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BPOP: Ducks, Ponds Increase in Breeding Survey

BISMARCK, ND—Duck hunters breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced an increase in the spring breeding population and vastly improved water conditions on the prairie breeding grounds.

Topping the list of the 10 most popular species is the mallard, which increased from 7.5 million breeding ducks last spring to 7.9 million this year breaking a three-year decline. The overall duck population also broke a three-year slide, jumping to 36.2 million from last spring’s 31.2 million.

“I’m not sure we actually gained any mallards,” says Rob Olson, director of operations at Delta Waterfowl’s US office here. “The prairie breeding grounds were so dry last year that a lot of mallards probably summered far to the north, outside the traditional survey area, where they weren’t counted.

“Water conditions across the breeding grounds were greatly improved this year, which means most of ducks settled here giving us a more accurate count than a year ago.”

After two years of extreme drought conditions across most of the prairie pothole region (PPR), water conditions range from good to excellent across most of the breeding grounds this year. The May pond count for the U.S. and Canada combined increased by 91% from last year with 5.2 million total ponds which Olson says is good news for duck hunters.

“We should see improved production this year,” he says. “The seasonal and temporary wetlands so critical to duck production are abundant across the region. Most folks think nesting ducks just need water, but that’s not the case. When there are lots of seasonal and temporary wetlands, upland-nesting ducks literally overwhelm predation with persistent re-nesting, attempts.

“Recent studies have shown that brood survival is dramatically higher when most of the seasonals and temporaries are wet.”

Even waterfowl’s most beleaguered species showed increases this spring. Scaup, which have been falling for two decades, increased from 3.5 million to 3.7 million breeding birds, canvasbacks rose from 487,000 to 558,000 and pintails were up from 1.8 to 2.6 million.

“It’s hard to say what happened with pintails,” says Olson. “Like mallards, pintails go where there’s water. Recent research showed that almost half the pintails will go outside the survey area in times of drought. It’s possible we didn’t get an accurate count on pintails last year, but the age ratios suggest there was fairly good production. That’s encouraging, but pintails are still in trouble.”

Gadwalls jumped from 2.2 to 2.5 million birds, widgeon were up from 2.3 to 2.5 million, greenwing teal improved from 2.3 to 2.7 million, bluewing teal took a huge jump from 4.2 to 5.5 million, shovelers rose a whopping 56% percent from 2.3 to 3.6 million and redheads went from 565,000 to 637,000.

Bluewing teal and gadwalls are late-nesting species that may have benefited from late-spring rains across small portions of the prairie breeding grounds last year, Olson says.

“The numbers are difficult to interpret,” admits Olson. “The breeding grounds got wet this spring, but that did nothing to enhance production a year ago. Our best bet is that with the prairies so wet, the ducks weren’t moving around as much in search of water—most settled here, giving us a more reliable count this spring.

Olson points to Minnesota as an example. “Last year an unusually high number of mallards were surveyed in Minnesota,” Olson says. “Those birds weren’t included in the federal survey because Minnesota is outside the traditional survey area. This year, Minnesota’s numbers were way down, presumably because the ducks came back to the prairie.”

While populations of the 10 most popular species were all up, the age ratios for most species remained low. “The preliminary age ratio on redheads was horrible, yet the population increased,” notes Olson.

Scientists determine age ratios by examining the wings of birds harvested by hunters the previous fall. The age ratio expresses the number of juvenile birds per adult bird harvested. “The age ratio on redheads was just .24 in the Mississippi Flyway and .25 in the Central Flyway,” says Olson. “For mallards, the age ratio in the Mississippi Flyway was .77 and in the Central Flyway it was .66. Those numbers aren’t particularly good, either.”

Olson says that despite increases in the breeding population and good water conditions, ducks still face an uphill battle. “Our best science tells us ducks need large blocks of nesting cover and an abundance of temporary and seasonal wetlands,” he says. “In the US we’re actually losing grassland acres, and small wetlands are at greater risk than they’ve been in 30 years because of a Supreme Court ruling that eliminated protection under the Clean Water Act.

“We still have a lot of work to do.”

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 or 701-222-8857.