Wild Rice

habitat photo
Photo 1 | Photo 2 | Photo 3 | Photo 4 | Photo 5
Wild rice bed at McMillan Marsh State Wildlife Area, Marathon County. Photo by Jonathan Zellmer.

Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk

Cowardin: Palustrine or lacustrine; littoral; aquatic bed, rooted vascular and floating; emergent wetland, persistent and nonpersistent (Cowardin et al. 1979).
Shaw and Fredine: Type 3: Inland shallow fresh marsh; Type 4: Inland deep fresh marsh (Shaw and Fredine 1971).
Vegetation of Wisconsin: Emergent aquatic community (Curtis 1971).
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Natural Communities: Emergent Marsh (WDNR 2005).
Wisconsin Wetland Inventory: Emergent/wet meadow, persistent and nonpersistent; aquatic bed, submergent and floating (WDNR 1992).


Despite wild rice being an emergent macrophyte, Wild Rice is considered a separate priority habitat from Emergent Marsh in this plan because of its high wildlife value and scarcity in the state. Wild rice is an annual grass that grows 0.5-3 m high and often forms dense, continuous stands. Seeds typically germinate in Wisconsin between April and early May and the ribbon-like submerged leaves push to the surface less than a month later, beginning the floating leaf stage. Blossom stalks emerge during the first two weeks of July and seeds typically ripen in late August or the first half of September, depending on weather conditions. Seeds then fall to the bottom sediment and remain dormant until the spring or whenever conditions are suitable for germination (Rogosin 1954, Dore 1969, Fannucchi et al. 1986). Wild rice seeds may remain viable in sediment for five years or more (Thompson and Luthin 2004).

In Wisconsin, wild rice grows best in shallow, slow-moving waters of rivers, streams, and lakes at depths of 15-100 cm (Kahl 1993, Fannucchi et al. 1986). Shallower waters (<30 cm) tend to support denser stands compared to deeper water where plants tend to be single-stemmed and more widely spaced. Soft-textured bottom sediments such as organic muck typically sustain denser stands, although the oxygen content of a substrate may be more important than its textural properties (Dore 1969). Wild rice prefers areas with minimal within-year water fluctuations as its shallow roots are susceptible to uprooting, especially during the floating-leaf stage (Rogosin 1954, Kahl 1993, Fannucchi et al. 1986). As an annual plant, however, wild rice also competes best where some degree of natural year-to-year variation in water levels occurs, as very stable water levels over multiple years tends to favor perennial vegetation. Emergent plants associated with these habitat conditions include cat-tails, bulrushes, bur-reeds, arrowheads as well as non-native purple loosestrife and common reed. Common floating and submergent plants occurring with wild rice include water-milfoils, American white water-lily, yellow water-lily, water-shield, floating pondweed, and wild-celery (Rogosin 1954, Andryk 1986, Fannucchi et al. 1986). 

Historical and Present-day Context and Distribution

Wild rice was widespread throughout much of Wisconsin prior to European settlement. Dense, almost impenetrable stands were described by early explorers and for centuries it has been an important food source for Native American tribes. Today, wild rice stands are concentrated primarily in northern Wisconsin and are now regarded as a scarce resource (Rogosin 1954, Andryk 1986, Fannucci et al. 1986). Twenty years ago, Andryk (1986) estimated the total wild rice coverage for the northern third of Wisconsin at 2,000 ha, but no subsequent statewide inventories and status determinations have been conducted. Wild rice stands are impacted by many of the same factors affecting other wetland communities, such as wetland drainage, alteration of water courses, pollution, shoreline development, dredging, and invasive plant species (Thompson and Luthin 2004). Because of its cultural and ecological importance, coordinated efforts are underway to protect existing wild rice stands, restore historic rice beds, and introduce wild rice in appropriate habitats (Bennett et al. 2000). The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) and other natural resource agencies have instituted a seeding program with appreciable success. Surveys of Wisconsin wild rice harvest (excluding Native American reservations) between 2002 and 2006 indicate that nearly 25% of the harvest is now coming from restored or introduced sites (P. David, GLIFWC, pers. comm.).

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Wild rice stands are subject to many of the same disturbances impacting other wetland communities (see Emergent Marsh, Inland Open Water). Water depth is perhaps the most important limiting factor, particularly during the floating-leaf stage when plants are easily uprooted (Norrgard et al. 2000). Flood events or other disturbances that cause a rapid change in water level or an increase greater than 15 cm can be detrimental. In the short-term, these disturbances may set back woody encroachment or other perennial competition and provide open habitat suitable for wild rice re-colonization (Meeker 2000). But if raised water levels are sustained for long periods, wild rice stands may be eliminated from an area. Many of the reservoirs and dams along the Mississippi River and other Wisconsin waterways have altered water depths, water chemistries, and flow regimes and thus many native wild rice areas were destroyed (Fannucci et al. 1986, Kahl 1993). Additionally, raised water levels often allow easier boat access to otherwise protected stands. In northern Wisconsin, wild rice plants exposed to boat traffic were less dense, shorter, often had bent or broken stems, and nearly always had a high proportion of their total mass devoted to anchoring root tissue (Tynan 2000). Furthermore, boat hulls, fishing nets, and motors can introduce aggressive, perennial species by readily transporting aquatic plants and plant fragments from other waters. Common reed, Eurasian water-milfoil, and curly pondweed are capable of outcompeting and displacing wild rice, particularly in sparser or otherwise compromised stands (Andryk 1986, Tynan 2000).

