Continental duck numbers decline, but levels still high
Bismarck, N.D. — If you like ducks, and you like water, then there’s little objectionable in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual report on breeding ducks and habitat conditions.
Sure, the spring population of ducks is down from last year’s record high, but it’s still 45.6 million, which is the second highest on record and 33 percent above the average since 1955.
And total pond counts for the United States and Canada – 6.9 million – was an increase of 24 percent from last year, and 35 percent above the long-term average.
“We started with high numbers of breeding ducks, and we have great water in the right places for renesting and duckling survival,” said Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl president. “Duck production should be excellent.”
According to the report – Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, 1955-2013 – the Canadian portion of the survey area had pond conditions rated as good or excellent. And while the U.S. prairies received average winter precipitation and record-breaking snowfalls in April, they were generally unchanged from last year, and ponds were rated fair to poor.
Overall pond numbers in the United States were 41 percent above last year.
“Most of the increase in pond numbers resulted from 10 days of rain in May during the survey, and post-survey reconnaissance revealed numerous wetlands, with many unoccupied by waterfowl,” according to the report.
The traditional survey area includes the north-central United States, Alaska, and south-central and northern Canada. In addition to habitat conditions, the survey also tracks breeding populations of 10 duck species.
This year, estimated populations of two of those species increased: American wigeon and canvasbacks. The wigeon population, at 2.6 million, was up 23 percent from last year, and is 2 percent above the long-term average.
It marks the second year in a row the wigeon population has increased. And the canvasback population – estimated at 787,000 – was near a record. That population is sufficiently high to allow an open season, but also could be high enough to allow a two-bird daily bag, which hasn’t been offered since 2008.
“The population may be high enough this year to warrant that,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist.
Scaup, on the other hand, experienced a 20-percent decline from last year – from 5.2 million to 4.2 million. As a result, it’s likely regulations will be tightened for the species. Whereas the daily bag last year was four scaup per day, it could be down to two birds per day this year, Cordts said.
But overall, there’s “no chance” of anything but a liberal season framework, he said.
Part of that is due to strong pond numbers. The other is due to mallard populations that are little changed from last year. The estimated population of mallards was 10.37 million, which is down 2 percent from last year, but 36 percent higher than the long-term average.
Estimated populations for other species are as follows:
• Gadwall: 3.35 million, which is down 7 percent from last year, but 80 percent above the long-term average.
• Green-winged teal: 3.1 million, which is 12 percent below last year and 51 percent above the long-term average.
• Pintail: 3.3 million, which is down 4 percent from last year, and down 17 percent from the long-term average.
• Shoveler: 4.75 million, which is 5 percent below last year, but 96 percent higher than the long-term average.
• Redhead: 1.2 million, which is 5 percent below last year, but 76 percent above the long-term average.
• Blue-winged teal: 7.7 million, which is 16 percent below last year, but 60 percent higher than the long-term average.
“Blue-winged teal, while a decline from last year’s staggering populations, are still at extraordinarily high levels,” Delta’s Rohwer said.
And while the numbers are positive for hunters, there’s still a lot of time between now and the beginning of the hunting season.
“Even with abundant moisture on the prairies and good breeding success this year, the weather and habitat conditions the birds encounter on their fall migration can impact local hunting success,” said Dale Humburg, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited. “Many areas along traditional migration routes are experiencing significant drought, and this will likely have an effect on how many birds hunters see this fall. Other areas have seen excessive moisture, which could affect food supplies for migrating birds.
“And, as always, weather patterns can also have a huge impact on local hunting conditions and the timing of the migration,” Humburg said.