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Where were the Ducks? Delta Cites Lack of Production

BISMARCK, ND—Frustrated southern duck hunters spent most of the hunting season looking north for birds that never came.

“They were looking in the right direction,” says Rob Olson, director of Delta Waterfowl’s United States office, “but not necessarily at the right time of year. The problem with ducks isn’t so much what’s happening up north during hunting season, it’s what’s not happening up here in the spring. We’re just not getting much production.”

“Hunters need to understand that the duck population has been falling for several years, and with a severe drought on the breeding grounds we likely got very poor production again last spring.”

Olson has heard the rumors about ducks being shortstopped. “They’re being shortstopped alright,” he says, “9 out of 10 are being shortstopped before they ever get out of the egg. We have a production problem on the breeding grounds.”

Olson admits an unusually mild winter in some areas may have been a factor. “We won’t know how many ducks wintered in the mid-latitude states until we see the state-by-state midwinter surveys, which will be out in a few weeks.”

“What hunters have to realize is that there’s always a certain amount of shortstopping. As long as there’s open water and food, some ducks will linger further north,” says Olson. “The winters of 1998 and 1999 were every bit as mild as the past winter, yet hunters in the lower reaches of the Mississippi Flyway killed record numbers of ducks those years.”

So what changed between 1999 and this year? Olson says the biggest difference is the number of ducks in the population. “In 1999 the mallard breeding population was 10.8 million birds and we had excellent water conditions on the breeding grounds. Last spring we were down to 7.5 million breeding mallards and the prairies were in a full-fledged drought.”

“Hunters’ expectations are based on what they saw in the late ‘90s,” Olson says, “but we simply don’t have the ducks to support those expectations. Gadwalls are down 42 percent from their late ‘90s peak, greenwing teal dropped by 26 percent, bluewing teal 43 percent, shovelers 48 percent and pintails, redheads and canvasbacks all have seen near 50 percent decreases in their breeding populations.”

Another critical element, Olson says, is drought. “May ponds fell 41 percent from 2001 to 2002. Parts of prairie Canada were the driest they’ve ever been and wetland conditions deteriorated in the Dakotas as well. When you start the breeding season with a third fewer mallards (than 1999) and don’t get much production, it’s easy to see why hunting was poor.

Olson notes the breeding population actually began to slip in 2000 when water conditions on the breeding grounds were still relatively good. “That’s a concern because it suggests there are a number of factors limiting duck production.

Olson says production continues to be a concern across the prairie breeding grounds, citing studies by Delta, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies showing a steady 70-year decline in nest success. “Numerous studies have shown that nest success across the breeding grounds averages 10 percent. That means 9 out of every 10 nests initiated don’t produce a single egg,” Olson says, “and countless studies have shown that the biggest single factor inhibiting nest success is predation.”

“The bottom line,” Olson says, “is that the number of ducks hunters see in the south is determined by how many birds are produced on the breeding grounds. Poor results in the duck blind in recent years reflect poor production up north. We can’t control the weather. One thing we can control though is how effective waterfowl management is in producing ducks. If we want better hunting in the future, we need to concentrate on techniques and approaches that will produce more ducks.”

“That’s why Delta is focusing on production techniques that include predator management, nesting structures and conservation policy in an attempt to increase production and put more ducks on the wing come fall.”

Delta Waterfowl was established in 1911 and is North America’s leader in waterfowl conservation research. Delta’s U.S office is in the heart of duck country, Bismarck, North Dakota. Delta’s mission is to enhance waterfowl populations while securing the future of waterfowling.

For more information contact Rob Olson or John Devney at 888-987-3695.