Several animal disturbances can alter the ecological conditions and overall suitability of habitats supporting wild rice. For example, beaver dams can alter spring water levels in wild rice habitat and potentially uproot plants. Carp activities also can uproot plants and increase turbidity, which reduces the amount of light penetrating the bottom (Dore 1969, Kahl 1991). Muskrats can seriously impact sparse wild rice stands by impairing their reseeding ability but are less of a concern for dense, established stands (Fannucci 1983, Andryk 1986) and may actually enhance stands from a waterfowl perspective by creating openings used by ducks. Canada Geese and Mute Swans can also negatively impact beds by heavily grazing on plant tissues throughout the growing season (Haramis and Kearns 2006, P. David, pers. obs.). Effects of climate change as well as the genetic contamination of wild stock with domestic varieties also are of increasing concern (P. David, pers. comm.).       

Related WBCI Habitats: Inland Open Water, Emergent Marsh.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

Wild rice is at the core of its range in northern Wisconsin and provides valuable cover, food, and loafing sites for numerous bird species. It ranks as one of the most important waterfowl foods in North America largely because the maturation of its seeds coincides with fall migration. Depending on the water depth in which the wild rice stand grows, it may provide stopover habitat for Wood Duck, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and other migrant waterfowl. It also is an important food source for waterbirds such as American Bittern, Green Heron, and Wilson’s Snipe, and passerines such as Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird. Large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds capitalize on its high seed productivity in the fall. Wild rice seeds also are preferred by Soras and may constitute up to 94% of their grain diet in the fall (Rogosin 1954, Dore 1969, Fannucchi 1983).

Although mature seeds are most frequently eaten, other parts of the plant also provide sustenance. Wood Ducks often pull flowers from rice plants and geese and swans consume young shoots, germinating seeds, and mature stems and leaves, sometimes to the detriment of the stand (Rogosin 1954, Dore 1969, Fannucchi 1983). During the 1990s in Maryland, an overabundance of resident Canada Geese virtually eliminated wild rice stands along the Patuxent River (Haramis and Kearns 2006). 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 (P. David, pers. comm.).

Priority Birds

Species Status Habitat and/or Special Habitat Features
Canada Goose
(Mississippi Valley Population)
Trumpeter Swan F, B, M Forages extensively and will nest on muskrat lodges within wild rice stands.
Tundra Swan m  
American Black Duck m  
Mallard B, M  
Northern Pintail m  
Blue-winged Teal B, M  
Canvasback m  
Redhead m  
Lesser Scaup m  
Hooded Merganser b, m  
American Bittern f Forages in drier wild rice stands during migration and post-fledging periods.
Northern Harrier F, M  
Black Tern B  
Common Yellowthroat B  
Swamp Sparrow M Forages in drier wild rice stands during migration and post-fledging periods.


Stay tuned…….will incorporate habitat acreage objectives from Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture Implementation Plan

Management Recommendations

Landscape-level Recommendations

  1. Intersperse wild rice stands with other wetland types to ensure three-season cover and forage for waterfowl, herons, rails, and other wetland birds.
  2. Continue current system of tribal and state rice bed restoration and harvest regulation to ensure adequate stopover sites for Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Sora, and other disturbance-sensitive species (Fannucchi 1985, WDNR 2005).
  3. Maintain wetland function and biodiversity by minimizing impervious surfaces, limiting development, and reducing soil loss and nutrient delivery within watersheds.
  4. Encourage wetland management, protection, and restoration efforts on public and private lands through existing federal, state, and tribal programs and by educating private landowners on wetland stewardship.
  5. Prevent the introduction of additional exotic species and slow the spread of existing aquatic invasive species through improved regulations, education, and management.
  6. Promote greater stewardship and appreciation for wild rice through public education programs and by advocating sustainable human harvest.

Site-level Recommendations

  1. Restore wild rice stands with seed taken from areas as close to the seeding site as possible. Continue to seed every fall for 3-5 years post-restoration to establish self-sustaining stands (Fannucchi 1985, Fannucchi et al. 1986).
  2. Prioritize sites without competing vegetation and large herbivore populations for wild rice restoration projects (Thompson and Luthin 2004).
  3. Stabilize May-June water levels to minimize loss during the floating-leaf stage. Beaver control and/or water control structures may be necessary tools for water level management (Andryk 1986).
  4. Consider adopting no-wake zones in rice beds with heavy motor boat traffic to prevent uprooting of young plants and minimize disturbance to wildlife.
  5. Conduct periodic winter drawdowns to control herbivores and aggressive perennial plants that impact wild rice stands. Drawdowns should leave at least 3 cm of water on the marsh to protect rice seeds (Fannucchi 1985, Andryk 1986).

Ecological Opportunities

Ecological Landscape Opportunity Management Recommendations
Northern Highland Major All
Northwest Sands Major All
Superior Coastal Plain Major All
North Central Forest Important All
Southeast Glacial Plains Important All
Western Coulee and Ridges Important All
Central Lake Michigan Coastal Present All
Central Sand Hills Present All
Central Sand Plains Present All
Forest Transition Present All
Northeast Sands Present All
Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Present All
Western Prairie Present All

Research Needs

  1. Implement a marshbird monitoring program to adequately measure abundance, distribution, population status, and habitat use of key species within wild rice habitat.
  2. Monitor the grazing effects of resident Canada Geese and swans on wild rice stands and determine effective control measures.
  3. Update the state inventory of wild rice beds and monitor annually to allow better protection of existing beds and to help determine long-term trends in abundance.
  4. Establish performance measures based on avian diversity and abundance for wild rice restorations within different habitat types.
  5. Evaluate the possible impacts of climate change on rice abundance and associated wildlife.
  6. Study seed dispersal, gene flow and genetic variability in natural stands and determine how these factors may affect stand health and wildlife value.
  7. Clarify geographic ranges, ecological differences, and additional management implications for southern wild rice (Zizania aquatica) and northern wild rice (Z. palustris).  


Key Sites

Key Partners

Funding Sources

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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