While the dog days of summer may be upon southern portions of the country, duck season isn’t all that far away in the northern corners of the land.
And with that thought, good news comes today from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and its much anticipated 2017 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations report.
The yearly report, which comes after the annual May and early June waterfowl breeding duck and pond count surveys conducted by FWS and Canadian Wildlife Service biologists in the so-called “Duck Factory” of southern Canada and the Northern U.S., indicates populations this summer stand at 47.3 million breeding ducks.
Those numbers come thanks to good wetland habitat conditions in many areas this year. Total 2017 pond count estimates for the U.S. and Canada (combined) were 6.1 million according to news reports, a number that is some 22 percent above the estimate in 2016 (5.0 million) and 17 percent above the long-term average (LTA) of 5.2 million.
As you might expect, this news has biologists and duck hunters quite enthused.
“This is great news for waterfowlers who can now turn their attention to preparing habitat, tuning up dogs and relentlessly watching the weather forecasts for the onset of fall and winter weather that will push the birds on their annual southward migration,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Tom Moorman, in a news release.
“The duck numbers remain really strong,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, also in a news release. “Most duck populations remain near or above long-term averages.”
How accurate is Rohwer’s statement? While this year’s figure is down slightly from 2016’s breeding population number of 48.4 million ducks, it is still 34 percent above the 1955-2016 LTA average for the 10 duck species annually surveyed on the prairie pothole nesting grounds.
What’s more, this year’s figure remains near all-time high breeding numbers established over the past several years, ranking fifth on that list. For the record, the benchmark figure came in 2015 when biologists reported 49.52 million breeding ducks, up from the previous year’s tally of 49.2 million.
Specifically, the 2017 numbers for the various duck species surveyed each spring and early summer break down in the following manner:
- Mallard: 10.5 million breeders in 2017, down 11 percent from 2016 and 34 percent above the LTA (long-term average from 1955-2016).
- Gadwall: 4.2 million, up 13 percent from 2016 and 111 percent above the LTA.
- American wigeon: 2.8 million, down 19percent from 2016 and 6 percent above the LTA.
- Green-winged teal: 3.6 million, down 16 percent from 2016 and 70 percent above the LTA.
- Blue-winged teal: 7.9 million, up 18 percent from 2016 and 57 percent above the LTA.
- Northern shovelers: 4.4 million, up 10 percent from 2016 and 69 percent above the LTA.
- Northern pintails: 2.9 million, up 10 percent from 2016 and 27 percent below the LTA.
- Redheads: 1.1 million, down 13 percent from 2016 and 55 percent above the LTA.
- Canvasbacks: 733,000 (0.733 million), similar to 2016 and 25 percent above the LTA.
- Scaup (bluebills): 4.4 million, down 12 percent from 2016 and 13 percent below the LTA.
While mallards – the bread and butter duck species for many hunters in the Mississippi and Central Flyways – are down from a year ago, greenheads are still doing well.
“Hunters may notice in the report that mallards declined 11 percent, or about 1.3 million birds, from 2016” said DU’s Moorman. “The bulk of that appears to be related to drier conditions in the Canadian parklands region, where the surveys detected about 0.6 million fewer mallards.
“Overall, mallard populations remain in great shape, and FWS estimates the mallard fall flight will be similar to last year,” he added.
Duck hunters might note that while mallard numbers are down from last summer, for the first time in five years, pintail numbers – sprigs as many duck hunters call them – are actually up from the previous year.
“Isn’t it great to finally have some good news to report about pintails?,” said Delta Waterfowl’s Rohwer. “They’ve increased due to the way water was distributed across the prairie this year.
“The pintails’ preferred breeding range – southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan – provided ample shallow wetlands (this year),” he added.
“I also expect pintail production to be substantially improved over last year. I expect the estimate (this summer) is high enough that hunters will be blessed with a two-pintail daily limit for the 2018-19 season.”
Also on the receiving end of good news is the gadwall, known to many waterfowlers as the gray duck. In fact, Delta Waterfowl notes in its news release that the 2017 survey mark of 4.18 million gadwalls is the highest breeding estimate ever recorded for the species. What’s more, in addition to being up 13 percent from last summer, the 2017 breeding figure for gadwalls is 111 percent above the LTA.
Also noteworthy are the upward surges of blue-winged teal (7.89 million, up 18 percent from last summer and 57 percent above the LTA) and northern shovelers (4.35 million, up 10-percent from last summer and 69 percent above the LTA).
“Like pintails, bluewings and shovelers really responded to all of that water in southern Canada,” said Rohwer.
While this year’s duck breeding report generally contains good news, there are some not so rosy caveats to consider.
First, like mallards numbers being down from a year ago, other species noted similar declines. American wigeon (2.78 million birds in 2017), are down 19 percent from a year ago while green-winged teal (3.6 million in 2017) are down 16 percent since last summer. Fortunately, both species are still above their LTA numbers.
On the diving duck front, canvasbacks are similar to a year ago (733,000, statistically similar to 2016’s figure of 736,000) and still 25 percent above the specie’s LTA. But redheads (1.12 million in 2017) are down 13 percent from a year ago, although still well-above the LTA. And scaup (4.37 million in 2017) remain troubling for biologists, down 12 percent from a year ago and down 13 percent against the LTA.
“DU remains concerned about northern pintails and scaup in particular, as the survey information continues to indicate these two species remain below their long-term average populations,” said Moorman.
Another reason for at least some concern is that this year’s pond count might be a bit camouflaged in the 2017 report. On the surface, it certainly appears good since biologists, pilots and ground observers reported that in the U.S. and Canada, the 2017 May pond count checked in at 6.01 million, a figure that is 22 percent above last year’s tally and 17 percent above the LTA.
In fact, Delta Waterfowl notes that this year’s pond counts across southern Canada’s breeding grounds (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) were some 24 percent more than 2016 and 23 percent above the LTA.
Just south of the U.S./Canada border, pond counts were also up in Montana and the Dakotas, some 22 percent higher than last summer and 17 percent above the LTA.
But since those pond count surveys were conducted in May, warm and dry weather has impacted many of those same regions this summer, something that could impact actual nesting success and brood recruitment conditions.
“I think the pond count is a little misleading, because wetlands in the Dakotas and parts of the southern Canadian prairies dried out quickly and dramatically following the surveys,” said Rohwer. “Renesting and brood survival are going to be far lower this year. I don’t expect the production we’ve seen in recent years.”
As Delta Waterfowl notes in its news release, “That’s important for hunters, who shoot the fall flight, not the breeding population.”
“We will see a lot of birds flying south (this fall), but it’ll be more challenging for hunters because the (fall) flight will have a higher percentage of adult ducks,” said Rohwer.
Add in the annual variations of local food availability, habitat conditions and weather reports, and hunters should note that the odds are favorable for a good season of duck hunting, but certainly not guaranteed.
Duck hunters should also keep in mind that despite several years of record and near record duck breeding numbers and subsequent large fall flights, habitat is and always will be the primary key.
“Hunters should always remember that habitat and populations are going to vary over time, so we must keep focused on habitat conservation efforts over the long term,” said DU’s Moorman.
“Ultimately, we need to maintain landscapes so that when precipitation and other conditions are right, the ducks will respond, produce more ducks and provide us all with a nice return on our conservation investments.”