Ecological Importance of Wild Rice
Wild rice is tremendously important to the biodiversity of the lakes and rivers it is associated with. The dense stalks provide roosting and loafing areas and brood cover for a variety of waterfowl species, and nesting habitat for other bird species. The long, nutritious grains are a large part of the diet of many migratory birds. Mammals such as the muskrat utilize the tender stalks of wild rice for both food and in the creation of their lodges. The rice beds provide habitat for many other species from invertebrates to large mammals such as the moose. Indeed wild rice benefits a large number of species due to the structure, cover, or food sources it contributes to the wetland.
More than 30 species of waterfowl use the Great Lakes and adjacent coastal wetlands during at least one season of their lifecycle with the greatest species diversity occurring during the spring and fall migration periods. An estimated three million swans, geese, and ducks travel along migration corridors that cross the Great Lakes region (Great Lakes Basin Commission 1975, Bellrose 1980). Wild Rice beds provide valuable cover, food, and loafing sites for numerous bird species of conservation concern and is one of the most important waterfowl foods in North America largely because the maturation of its seeds coincides with fall migration. They provide stopover habitat for Wood Duck, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and other migrant waterfowl. American Bittern, Green Heron, and Wilson’s Snipe, and passerines such as Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird also utilize this important food source fall (Rogosin 1954, Dore 1969, Fannucchi 1983). So important is Wild Rice to Sora Rails that it may constitute up to 94% of their grain diet in the fall (Rogosin 1954, Dore 1969, Fannucchi 1983). Other parts of the Wild Rice plant also provide sustenance. Wood Ducks often pull their flowers and geese and swans consume young shoots, germinating seeds, and mature stems and leaves, sometimes to the detriment of the stands. Rice beds also provide nursery areas for small fish, frogs, and other aquatic prey items for Common Loon, Great Blue Heron, and other piscivorous bird species.
Water quality also benefits from wild rice through its ability to bind loose soils, tie up nutrients, and act as a buffer by slowing winds across shallow wetlands. By stabilizing water quality, algal blooms are reduced and water clarity is increased.