Continental duck numbers looking up as seasons near

Springfield – The number of ducks on the continent’s main
breeding grounds increased 13 percent from last year and is 25
percent above the long-term average, according to the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service.

Habitat conditions, too, were improved from last year. That’s
especially true in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region,
where pond numbers increased by 108 percent from last year.

While setting of Illinois’ waterfowl seasons is still weeks
away, the news out of the Pothole Region makes it likely another
60-day duck season is in store for the state’s hunters.

“It’s pretty encouraging more or less across the board,” said
Steve Cordts, a Minnesota-based waterfowl specialist. “It really
points out the conditions in the U.S. portion of the main breeding
areas – just how good things were as far as wetland and duck
numbers.”

The yearly Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey,
conducted in May and early June over more than 2 million square
miles of nesting areas in the United States and Canada, showed the
total duck population at 42 million, compared with last year’s
estimate of 37.3 ducks.

Total pond counts – 6.4 million – were up 45 percent from last
year and are 31 percent above the long-term average.

“The increase in duck numbers in relation to the increase in
habitat conditions is consistent with what we would expect to see
on U.S. and Canadian breeding grounds in the spring,” Don Young,
Ducks Unlimited executive vice president, said in a news release.
“History has repeatedly shown that when water returns to the
breeding grounds, ducks respond with a strong breeding effort.”

Following is a look at how individual duck species fared:

n Canvasbacks increased by 35 percent, from 489,000 last year to
662,000 this year. That’s 16 percent above the long-term
average.

n Northern shovelers increased by 25 percent, from 3.5 million
last year to 4.4 million this year. That’s 92 percent above the
long-term average.

n Pintails increased by 23 percent, from 2.6 million last year
to 3.2 million this year. That’s 20 percent below the long-term
average.

n Green-winged teal increased by 16 percent, from about 3
million last year to an all-time high of 3.4 million this year.
That’s 79 percent above the long-term average.

n Scaup increased by 12 percent, from 3.7 million last year to
4.2 million this year. That’s 18 percent below the long-term
average.

n Gadwall increased by 12 percent, from 2.7 million last year to
3.1 million this year. That’s 73 percent above the long-term
average.

n Blue-winged teal increased by 11 percent, from 6.6 million
last year to 7.4 million this year, which is the second-highest
count on record and 60 percent above the long-term average.

n Mallards increased by 10 percent, from 7.7 million last year
to 8.5 million this year. That’s 13 percent above the long-term
average.

n American wigeon declined by 1 percent, from 2.49 million last
year to 2.47 million this year. That’s 5 percent below the
long-term average.

n Redheads declined by 1 percent, from 1.06 million last year
1.04 million this year. That’s about 62 percent above the long-term
average.

Wet in the U.S.

Pond numbers in prairie Canada increased by 17 percent from last
year and are 5 percent above the long-term average. The pond counts
in the United States were above the long-term average by 87
percent.

As a result, this year marks the first time ever that more ducks
settled on the U.S. side of the Prairie Pothole Region than the
Canadian side, according to Delta Waterfowl.

Case in point: Pintails. This year, 1.4 million nested in the
Dakotas and Montana, while 664,000 did so in prairie Canada. The
United States also attracted more blue-winged teal than did Canada,
and a higher percentage of mallards than any year since the survey
began in 1955, according to Delta.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that we would have twice
as many pintails nesting on the U.S. side of the breeding grounds
as the Canadian prairie, I would have laughed in your face,” said
Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta’s scientific director.

And things in the Dakotas still look good.

“Ducks track ponds, and the Dakotas and eastern Montana are
wet,” said John Devney, Delta’s senior vice president. “Not only
that, but thanks to heavy rains in June, our grass cover is in
excellent shape and we’ve maintained good wetlands, which bodes
well for re-nesting and brood survival.”

Hunting seasons

Mallard numbers and pond counts in prairie Canada are the two
drivers of the season duck hunters end up with, and given that both
increased, ”if you think in those terms, it would be somewhat tough
to explain something less than a liberal season,” Cordts said.

Still, a final decision won’t be made until the Flyway Council
and DNR study the numbers.

“If the population goes up and you have to restrict as a result,
that doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense,” Cordts said. “I
would be shocked if that happened.”

According to DU, it’s the first time since 2000 that scaup
numbers have exceeded 4 million.

As for canvasbacks, Cordts expects a full season with a one-bird
bag limit in most states.

“I don’t think the counts were high enough, or it was wet enough
in southern Canada, for a two-bird limit,” he said.

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