Our 2022-2023 waterfowl season should be opening the week after this article reaches you. Hopefully you will find the timing of it appropriate for the season. If it comes to your home as intended, and you are interested in waterfowl, the stage should be set to whet your appetite for what lies ahead. Remember, several of my articles have been written far in advance of publication due to my westerly travels. In fact, while in your dens hopefully reading our column, I hope to be collecting stories worthy of sharing with you in the coming weeks. Either way, if articles are out of sync, please just enjoy the content.
Several months ago I stopped by to visit with my friend, and avid waterfowler, Charlie Jones. Our business conversation soon turned to a duck discussion which went on for quite some time. Charlie has some unique opinions regarding the status of our waterfowl and their breeding numbers. The August sun eventually got the best of us but we both agreed that a meeting with biologists and a few fellow sportsmen would perhaps provide insight to where we have been, where we are, and where we are going with the direction of our waterfowl populations. Of course, with hectic schedules, we haven’t done this yet but maybe this article will be the precursor for a meeting in the somewhat near future. Thank you for the idea, Charlie, and let’s make this happen.
After being cancelled for the previous two years over COVID-19 concerns, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service were able to conduct the annual breeding and habitat waterfowl survey this spring. The results are in and are not surprising. The 2022 spring breeding survey put the waterfowl index at 34.2 million birds. This is 4% below the long-term average and 12% below the 2019 index. For the remainder of this discussion, I will refrain from referring to the long-term average as much as I can. I’m sure there will be those that may disagree with me on this, stating that the long-term average is what really matters even though duck numbers still struggle even in this time frame.
What really matters is where we currently are with numbers. It’s kind of like saying I used to have a million dollars in my retirement fund even though I can’t buy a cup of coffee now. Before I get off subject matter, let’s break some numbers down in more detail.
Regarding mallards, the 2022 population is estimated at 7.22 million birds compared to 9.42 million in 2019, down 23%. Gadwall numbers for 2022 are 2.67 million compared to 3.26 million in 2019, down 18%. American Wigeon are at 2.13 million compared to 3.18 million in 2019, down 32%. Let’s keep going. Green-Winged Teal are at 2.17 million compared to 3.18 million in 2019, down 32%. Northern Pintail are at 1.78 million compared to 2.27 million in 2019, down 21%. Northern Shovelers are at 3.04 million compared to 3.65 million in 2019, down 17%. There is a bright spot regarding Blue-Winged Teal with 6.49 million birds compared to 5.43 million in 2019, up 19%. Total numbers come in at 34.21 million birds this year compared to 38.90 million birds in 2019. Now, let’s delve deeper into the subject.
Reasons abound as to why duck numbers continue to spiral downward. Drought and habitat conditions are at the top of the list. In 2021, the prairie pothole region was gripped by dry conditions, but a series of storms dumped snow and heavy rains earlier this year recharging critical wetlands. The May pond count, key drivers for duck production, was reflected by these weather events resulting in an increase in the number of ponds. There were an estimated 1.98 million ponds in the north-central U.S. and 3.47 million ponds in Canada for a total of 5.45 million ponds. This is 4 % above the long-term average and 9% above 2019. Though habitat conditions improved, duck production is still stagnant to lower. Again, let’s investigate deeper.
We all know predators can play an enormous role on nesting success and duckling survival. Foxes, racoons, hawks, and numerous other species make their living in part by feasting on eggs and hatchlings. Even when ducklings survive long enough to make it from the nest to the water, their risk to predation is still significant from fish like pike and muskies. However, this is part of Mother Nature, and for the most part, beyond our control and interference. Which is probably a good thing. Most of the time, predators also suffer during periods of drought years just as the ducks do, sometimes offering waterfowl a break. If predator populations decline the same year duck habitat is compromised, then at least the playing field is somewhat leveled. Nevertheless, this still leads to less-than-ideal conditions for duck survival. So, what else plays a role in this dilemma and what can we expect going forward?
I continue to hear “good” things from several waterfowl organizations regarding the outlook for both this hunting season and those going forward. I sometimes must be very careful with my choice of words when discussing topics, waterfowl numbers being one of them. On second thought, I need not fear ruffling one’s feathers, no pun intended, when it comes to any subject that I am well versed on. By now, you know I am a believer in science. I trust replicated, scientific research that is statistically analyzed. With that said, I also know there is a lot at stake when it comes to promoting the heritage and tradition of duck and goose hunting, and any other form of hunting for that matter. I sometimes question the thought process and possibly hidden agendas of those that repeatedly state that the waterfowl population is in great shape and there should be plenty of birds over the decoy spreads this fall and winter. Are you kidding me? The duck numbers speak for themselves.
Additionally, the past several seasons have been only fair to dismal, at least here in the MS Delta. I know there are bright spots and certain affluent duck clubs that “farm” for ducks enjoy better success stories, but I have enough information firsthand to know that even these meccas of waterfowl grounds are struggling comparatively as well.
I hear of landowners and waterfowl managers to our north that are accused of “short-stopping” the migration by keeping water open and providing excessive amounts of food, so ducks and geese have no need to move south. In theory, waterfowl need only migrate as far south to find open water and nutritional needs and the closer this is to their nesting grounds the better it is for the birds. Migration is an innate, breeding behavior, and I’m not sure to what degree “man” can affect this phenomenon. Maybe there is more to this man-created delay in migration than I realize. If so, and ducks adapt to a reduced migration, this trend does not bode well for waterfowlers farther south.
Going back to my conversation with Charlie, he made a statement that still resonates with me deeply. He and his hunting group have been “aging” the ducks they harvest. Without going into a dissertation, he has noticed more older birds being harvested than younger birds. This is a direct correlation that younger birds do not exist in the numbers they used to, again exemplifying the fact that overall numbers are still in decline. This is based upon the fact that younger birds are not wise to hunter’s calls and decoys and the percentage of ducks harvested normally favor that of juveniles.
So, what do we do about our decline in ducks and geese, if you believe like I do that we don’t have the numbers we used to? Do put in place shorter seasons and reduced bag limits for a while to see what happens? Now I’m opening a can of worms. I would like to go back to where I began with a meeting of biologists and fellow hunters for open dialogue. Symposiums with hundreds of participants are great, but I prefer a small group to get down to the nitty-gritty.
Christmas parties will be part of our lives in the coming weeks, and there are always discussions held in the corners of living rooms begging the same question year after year, “Where are the ducks?” It’s as traditional as the parties themselves, so this will be our start. Charlie, I’ll hand the ball off to you to think about how we can get together for a discussion of this topic. I like your thoughts and your passion for the propagation of what so many of us hold dear, that being waterfowl hunting and all that entails. Let’s make it happen! Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.