Duck numbers break modern record for second year in a row
By JIM MATTHEWS
For the second year in a row, duck numbers have broken all-time highs in North America since comprehensive surveys began in 1955, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Yet, in spite of the record-setting numbers of birds the last two years on the spring nesting grounds, both the USFWS and Ducks Unlimited, a national conservation group that funds massive waterfowl efforts across the continent, downplay that news. In the press materials from the two groups, there is no mention of how successful waterfowl conservation efforts have been restoring duck numbers.
The headline from Ducks Unlimited is “Duck numbers remain high.” That is a major understatement. The most popular and populous duck in North America, the mallard, also set an all-time high. That news isn’t even mentioned in the Ducks Unlimited press release. Green-wing teal, also set a survey record.
I just don’t get this. Hunters are leaving the sport in droves because of regulations, restrictions, and gloomy news on many species, but ducks are a bright spot, but no one is shouting about this success. Can duck numbers be higher? Sure, but doesn’t it make sense to crow about your conservation successes in this era of gloomy environmental news?
By the numbers, this is how it shakes out. This year’s nesting habitat survey estimated the total number of ducks at 49.5 million, just 300,000 thousand birds above last year’s record of 49.2 million. But that is 51 percent above the average number of ducks surveyed from 1955 through 2014. Mallard numbers have jumped from 10.9 million last year to 11.6 million this year, a six percent increase. Green-wing teal went from 3.4 million birds to 4.1 million over the past year, a 17 percent increase.
No, not everything is roses. There was a 12 percent decrease in pond-nesting habitat in the spring survey areas affected by drought, which could reduce the number of young birds flying south this fall. But it might not, too. It also looks like a lot of ducks few past the dry areas to more northern areas where nesting conditions were much better.
Pintail and scaup remain below long term averages, and both declined slightly again this year. Gadwall, wigeon, and blue-winged teal numbers remained very consistent, while shovelers declined from the all-time high set last year and redheads saw a slight decline but remains near record levels. Canvasback numbers increased, again approaching their all-time high population levels. Gadwall and Green-wings are about double their long-term average.
The bottom line is there are more ducks than there has ever been in my lifetime. That is incredible when you think of all the gloomy environmental news we are fed by the media each day about all types of habitat losses and species declines.
This is not really big news to hunters. Many hunted species are at modern, if not all time, highs. There are probably more wild turkeys in the nation than there has ever been. Elk and whitetail deer populations are certainly bigger than they have been in well over 100 years, and maybe all-time for whitetails.
I just wish the federal wildlife agencies and conservation groups would do a better job of reporting what a momentous period we are in for waterfowl.
Both Ducks Unlimited and the USFWS point out that the drought in more southern nesting areas shows the important of boreal habitat in northern Canada. Not to be contrary or to deny potential negative impacts of global warming (or climate change – whatever you want to call it), I have to wonder if the warming isn’t creating better nesting conditions for our ducks in those northern climates because less water is locked up in permafrost and ice, meaning there are increasingly more bogs and ponds up north. Maybe if global warming continues, our duck numbers will increase to the point they rival numbers described by early explorers on this continent. Doesn’t it make sense that would be the case?
Or am I just a crackpot who’s watched duck numbers increase during the same period when global warming has reportedly accelerated. That’s just been a coincidence.