Stands of wild rice, higher than most people’s heads, closed their annual display of flowering stalks in September and collapsed into the marshes that birthed them.
But the impact of this plant on the Chesapeake ecosystem continues. In the mud and shallow waters where the plants once stood, millions of rice seeds lie waiting. Flocks of migrating waterfowl arrive to feed on them in October and continue their feast through the winter.
“When I see wild rice, I see a smorgasbord for birds, a wealth of energy,” said Greg Kearns, a naturalist at Patuxent River Park in Price Georges County, MD. “I like to call it nature’s gas station. It’s a refueling stop for more than a dozen species of waterfowl and birds.”
Kearns has watched this phenomenon closely for more than 15 years. Patuxent River Park, managed by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, includes the Jug Bay Natural Area with its impressive stand of wild rice.
Wild rice is a native, annual grass that can be found in the freshwater reaches of Chesapeake tributaries. Once it was plentiful, but pollution, year-round Canada geese and the destruction of natural shorelines have taken a toll. Wild rice still grows in small to large quantities on rivers like the Patuxent, Potomac, Choptank, Anacostia, South and York, but some stands are the direct result of conservation efforts. Jug Bay, which lost 90 percent of its rice in the 1990s to a growing populaton of non-migratory Canada geese, is one of them.
Wild rice sprouts from seed in shallow water and typically grows 8–10 feet tall. It begins life as an underwater plant with ribbon-like leaves. Young plants at Jug Bay usually become visible during the first week of April. “For the next two months, it grows very slowly, to roughly 2 feet. Then from June to August, over about five to six weeks, it grows four to five times higher, often an inch or more each day,” Kearns said.
Wild rice absorbs high levels of nutrients in the water and soil, which makes its seeds especially nutritious and helps reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. “It actually performs a great service for water quality,” Kearns said.
Delicate flowers at the crown of the plant peak in August and produce seeds. Red-winged blackbirds eat the seeds while they are still attached to the plant. Tiny sora rails feed on the grain as it falls to the ground, building up strength for their long migration south. Wild rice is so nutritious, Kearns said, that “the fat they put on here is enough for the rest of the journey, with a few smaller boosts along the way.”
Despite these early feeders, about 90 percent of the seeds drop from the plant and into the mud, waiting for the ducks and geese that migrate to the Chesapeake each fall. They feed on it throughout the winter.
“Not many plants in nature can provide the amount of food per unit acre that wild rice can,” Kearns said. His estimates indicate that an average acre of wild rice can produce 1 to 2 tons of seed — at least 40 million individual seeds.
At Jug Bay, about a dozen species depend on it. When the rice failed in the 1990s, the sora rail declined too. After 15 years of restoration efforts, Kearn is thrilled by the fall feeding ritual. “The birds have come back,” he said. “The number of species is fantastic. You can come out and see it.”
The Jug Bay Natural Area is located in Prince Georges County at 16000 Croom Airport Road in Upper Marlboro, MD (across the river from the Wetlands Sanctuary, noted below). The grounds are open from 8 a.m. to dusk and the visitors center from 8 a.m.– 4 p.m. The park offers trails, waterfront views, canoe and kayak rentals, and guided trips. For information, call 301-627-6074 or visit outdoors.pgparks.com and look under “Sites.” Other suggestions for viewing wild rice or the winter feeding activity it spawns include:
- Otter Creek Point Natural Area (Harford County, MD)
- Parris N. Glendening Nature Preserve (part of the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County, MD)
- Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve (Stafford County, VA)
- York River State Park (near Williamsburg in James City County, VA)
- Chippokes Plantation State Park (Surry County, VA)
- Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge (spanning parts of four counties near Warsaw, VA)