unless we were planning a grill out, it can kill the insects that the ducklings need to eat, and with their small bodies and undeveloped feathers to help keep out the cold, they can die from hypothermia as well.
Many of the wildlife sharing the wetland find young waterfowl are perfect, bite-sized snacks. Skunks are especially fond of the ducklings, but raccoons, foxes, owls, hawks, and even bullfrogs will eat them. This is largely the reason that parent ducks or geese are so defensive of their nests and young. It doesn’t matter what the predator looks like or how it’s moving, it will be after their young.
Ducklings do their share of eating, too. A duckling grows quickly and eats much! Just like adult ducks, ducklings eat a variety of foods including small plants and insects. Looking at their diet shows us the diversity of life in a wetland, especially the diversity of aquatic insects. The picture below has many of the aquatic insects that ducks (and geese) would eat! You can see dragonfly larvae, damselfly larvae, orb snail, backswimmer, water boatman, predaceous diving beetles, and more.
Humans cause hardships for ducklings, too, mainly from pollution and disturbing the nests or young. The ducklings rely heavily on their parents to model how to take care of themselves. Separating them from their parents prevents them from getting proper care and nutrition. You should not disturb a duck’s nest or move ducklings from where you see them.
What’s the source of the diversity in a wetland? Think about the one thing all life needs to survive? Yes, plants and animals thrive in wetlands because of the water! The nutrient-rich water supports a more diverse plant life than in other ecosystems.
Wetlands are not only essential to animals in their area, but also to people. Wetlands provide filtration of rain, snowmelt, and runoff from the ag fields before the water drains to rivers, lakes, and streams. Wetlands are also great places for learning, photography, bird watching, and hunting and fishing.
Learn more here:
Iowa Wetlands -- Biological Communities (PDF)
Iowa Water Pollution -- Iowa Environmental Issues Series (PDF)
Restoring Iowa's Wetlands -- Managing Iowa Habitats (PDF)