North America’s total spring duck population is the highest ever recorded, according to the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey issued last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Based on surveys conducted in May and early June, there are a record 48.6 million breeding ducks in North America. This estimate represents a 7 percent increase over last year’s record of 45.6 million birds, and is 43 percent above the long-term average. This year’s estimate is only the sixth time in the survey’s history that the total duck population exceeded 40 million.
This annual report summarizes information about the status of duck populations and wetland habitats collected by wildlife biologists from the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service. The survey samples more than two million square miles of waterfowl habitat across the United States and Canada.
“This is the highest duck count since we started the survey in 1955,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl scientific director. “We had excellent wetland conditions in 2011, the second-highest pond count ever. So last year, we made a pile of ducks. This year, we’re counting them.”
Of the 10 species traditionally reported, nine were similar to or increased in number from 2011.
Mallards, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, gadwalls, canvasbacks, northern shovelers and scaup are all up significantly from last year, with both species of teal and shovelers at all-time highs. Blue-winged teal are estimated at 9.2 million, green-winged teal number more than 3.4 million, and shovelers now top 5 million.
Mallard breeding numbers sit at 10.6 million, a 15 percent increase over 2011 and 39 percent higher than the long-term average of 7.6 million. For the first time since 1999, mallard populations exceed 10 million.
Gadwall increased 10 percent over last year, and now total 3.5 million. The population is nearly double the long-term average for gadwalls.
Northern shovelers number 5 million, an 8 percent increase over 2011 and 111 percent above their long-term average.
Two species (northern pintail and American wigeon) remained below their long-term average, and only three species—northern pintail, American wigeon and scaup—remain below their North American Waterfowl Management Plan goals.
Northern pintails are at 3.4 million, which is 22 percent below the 2011 estimate and 14 percent below the long-term average.
American wigeon are up slightly to 2.1 million, but are still 17 percent below their long-term average.
Scaup numbers are up 21 percent to 5.2 million, the seventh-straight year that the bluebill count has gone up. Scaup are at their highest breeding population since 1991.
Redheads declined slightly to just under 1.3 million but still registered their second-highest population estimate in the history of the survey. Canvasbacks jumped 10 percent to 760,000, the fourth-highest count on record.
“All in all, this is a great duck count,” Rohwer said.
While the total breeding population is strong, the news is different for breeding habitat. Habitat conditions across the survey areas were characterized by average to below-average moisture, especially in the southern portions, due primarily to a mild winter and an early spring.
The total pond count for prairie Canada and the United States combined has dropped 32 percent, from an estimated 8.1 million ponds in 2011 to 5.5 million this year. This was the first time since 2008 that ponds dropped below 6 million.
“The ponds that are dry are the important ones for ducks—the temporary and seasonal wetlands,” Rohwer said. “We kept the large ponds but lost the small ponds.”
Drier conditions may account for the drop in northern pintails in the survey area, which are down more than one million birds, from 4.4 million last year to 3.4 million this year. One possible explanation is that pintails didn’t like the look of the drier conditions and just kept flying north.
“Pintails numbers increased in northerly habitats such as Alaska,” said John Devney, senior policy director for Delta Waterfowl. “This suggests [pintails] over-flew the prairies this spring. Research has well documented that in average or dry conditions, many pintails head north to the boreal forest. The survey’s ability to detect them is reduced.”
The biggest decline in wetland conditions has occurred on the U.S. prairies. The pond estimate for the Dakotas and Montana is 1.7 million, which is 49 percent below the 2011 estimate of 3.2 million. Only the Coteau Region of North and South Dakota is rated good for 2012. No areas are rated excellent. Nearly all north-central U.S. habitat was rated as good to excellent in 2011.
“The Dakotas have carried a disproportionate load of continental duck production over the last few years,” said Devney. “If we get dry here and lose the wetlands and upland nesting cover, the U.S. prairies just won’t be able to produce at the amazing levels we have seen since the mid-1990s, and that will have a real impact on hunters almost everywhere.”
Conditions across the Canadian prairies have also declined this year. Temporary wetlands, crucial to successful breeding, retained little moisture because of a shallow frost seal and below-average participation. Last year, most of Saskatchewan and Manitoba was inundated with water. May pond estimates in prairie Canada have dropped 21 percent, from 4.9 million to 3.9 million.
The overall pond count is still 9 percent above average, but as the prairies dry out, you can expect a direct impact on hunting, says Joel Brice, Delta’s senior director of conservation.
“Let’s not forget that we hunt the fall flight, not the spring count,” says Brice. “Lots of ducks jammed into fewer wetlands negatively impacts breeding success. There’s a good chance we won’t see as many juveniles as last year, and those are the birds that are easiest to decoy. Still, it promises to be a great year. We may just have to work a bit harder.”
Nesting habitat across the Prairie Pothole Region continues to decline, particularly following the mild, dry winter. In many places in Canada, the mild conditions allowed farmers to return shallow wetlands to production. On the U.S. side of the border, expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts, high commodity prices and other economic factors are not only pressuring wetland drainage, but also pushing conversions of grasslands to cropland.
A recent report from North Dakota Game and Fish noted nesting cover in the state continues to decline. During their survey, biologists noted many large tracts of grassland and CRP land had been converted to cropland since last year. CRP acres in North Dakota alone have dropped to about 2.3 million acres, which is down about 30 percent since 2007. Projections are that more than 650,000 acres will be lost in 2012, and an additional 1.1 million acres will be lost in 2013-14. The loss of this critical nesting cover will be disastrous for breeding ducks, other nesting birds and hunting opportunities in the future.
“Early indications were that the mild and dry conditions experienced across North America this past fall and winter would negatively impact spring pond conditions and allow increases in grassland conversion rates, ultimately impacting nesting efforts this season,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Dale Humburg. “Strong returning duck populations and late spring precipitation have brightened prospects for 2012 duck production. If nesting and brood-rearing conditions are favorable over the next few months, we could see another strong fall flight.”
As always, fall weather and habitat conditions along migration routes will have a big impact on migration chronology and local hunting success.
“Severe drought in some important wintering regions adds a bit more uncertainty about prospects for the fall,” Humburg said. “However, I am encouraged by the number of breeding ducks surveyed this year and hopeful production will be at least average.”
The USFWS’s spring surveys provide the scientific basis for many management programs across the continent, including the setting of hunting regulations. The four flyway councils (the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific) will meet in late July to recommend and adopt the season structure and bag limits for 2012-13. Individual states will make their specific selections within a federal framework of season length, bag limit and outside dates. Hunters should check their states’ rules for final dates and limits.
The entire “Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, 1955-2012” report can be downloaded at www.fws.gov/migratorybirds.