Gerald Almy: Duck numbers near 50 million

Gerald Almy

Duck numbers across North America remain at high levels, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife and Canadian Wildlife services. This year’s surveys showed an estimated population of 49.5 million birds, up from 49.2 million the previous year.

According to Ducks Unlimited, this is 51 percent above the 1955-2014 long-term average population and the highest count ever. “We are fortunate to see continued high overall duck populations in North America’s breeding areas this year,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall.

“Though conditions were dry in some important habitats,” he said, “we had large numbers of birds returning this spring and good conditions in the boreal forest and other areas of Canada. It looks like some typical prairie nesters skipped over the U.S. prairies and took advantage of good conditions farther north. This is an important reminder about the critical need for maintaining abundant and high-quality habitat across the continent. The boreal forest, especially, can provide important habitat when the prairies are dry. But the boreal is under increasing threats from resource extraction.”

Wetland and upland habitat conditions are the main factors determining the success of duck breeding efforts. Unfortunately, conditions during the 2015 breeding population survey were drier than last year. Total pond counts for Canada and the U.S. were 6.3 million, 12 percent below the 2014 estimate of 7.2 million, but still 21 percent above the long-term average.

“An early spring balanced with poorer habitat conditions was apparent in this year’s survey,” said Ducks Unlimited Chief Conservation Officer Paul Schmidt. “In addition to reduced precipitation over the winter and early spring, we have lost critical nesting habitat with the decrease in Conservation Reserve Program lands and continuing conversion of habitat to agricultural production across the U.S. prairies.”

“Fortunately, these conditions had minimal impacts on this year’s overall breeding bird numbers. But hunters should be concerned about these trends and what they might mean in future years. We have experienced good moisture in the prairies and liberal bag limits for more than two decades. Continuing habitat losses and drier conditions have the potential to change this scenario in the future.”

The four flyway councils and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Regulations Committee will soon recommend season date structures and bag limits for this fall’s duck hunting. After that the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will set the actual dates, typically in late August.

Here’s a look at some of the individual duck species estimates:

• Mallards were estimated at 11.6 million strong, which is about the same as last year, and 51 percent above the long-term average.

• Green-winged teal showed a population of 4.1 million. This is 19 percent above the 2014 estimate, and 98 percent above the long-term average.

• Gadwall numbers were estimated at 3.8 million. This is similar to the year before and 100 percent above the long-term average.

• American Widgeon had a population of 3 million. This is 17 percent above their average.

• Blue-winged teal numbered 8.5 million. This is about the same as 2014, and 73 percent above the long-term average.

• Northern shovelers showed a population of 4.4 million, 75 percent above their long-term average and 17 percent up from last year.

• Northern pintails numbered 3.0 million, similar to the previous year and 24 percent below the long-term average.

• Redheads numbered 1.2 million, 71 percent above the historical average for that species.

• Canvasbacks numbered just 760,000. This is still 30 percent above their long-term average and similar to 2014.

• Scaup numbered 4.4 million, 13 percent below their average population.

• Black ducks had an estimated population of 541,000. This is 11 percent below 2014 and 13 percent below the long-term average.

For more information on the duck survey and outlook for individual species, visit ducks.org/DuckNumbers. All in all, prospects look superb for this fall’s coming waterfowl seasons with high duck numbers throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.