Ducks are plentiful, but elusive to hunters

Havana, Ill. — Waterfowl have flocked to Illinois in record numbers this winter, even if that hasn’t necessarily translated to success for duck and goose hunters.

“The ducks are hanging out in the rest areas,” said Eric Schenck, the Ducks Unlimited regional biologist who covers Illinois.

With colder weather to the north, the Illinois and Mississippi river valleys were accumulating birds through at least the middle of December, though ducks are pretty smart at figuring out where they are safe from hunters.

“They’re [hunters] not getting a lot of chances to shoot ducks,” Schenck said. “The weather has been so mild here that the birds are not moving around as much. They’re finding most of the feed they need on the rest areas they are sitting. The longer they are here, the more successful they are at avoiding the areas where people are hunting.”

Schenck said birds are spending 80 to 90 percent of their time on rest areas (either wildlife refuges or private land where no hunting is taking place).

The Illinois Natural History Survey has been doing aerial flyovers of both valleys on an almost weekly basis since early September. The data paints an interesting picture, with birds starting to show up in larger and larger numbers around the middle of October in both flyways.

The Dec. 12 survey, which was the most recent, estimated there were 617,565 total ducks counted in the Illinois River valley, which was five times the 10-year average (112,026) for that time period.

“I think the Illinois River count was the highest since 1994 and second highest since 1985,” said Aaron Yetter, a research scientist with INHS. “Those are pretty good numbers going back 27 years.”

Yetter said there was an abundance of food along the Illinois River this year because of the drought, which dried up some areas, allowing vegetation to grow.

“What farmers would call weeds provided a lot of food for these birds,” Yetter said.

A closer look at the numbers reveal that there were 488,570 mallards counted on the Illinois in the latest survey, nearly five times the 10-year average (100,864).

Schenck said this year’s continental breeding population of mallards was as high as it’s been since the breeding surveys began in the 1950s.

“That partially explains why the numbers are so high in Illinois right now, but also the areas where they are coming from, in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, those areas have been freezing up, and pushing birds south.”

Green-winged teal, gadwall and shoveler ducks have also made up a good percentage of the birds in Illinois.

“Continentally, for the last 10 years, we’ve had really good numbers,” Yetter said. “This year we had record numbers of some species. Green-winged teal, mallards, shovelers, gadwalls. They’re all really doing well.”

But other species have been counted at numbers way above the 10-year average, including ring-necked, northern pintail, canvasback and ruddy ducks.

“Normally, we’re losing all of these other birds by now,” Yetter said. “But normally, we’re completely frozen by now. They’re holding on instead of migrating south.”

Things can change quick, the data showed. The green-winged teal count dropped from 52,275 on Dec. 6 to 19,265 on Dec. 12, while the gadwall count dropped from 48,225 to 14,475 in that same time period on the Illinois River.

Overall, the tale is similar on the Mississippi River, where 531,040 ducks were counted on Dec. 12, nearly three times the 10-year average (177,404).

Illinois’ counts seem to coincide with high breeding numbers on the continent.

Yetter suggested that the Dec. 12 count may be the peak, but that many of the birds will hold on, as long as the winter stays mild.

Schenck said with the season at about 100 days this year, there could be a prolonged opportunity for hunters.

“We just need a little bit of weather to move them around a bit, stir them up,” he said. “There’s still potentially a lot of duck hunting opportunity left in the state.”

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