Skip to main content

Duck-Survey Numbers Down, But There's a Glimmer of Hope

How will the fall flight go after breeding populations see declines?

Duck-Survey Numbers Down, But There's a Glimmer of Hope

Despite an overall decline in duck-breeding numbers this year, the recently released Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed that northern pintails were one of the bright spots. Breeding numbers of pintails stood at 2.219 million, an increase of 24 percent from a year ago. (Photo by Irene Hinke-Sacilotto/USFWS)

It might not be as bad as the old "Hee Haw" television song—“Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me”—but for duck hunters the news on Friday brought some gloom and despair only weeks away from early teal season and the start of 2023-24 regular waterfowl seasons.

The disappointing news came from the results of the annual pond counts and duck breeding population surveys conducted in May and early June by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and other partners. FWS biologists report that this year’s estimate of 32.3 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area is a decline of seven percent from last year’s 34.7 million ducks.

The 2023 breeding-ducks figure also falls below the long-term average (1955-2022, except for 2020 and 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled survey work) by nine percent. And species-specific news gets even worse. The overall downward turn in duck breeding came despite better water conditions on portions of the breeding grounds as compared to recent years when drier conditions prevailed.

Mallard ducks in flight
This year's Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey painted a disappointing picture as overall duck-breeding numbers fell some seven percent from last year, checking in at 32.320 million breeders as compared to 34.657 in 2022. Even more troubling in the report on Friday was a precipitous drop in mallard breeding numbers, which fell to 6.129 million breeders in 2023, down 16 percent from last year's 7.434 million. (Photo by Clayton Ferrell/USFWS)

"These results are somewhat disappointing, as we had hoped for better production from the eastern prairies following improved moisture conditions in spring of 2022," said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Dr. Steve Adair. "Last year’s nesting season was delayed with April snowstorms and May rains which likely impacted overall production. In the past, we have seen population growth lag moisture conditions as small, shallow wetlands recover from the lingering impacts of severe drought."

Breeding-duck numbers reflect the complex mix of waterfowl, habitat and weather conditions, according to DU’s Adair. To that end, the Memphis-based conservation organization noted in its news release that corresponding pond count numbers in the U.S. and Canada were estimated at 5 million in 2023, a figure some nine-percent below last year’s estimate of 5.5 million and slightly below the long-term average of 5.2 million ponds.

With those broad brushstrokes painting a disappointing overall picture for 2023, the specifics for each species were perhaps even more disappointing. Mallards, the key "puddle duck" species for many of the nation’s hunters in the Mississippi and Central Flyways, declined at an alarming rate to 6.129 million breeders in 2023. That’s a decrease of 18 percent from last year's 7.434 million breeders and a fall of 23 percent from the long-term average (LTA).

Blue-winged teal, the most important of the three North American teal species in September's early teal seasons due to their early migration push to the South, checked in at 5.253 million breeders in 2023, down 19 percent from last year's 6.491 million. Even so, bluewings remain just ahead of the LTA line, up two percent from the 1955-2022 average.

American wigeon also fell this year, falling down to 1.89 million breeders, a drop of 14 percent from 2022's breeding population estimate of 2.187 million. Even more disappointing is that cottontops, or baldpates as some hunters call wigeon, are down 28 percent compare to the LTA.

Gadwalls are another important puddle duck species that tumbled this year, checking in at 2.502 million breeders, down five percent from the 2022 figure of 2.685 million. Still, gadwall number is up 25 percent from the LTA.

Other species of note that nest in the primary breeding grounds of the northern U.S. and southern Canada include the northern shoveler (2.859 million breeders in 2023, down six percent from the 2022 figure of 3.036 million, but up eight percent from the LTA); redheads (931,000 breeders in 2023, down 13 percent from the 2022 figure of 1.067 million but up 27 percent from the LTA); and scaup (3.519 million in 2023, down four percent from 2022's 3.655 million breeders and down a disappointing 29 percent from the LTA).

Pintail duck nest with eggs
Despite a downward trend in overall duck-breeding numbers—including a troubling fall by mallards—this year's Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey did find a few positive trends. One of those is an increase in northern pintail numbers, something brought about by sights like this pintail nest found by biologists this spring. (Photo by Stephanie Catino/USFWS)

There are a handful of bright spots in the 2023 survey, including canvasbacks, which have 619,00 breeders in 2023, a figure that is up six percent from 2022's 587,000 and up five percent from the LTA. Also, the northern pintail, which has 2.219 million breeders in 2023, were up 24 percent from 2022’s 1.784 million, but also 43-percent below the LTA, and green-winged teal checked in at 2.504 million breeders in 2023, up 16 percent from last year's 2.151 million and up 15 percent over the LTA.

