Breeding ducks soar to record high, again

Bismarck, N.D. — For the second year in a row, the number of breeding ducks in the United States and Canada was a record high, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The USFWS last Thursday released its annual breeding ducks report, which showed duck numbers – about 49.5 million – had risen by about 1 percent from last year’s previous record of about 49.2 million. The survey, conducted by the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service, has been completed each year since 1955. This year’s counts are 43 percent above the long-term average.

Total pond counts were down in the U.S. and Canada – from about 7.2 million last year to about 6.3 million this year.

“This year’s population estimates are not due to great conditions this year, but high because of several consecutive years of great production,” Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl president, said. “All the stars aligned in 2014: There was water in all the right places and at all the right times. Despite the declining pond conditions, the data indicate great population carryover from the last few highly successful breeding seasons.”

The estimated number of breeding mallards – about 11.6 million – was the highest ever. Their numbers were 7 percent above last year and 51 percent above the long-term average. 

The estimated number of green-winged teal, too, was the highest ever, at about 4.1 million birds. That’s 19 percent higher than last year and 98 percent above the long-term average.

But there weren’t across-the-board increases. Wigeon were down 3 percent; pintails down 6 percent; shovelers down 17 percent; redheads down 6 percent; and scaup down 5 percent.

While some hunters pay close attention to year-to-year increases or decreases in the estimated number of ducks – or whether there’s a record number of ducks in a particular year – Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the Minnesota DNR, advises against it.

“I don’t read too much into it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any different from last year.”

Though conditions overall this year were drier than last year – especially on the prairies in the United States – there were good conditions on the Canadian prairies and in the boreal forest. Wetland and upland habitat conditions in key breeding areas are the main factors for duck-breeding success, according to Ducks Unlimited. 

“An early spring balanced with poorer habitat conditions was apparent in this year’s survey,” Paul Schmidt, DU chief conservation officer, said. “In addition to reduced precipitation over the winter and early spring, we have lost critical nesting habitat with the decrease in Conservation Reserve Program lands and continuing conversion of habitat to agricultural production across the U.S. prairies. 

“Fortunately, these conditions had minimal impacts on this year’s overall breeding bird numbers, but hunters should be concerned about these trends and what they might mean in future years,” Schmidt added. “We have experienced good moisture on the prairies and liberal bag limits for more than two decades. Continuing habitat losses and drier conditions have the potential to change this scenario in the future.”

Dry wetlands can affect duck distribution and production, according to Delta Waterfowl. Pintails, for example, will fly over the U.S. prairies if they can’t find the small wetlands they prefer. 

“When birds pass over the Prairie Pothole Region and settle farther north, they typically do not have as high of reproductive success,” Rohwer said. “Pintails and mallards tend to continue north when they don’t find sufficient seasonal and temporary wetlands on the prairies.”

But the ducks that did settle on the prairies will benefit from rains in May and June that improved wetland conditions. During the same time period, though, most areas of prairie Canada didn’t receive the same rains.

“The widespread drier conditions in prairie Canada will negatively affect duck production,” Rohwer said.

Hunting regulations

The survey results are a main factor in determining what fall hunting seasons look like. In all likelihood, according to Cordts, hunters will operate under regulations very similar to last year.

“My read on that would be really no changes from anything from last year,” he said.

The one exception is canvasbacks. Their estimated population – 760,000 – is 11 percent higher than last year, which could prompt a two-bird bag. Last year’s bag limit was one.

One regulation worth watching in Minnesota is the potential for an early teal season, or the possibility of a bonus teal in the bag during the regular season. Minnesota didn’t take advantage of special teal regulations last year, but the idea hasn’t been ruled out for this fall.

The DNR’s Waterfowl Committee was set to meet this week to discuss a number of items, including results of a survey sent to about 4,000 hunters across the state. The survey sought a variety of information, including hunter attitudes toward special teal regulations (an early season or bonus birds during the regular season).

“The teal stuff was polarizing, a little bit,” Cordts said. “If people didn’t like it, they tended to strongly oppose it. But there’s not massive opposition to it.”

Still, the DNR hasn’t announced how regulations will look this fall.

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