Waterfowl are aquatic, swimming birds. Ducks, geese and swans are waterfowl, but other aquatic, swimming birds, like the American coot (Fulica americana) can be considered as waterfowl species, too.
These birds stay near a water source throughout the year. They use the water for shelter from land-based predators, and they feed in the water, although some of them also search for and eat food a long distance from water. Because there is such variety in these birds, their diets are varied, too. Foods include aquatic plants, aquatic invertebrates, fishes, land-based plants, acorns and waste grain.
A few waterfowl nest and raise their young in Illinois, although the majority of these birds travel much farther north to do so. Breeding occurs in the spring. The nest is placed near water, often along the bank of a lake or stream. The young birds are precocial and leave the nest soon after hatching from the eggs. They can walk, swim and feed as they follow their parents.
Waterfowl have powerful flight muscles and can travel long distances as they migrate. Migration is a regular, annual movement from one area to another. In North America, waterfowl fly from their breeding grounds in the north to more southern locations where open water and food are easier to find in winter. Some waterfowl do stay in areas where the water freezes over for some time, and in those places, these birds often take shelter on the ice at night and when they are not feeding during the day. They fly to fields away from the ice to find food. They will move farther south when their food supply declines and/or weather conditions worsen. Other waterfowl species are permanent residents where they live because food and open water are available all year.
Illinois is a part of the Mississippi Flyway that waterfowl in the central United States and Canada travel each year. There are four flyways in the United States as determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for purposes of management and hunting regulations.
Illinois is a very water-rich state. The Mississippi River, Illinois River, Ohio River, many smaller rivers, wetlands, Lake Michigan, other large lakes, ponds and swamps all provide habitat for waterfowl species. As they migrate, waterfowl species can feed and rest on these bountiful resources in our state. November is a prime month for observing these birds as they travel through Illinois.