USF&W Report: Duck Numbers Down, Good Fall Hunts Still Expected

While 13 percent lower than last year's 47.3 million duck breeding population figure, this year's number is still 17 percent above the long-term average (LTA) from 1955-2017. (Shuttertstock image)

While this summer's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service duck breeding estimate of 41 million birds is a drop from a year ago, it's still well above the 1955-2017 long term average. Eastern numbers are down too, but good hunting still anticipated.

In what is perhaps the most anticipated duck news of the summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released its 2018 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey Report.

As predicted in this space a few weeks ago, overall duck numbers in the Dakotas, eastern Montana, and southern Canada continue at high levels, even if those figures have declined slightly.

For 2018, USF&WS biologists indicate that some 41.2 million breeding ducks were estimated to be on the nesting grounds this spring. While 13 percent lower than last year's 47.3 million breeding population figure, this year's number is still 17 percent above the long-term average (LTA) from 1955-2017.

waterfowl"The breeding population decreased, but remains quite strong, with most species remaining near or above long-term averages," noted Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist for the Bismarck, N.D. based Delta Waterfowl conservation group, in a news release.

"The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year," added Tom Moorman, chief scientist for the Memphis, Tenn. based Ducks Unlimited, in a news release. 

"As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly," Moorman continued. "However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages." 

As Moorman noted, the 2018 decline is to be expected with a drop in annual pond count numbers thanks to less precipitation over this past winter and spring. Overall, pond counts stand at 5.23 million in 2018, down from last summer's figure of 6.10 million. While a 14-percent decline from a year ago, that's statistically the same number as the LTA.

In southern Canada's Prairie Pothole Region – the fabled Duck Factory nesting grounds - biologists estimated 3.66 million ponds in 2018, down 15-percent from last year's figure of 4.33 million ponds but still up 4-percent over the LTA.

In key northern U.S. nesting areas like the Dakotas and eastern Montana, the pond count figure in 2018 is 1.57 million, down from last year's 1.77 million. Those numbers represent an 11-percent decline from 2017 on the U.S. side of the border and an 8-percent decline in the LTA figure.

"Dry conditions across many areas of the prairies doesn't bode well for duck production," said Rohwer. "However, timely rains during nesting season, particularly in North Dakota, certainly aided duck production in some regions."

What do all those numbers mean in terms of actual duck species and their 2018 breeding figures?

For starters, after record breeding numbers of greenheads were observed just two years ago, biologists indicate that the 2018 mallard figure checks in at 9.25 million breeders this spring. While that's down 12-percent from last year's breeding population of 10.48 million, that's still a healthy 17-percent above the LTA of 7.9 million.

After record breeding numbers of greenheads were observed just two years ago, biologists indicate that the 2018 mallard figure checks in at 9.25 million breeders this spring. (Shutterstock image)

Keep in mind that Ducks Unlimited notes in its news release that the mallard's projected fall flight index number this year stands at 11.4 million birds. While down from last fall's flight index of 12.9 million greenheads, it means that many hunters across North America should still see plenty of mallards backpedaling into decoy spreads.

Gadwalls suffered the biggest drop this year, falling from 2017's breeding figure of 4.18 million to 2.88 million this year. While that's a precipitous 31-percent drop from a year ago, federal officials say it's still a whopping 43-percent above the LTA. 

Other common duck species in this year's USF&WS report include: green-winged teal (3.04 million in 2018, up 42 percent over the LTA of 2.1 million while down 16 percent from 2017); blue-winged teal (6.45 million in 2018, up 27 percent over the LTA of 5.1 million while down 18 percent from 2017); northern shovelers (4.2 million in 2018, up a staggering 62 percent over the LTA of 2.6 million while down 3 percent from 2017); northern pintails (2.36 million in 2018, down 40 percent over the LTA of 4.1 million and down 18 percent from 2017); scaup (both lesser and greater scaup combined, 3.98 million in 2018, down 20 percent over the LTA and down 9 percent from 2017); redheads (999,000 in 2018, up 38 percent over the LTA of 700,000 while down 10 percent from 2017); and canvasbacks (686,000 in 2018, up 16 percent over the LTA of 600,000 while down 6 percent from 2017).

The only duck species showing an increase in 2018 is the American wigeon, which has 2.82 million breeders this spring. That is up 2-percent from a year ago and up 8-percent over the LTA mark of 2.6 million. 

If that's what duck breeding numbers look like in the traditional nesting grounds of the northern U.S. and southern Canada, what about the nesting effort in northern New England and eastern Canada that supplies a good portion of the Atlantic Flyway states along the Eastern Seaboard? 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's web page for the 2018 report, "Conditions in much of the eastern survey area declined or remained similar relative to 2017. The region experienced mainly average precipitation since September 2017 and variable fall and winter temperatures. The entire region had well-below-average temperatures in April 2018 that continued into May in more northerly areas. Spring phenology and ice-out were generally normal or much later than normal, the latter mainly in northern Quebec and Labrador. Conditions for waterfowl production generally declined to fair or good, with northern areas affected by a late thaw and localized flooding farther south."

Delta Waterfowl reports that mallard breeding numbers back east stand at 1.056 million in 2018, down 4 percent from last year's figure of 1.107 million and down 15-percent over the LTA.

American black duck breeding numbers in 2018 stand at 712,000, down 9 percent from 2017's figure of 782,000 and down 20 percent over the LTA. Other eastern duck breeding numbers include: green-winged teal (346,000 in 2018, down 9 percent over the LTA and down 1 percent from 2017); ring-necked ducks (629,000 in 2018, up 2 percent over 2017's 617,000 while down 10 percent over the LTA); goldeneye (486,000 in 2018, down 13 percent from 2017 and down 17 percent over the LTA); and mergansers (687,000 in 2018, up 8 percent over the LTA while down 4 percent from 2017).

What does all of this number speak mean? That while duck numbers have declined a bit, hunters should still expect a good fall flight in many areas of duck country.

"There will be plenty of ducks in the fall flight, but unlike years when there are plenty of easily decoyed juveniles, hunters can expect savvy, adult birds," predicted Rohwer.

Those numbers also point out the continued need of doing the vital work of slowing ongoing wetland losses, conserving current wetlands that remain, restoring old wetlands where feasible, and even finding a few new wet spots where waterfowl can produce their young and thrive each year.

"This year's breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions," noted Moorman.

"Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat."

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