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Breeding waterfowl numbers are up 39 percent in California


The number of breeding waterfowl in California is more than one-third higher than last year and jumped to its highest level since 2011, according to surveys conducted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife late this spring.

Melanie Weaver, the DFW scientist in charge of the state’s waterfowl program, said that waterfowl numbers topped a half-million for the first time in six years, and the total of nearly 550 million waterfowl this year is the highest since the 558 million tallied in 2011. It is also 39 percent higher than the 397 million tally for 2017.

“Given the good upland and wetland habitat conditions last year from excessive precipitation, we anticipated good production,” said Weaver. “We are pleased to see that higher recruitment reflected in this year’s breeding population survey.”

The 2018 breeding population of mallards, the most abundant waterfowl species in the state, increased from 198,000 in 2017 to 273,000 in this year. Gadwall are the second most populous duck in the state and their numbers jumped to 103,000 and cinnamon teal rose to 78,000. There were also increases in the numbers of northern shovelers, wood ducks, redheads, and canvasback.

There were declines registered for American wigeon, northern pintail, lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, ruddy duck, and common merganser. But Weaver gave two possible explanations for these dips. First, none of these species are considered “strong nesters” in California, according to Weaver. They migrate through the state, but don’t breed here in high numbers. And second, the survey is designed for dabbling ducks, meaning that diving ducks (such as mergansers) are harder for biologists to detect.

The survey also included Canada geese, which essentially remain the same in number between last year and this year at 55,000. (Canada geese are detected and recorded throughout the survey; however, the number reported refers to the traditional nesting population in northeastern California.)

CDFW biologists and warden pilots have conducted this survey annually using fixed-wing aircraft since 1948. The population estimates are for those areas where the vast majority of waterfowl nesting occurs in California, including wetland and agricultural areas in northeastern California, throughout the Central Valley, the Suisun Marsh, and some coastal valleys.

In 2018, the survey was flown April 24-28 in the Central Valley and May 9-10 in northeastern California. A few planned survey segments were cancelled due to weather conditions (fog in the Napa-Santa Rosa area, and high winds in a few planned transects in the northeastern part of the state). However, the crew was able to cover 97 percent of the planned survey transects.

The news is especially welcome for duck hunters in the state, which saw mallard numbers decline for three consecutive years prior to 2016. But that year the nesting population of mallards jumped from 174,000 in 2015 to 265, 000 in 2016. The number declined to 198,000 in 2017, but surged again this year to 273,000.

The majority of California’s wintering duck population originates from breeding areas surveyed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Alaska and Canada. Those survey results should be available in early August, but overall numbers have been at or near modern highs for the past several years.

DFW survey information, along with similar data from other Pacific Flyway states, is used by the USFWS and the Pacific Flyway Council when setting hunting regulations for the Pacific Flyway states, including California. Those seasons will be adopted after this data is compiled, but are not expected to be appreciably different than those last year.


Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.

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