© Chris BosakA male Hooded Merganser swims in a half-frozen Mill Pond in Norwalk.
What would you do if your refrigerator and kitchen cupboards were locked and you didn't have a key? The grocery stores were all boarded up, and it's the dead of winter so your garden has long stopped being productive. Oh, and you can't drive anywhere because of a natural instinct telling you to stay put.

That is what the last six weeks have been like for many birds, especially waterfowl. And it's been a deadly scenario.

I heard the other day that upwards of 70 ducks and geese were found dead at the Norwalk Wastewater Treatment Plant, most likely because of malnutrition. I also received a call from a Westport resident who had five dead Canada geese in her yard one morning. The number swelled to eight as the week went on. Mute Swans have been stranded on frozen water, too,
although some of those birds have been saved.

"It's been the most severe winter we've had in 30 years," said Min Huang, a waterfowl specialist with Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). "We've seen a lot of mortality over the last three weeks up and down the coast, mostly geese and puddle ducks."

Waterfowl, including geese, can find food in the water or on land under normal circumstances. The sources of food on land have been covered since the late January snow storm. A few additional snow storms and a few ice storms for good measure have all but sealed up that food source for more than five weeks. Only in the last day or two has some snow melted to show grass along the edges of yards and fields.

Throw in sustained subfreezing temperatures that froze all the water in sight, including Long Island Sound, and you have a very deadly winter for ducks and geese.

"We don't usually get a sustained freeze that lasts all of February and into March," Huang said.

Huang confirmed that DEEP personnel did visit the wastewater treatment plant in Norwalk this week. He didn't get a number of dead waterfowl, but he did say that most of the dead birds were geese and puddle ducks.

"I haven't received any reports yet, but I'm 95 percent confident that (those deaths) are just malnutrition," Huang said.

Puddle ducks, such as Mallards and American Black Ducks, dabble, or tip up, to feed in the water. That method, obviously, is rendered useless when the water is frozen.

Diving ducks, such as Hooded Mergansers, were able to find small pools of water kept unfrozen by bubblers at boat docks. They were able to dive for small fish and other morsels within those pools.

Huang said the DEEP will not know the real impact on duck and geese populations until they do their surveys in the spring.

Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation at Connecticut Audubon, said the timing of the deep and sustained freeze did not work in the waterfowl's favor.

He said geese and duck eat voraciously in the fall to store up fat reserves for the winter. In winter, they eat what they can find to sustain themselves.

"If this freeze happened in December or January, they'd be fine because of their fat reserves," Bull said. "The later it gets in winter, the harder it is."

Bull confirmed what Huang said about the bird mortality being a problem in the entire state.

"Up and down the coast there are a lot of dead waterfowl," he said.

So why not just fly south to find open water and food? Huang said by December ducks have found their wintering grounds and they aren't likely to move on until the end of winter.

"Once we're into December, they aren't going anywhere," he said. "The ducks feel it's not worth it to use the energy it takes to migrate. This year, frozen water has been a problem from Virginia to Maine."

In other words, ducks and geese gamble that local waters will not remain frozen for long and that offers better odds survival than trying to use what fat stores they have left to fly hundreds of miles south to find open water.

In most winters that gamble pays off. This winter, it was a bad bet for many geese and ducks.