Duck numbers at all-time high
Bismarck, N.D. — North America’s total spring duck population is the highest ever recorded, according to the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey released in early July.
Conducted each May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service, the survey puts the duck population at 48.6 million birds. That represents a 7 percent increase from 2011’s record number of 45.6 million.
“This is the highest duck count since we started the survey in 1955,” says Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl’s scientific director. “We had excellent wetland conditions in 2011, the second-highest pond count ever. So last year, we made a pile of ducks. This year, we’re counting them.”
Mallards, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, gadwalls, canvasbacks, northern shovelers and scaup are all up significantly from last year, with both species of teal and shovelers at all-time highs. Blue-winged teal are estimated at 9.2 million, green-winged teal number more than 3.4 million and shovelers now top 5 million.
Mallard breeding numbers sit at 10.6 million, a 15 percent increase over 2011 and 40 percent over the long-term average.
Gadwall increased 10 percent over last year, and now total 3.5 million. The population is nearly double the long-term average for gadwalls.
American wigeon are up slightly to 2.1 million, but are still 17 percent below their long-term average.
Scaup numbers are up 21 percent to 5.2 million, the seventh-straight year that the bluebill count has gone up. Scaup are at their highest breeding population since 1991.
Redheads declined slightly to just under 1.3 million, but still registered the second-highest population estimate in the history of the survey. Canvasbacks jumped 10 percent to 760,000, the fourth-highest count on record.
“All in all, this is a great duck count,” says Rohwer.
Pond Counts Down
While the total breeding population is strong, the news is different for breeding habitat. The survey is calling 2012 an “average to below-average” year for moisture. The total pond count for prairie Canada and the United States combined has dropped 32 percent, from an estimated 8.1 million ponds last year to 5.5 million this year.
“The ponds that are dry are the important ones for ducks — the temporary and seasonal wetlands,” Rohwer says. “We kept the large ponds, but lost the small ponds.”
Drier conditions may account for the one species that shows a significant drop in the survey area. Northern pintails are down more than one million birds, from 4.4 million birds last year to 3.4 million. One possible explanation is that pintails didn’t like the look of the drier conditions and just kept flying north.
“Pintails numbers increased in northerly habitats such as Alaska,” says John Devney, Delta’s senior policy director of U.S. policy. “This suggests sprig over-flew the prairies this spring. Research has well documented that in average or dry conditions, many pintails head north to the boreal forest. The survey’s ability to detect them is reduced.”
Significantly, the biggest decline in wetland conditions has occurred on the U.S. prairies. The pond estimate for the Dakotas and Montana is 1.7 million, which is 49 percent below the estimates from last year. Only the Coteau Region of North and South Dakota is rated good for 2012. No areas are rated excellent.
“The Dakotas have carried a disproportionate load of continental duck production over the last few years,” says Devney. “If we get dry here and lose the wetlands and upland nesting cover, the U.S. prairies just won’t be able to produce at the amazing levels we have seen since the mid-1990s, and that will have a real impact on hunters almost everywhere.”
Conditions across the Canadian prairies have also declined this year. Temporary wetlands, crucial to successful breeding, retained little moisture because of a shallow frost seal and below-average participation. Last year, most of Saskatchewan and Manitoba was inundated with water. May pond estimates for 2012 in prairie Canada have dropped 21 percent, from 4.9 million to 3.9 million.
The overall pond count is still 9 percent above average, but as the prairies dry out, you can expect a direct impact on hunting, says Joel Brice, Delta’s senior director of conservation.
“Let’s not forget that we hunt the fall flight, not the spring count,” says Brice. “Lots of ducks jammed into fewer wetlands negatively impacts breeding success. There’s a good chance we won’t see as many juveniles as last year, and those are the birds that are easiest to decoy. Still, it promises to be great year. We may just have to work a bit harder.”
For more information: Contact Delta Senior Director of U.S. Policy John Devney at 888-987-3695.
Delta Waterfowl Foundation is a leading North American conservation organization, tracing its origins to the birth of the wildlife conservation movement in 1911. The foundation supports research, provides leadership and offers science-based solutions to efficiently conserve waterfowl and secure the future of waterfowl hunting. Delta Waterfowl is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Bismarck, N.D.
“Early indications were that the mild and dry conditions experienced across North America this past fall and winter would negatively impact spring pond conditions and allow increases in grassland conversion rates, ultimately impacting nesting efforts this season,” said Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist Dale Humburg. “Strong returning duck populations and late spring precipitation have brightened prospects for 2012 duck production. If nesting and brood-rearing conditions are favorable over the next few months, we could see another strong fall flight.”