It’s worth noting that the 2023 FWS report also includes breeding-duck population estimates for six common duck species groups from the Eastern Survey Area, which covers from eastern Canada through the northeastern U.S. states in a region stretching from Maine to Virginia.

Recommended


In that survey area, mallards checked in at 1.20 million breeders in 2023 (down four percent from 2022's 1.254 million and down six percent from the LTA); wood ducks at 1 million (no change from 2022 and up 11 percent over the LTA); American black ducks at 732,000 (up eight percent from 2022's 676,000 breeders and up six percent from the LTA); mergansers at 949,000 (down one percent from 2022's 954,000 and up 24 percent over the LTA); goldeneyes at 848,000 (up 28 percent from 2022's 655,000 and up 28 percent over the LTA); ring-necked ducks at 660,000 (down three percent from 2022's 679,000 and down five percent from the LTA); and green-winged teal at 386,000 (up 17 percent from 2022's 330,000 and up nine percent over the LTA).

While the much-anticipated 2023 report gives biologists, wildlife managers and hunters a good look at where the breeding population stood a few weeks ago, it doesn’t give them a complete look at the overall picture concerning North America’s duck population and the fall flight that will begin in a few weeks.

And that’s where there might be a glimmer of hope heading into the upcoming fall waterfowl hunting seasons. To that end, Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl noted there’s still more to consider when figuring out this year’s waterfowl numbers puzzle.

"We don’t hunt the breeding population," Rohwer said in a news release. "We hunt the fall flight, which is made of the breeding population plus this year’s duck production. Duck production is the key to the upcoming hunting season."

Rohwer and others with the Bismarck, N.D.-based conservation group still believe there is reason for optimism if you have a retriever, a garage full of decoys and plans for a few early morning visits to the duck blind. That hope is based on rains after the WBPHS survey was completed, precipitation that Delta Waterfowl believes should boost duck production in key areas of the prairie pothole region, including North and South Dakota and southern Saskatchewan.

"I think duck production is going to be a much better picture than what we’re seeing in these survey numbers," Rohwer noted. "The Dakotas got rain in late May after the pond count data was assessed, and then we’ve had intermittent rain throughout the summer. Many areas of the key PPR breeding grounds stayed relatively wet, and that’s really good for re-nesting and duckling survival—two of the big drivers of duck production. Saskatchewan started the spring with better water conditions than in 2022, and summer rains helped keep that water later in the nesting season than we have seen in recent years. I was impressed by the number of blue-winged teal broods I saw in southern Saskatchewan in July."

duck hunter with golden retriever
Duck hunters and their labs may be grimacing a bit after news on Friday that this year's Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey indicated a downward trend in duck numbers. Of particular concern is a significant fall in mallard breeding numbers, although there could be a glimmer of hope thanks to precipitation trends this summer and the chance for a strong breeding effort. (Photo by Mike Peters/USFWS)

And while water and the habitat conditions it drives are the most important factors in each year's WBPHS report, Delta Waterfowl officials note that there are other considerations to factor into this year's waterfowl production, one of those being fewer predators on the landscape after last year's harsh winter in the Dakotas and southern Manitoba. With fewer raccoons and skunks out there, that could mean fewer predators on the landscape and better nesting success and recruitment for the ducks that hatched out broods.

"The Dakotas got a lot of snow in early November, and winter never let up until mid-April," said Mike Buxton, who directs Delta Waterfowl's Predator Management Program. "We never had that winter thaw. It was a long, hard, cold winter. Any animal that wasn’t in tip-top shape going into the winter probably had it rough."

DU’s waterfowl scientists also point out that another reason for guarded optimism is based on reports from waterfowl managers and wildlife disease experts of partner agencies, who so far don’t have any expectations of a significant impact of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) on duck populations after last year’s HPAI outbreak.

That being said, this year’s news on duck breeding population declines certainly brings concerns for biologists and hunters after several years of previously good to even record-breaking breeding population numbers.

According to Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam, this year’s disappointing survey report illustrates the ongoing need for investment in wildlife and waterfowl conservation efforts as habitat continues to be lost across North America. "As much as we have accomplished, these data confirm we have more work to do," he said.




GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

Trika Rods

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

New Shimano Baitcasters

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Hunting

Incredible Turkey Audio: Tommy Allen Punches his Minnesota Tag IN THE SNOW

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Destinations

First Turkey Ever: Perfect Conditions Make for a Short Hunt

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Froggin' Game Plan

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Videos

What to Know Before Going Off-Road

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Learn

Off-Road Safety Tips and Techniques

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

The Right Tires for Off-Roading

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Learn

Bass Crash Course: Shallow-Water Power Lures

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Destinations

Minnesota Double Down: First Visit to New Farm Goes Perfectly

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Fishing in the Wind

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Hunting

She Kills The Biggest Bird of the Year

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now