Duck tally shows mallard estimates highest ever

Springfield — What the numbers mean for duck hunters in Illinois won’t be known until blinds along the river start filling up in October.

But if your hunt is for good news, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s duck breeding population survey report contains a fair share: both mallards and green-winged teal had the highest estimates ever recorded.

Mallards increased 1 percent to 11.79 million, 51 percent above the long-term average. Green-winged teal populations grew by 5 percent to 4.28 million, which is more than twice the long-term average.

The report, released to the public on Aug. 10, is based on surveys conducted by USFWS staff in May and early June.

In general, overall duck numbers are basically similar to last year. The total duck population was estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average.

Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds.

Waterfowl biologists were somewhat surprised by the counts, given poor wetland conditions.

“The duck numbers are amazingly good,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl. “Mallard numbers are especially surprising, and show why they are the most abundant duck in the world. They adapt to conditions exceptionally well.”

In Illinois, DNR recently announced that duck hunters will open the season on Oct. 15 in the north zone, Oct. 22 in the central zone, Nov. 11 in the south central zone, and Nov. 24 in the south zone. This year’s bag limit will be six, including no more than four mallards (two hens), three wood ducks, three scaup, two redheads, two pintails, two canvasback, one black duck and one mottled duck. The proposed daily bag limit of mergansers is five, only two of which may be hooded mergansers.

The statewide teal season will be Sept. 3-18 with a daily limit of six.

While mallard and green-winged teal were abundant during the USFWS surveys, the news was not as good for pintails, which dropped for a fifth straight year. Pintail numbers declined by 14 percent to 2.62 million, which puts the species 34 percent below the long-term average. Blue-winged teal numbers fell 22 percent to 6.69 million, but remain 34 percent above the long-term average.

“It’s really clear that pintails overflew the prairies,” said Rohwer. “Pintails and bluewings didn’t find the seasonal and temporary wetlands they prefer for breeding, so many did not settle in the prairies.”

Biologists noted the decline in pond numbers compared to last year. The total pond estimate for the U.S. and Canada combined was 5 million, which is 21 percent below the 2015 estimate of 6.3 million, similar to the long-term average of 5.2 million.

“With total pond counts similar to the long-term average, and with hunting season and winter mortality being a relatively small part of annual mortality, it’s not surprising to see that populations largely held steady,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Scott Yaich. “What’s not reflected in the [USFWS] report is that there was fairly significant improvement in habitat conditions after the surveys were completed. In some key production areas, heavy June and July rains greatly improved wetland conditions. This could benefit brood rearing and the success of late nesting species, as well as give a boost to overall production through re-nesting by early nesting species.”

The USFWS spring breeding duck surveys provide scientific basis for management programs across North America, including hunting regulations in Illinois.

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