The results of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2012 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey are in, and the news should please duck hunters. Based on aerial surveys over more than two million square miles, the estimate of total ducks in North America was 48.6 million, up from last year’s of 45.6 million and 43 percent greater than the 1955-2008 long term average.
The key to waterfowl populations is habitat, measured as the number of ponds, the result of the past year’s snow melt and rainfall. The total pond estimate for the continent’s “duck factory” — the prairies provinces of Canada and northern prairie states of the U.S. — was 5.5 million, about nine percent above the long term average of 5.1 million ponds.
Ducks require the nesting habitat surrounding ponds and the water itself to provide food and refuge. Simply stated, wet years produce more ducks; drought years cause duck numbers to plummet.
The vast majority of North America’s ducks nest around the potholes that dot the Dakotas, Minnesota, eastern Montana and Canada’s prairie provinces. And many of these birds migrate east and south to east coast wintering grounds.
During drought years, potholes dry up and farmers cultivate these depressions in the landscape. This forces ducks to nest in increasingly fewer wetlands and that makes nests easier for predators to find. Drought imposes a double whammy on duck populations — less habitat and higher predation rates.
That’s why the annual waterfowl surveys are so important. Only by knowing where populations stand compared to past surveys can biologists manage duck populations by adjusting duck hunter seasons, dates and bag limits.
Mallards are widespread and abundant across the continent so it’s instructive to focus on them. As mallards go, so go other duck species.
This year the estimated mallard population was 10.6 million birds, 15 percent higher than last year and 39 percent more than the long term average. But these numbers mean little without knowledge of historic extremes.
The best mallard years came in 1956 (10.4 million mallards), 1958 (11.2 million) and 1999 (10.8 million). The worst mallard years were, 1965 (5.1 million), 1984 (5.4 million) and 1985 (5.0 million). So while this year’s count is nearly double the worst years’ numbers, it is still below the highest counts.
Other species are also having good years. Gadwalls are up 96 percent over the long-term average. Blue-winged teal and green-winged teal are up 94 and 74 percent, respectively. Northern shovelers are 92 percent above their long-term average.
Diving ducks increasing. Even diving ducks, which require deeper ponds, are seeing increasing populations. Redhead numbers are 89 percent above their long term averages, and canvasbacks are up 33 percent. And combined lesser and greater scaup numbers are four percent above their long term averages.
Population estimates for some species, on the other hand, remain below their long-term averages. American wigeons are down 17 percent and northern pintails are down 14 percent.
Hunters, birders, and arm chair conservationists can support waterfowl conservation by buying a duck stamp every year. Available at larger U.S. post offices, duck stamps cost $15 and are required by anyone who hunts waterfowl. A duck stamp also entitles its holder to free admission to national wildlife refuges.
Created in 1934, the Migratory Bird and Conservation Stamp, or the duck stamp, funnels money into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. For every dollar raised, 98 cents is used to buy land for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since 1934 the FWS has collected more than $750 million and purchased or leased more than five million acres of waterfowl habitat.
Another way to promote waterfowl and wetland conservation is to support Ducks Unlimited (www.ducks.org). Today, DU membership in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico exceeds 699,000, and its work has influenced more than 108 million wetland acres in North America. Annual fundraisers at the state and local levels include membership banquets, shooting and fishing tournaments, and golf outings.
The single-minded vision of Ducks Unlimited is, “wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever … ”