Annual Breeding Waterfowl Population Survey Returns, Estimates 34.2 Million Ducks

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BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA — After being cancelled for the previous two years by concerns over COVID-19, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service were able to conduct the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey this spring. The results were released today in USFWS 2022 Waterfowl Status Report.

The survey, which is used to set hunting regulations throughout North America, put the total spring breeding population index at 34.2 million ducks, which is 4% below the long-term average and 12% below the 2019 index. Importantly, the May pond count, a key indicator of duck production potential, showed 5.45 million ponds, which is 4% above the long-term average and 9% above the 2019 index.

“Given the widespread dry conditions last year across most of the prairies where ducks breed, it’s not surprising that the breeding population number is lower than it had been throughout most of the 2010s,” said Dr. Chris Nicolai, waterfowl scientist for Delta Waterfowl. “The good news is that much of the prairie — especially the Dakotas, Manitoba, and eastern Saskatchewan — was really wet this spring. Duck production should be good to excellent across the eastern part of the prairie and in the northern areas, too.”

Duck production is typically high the first year following a drought, said Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta’s president and chief scientist.

“Predators have a hard time in drought years just like ducks do, so ducks tend to get a break the when the water comes back on the prairies,” he said. “Our Predator Management sites and duck nesting surveys are showing very high nest success this year.”

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Delving into the survey results, the breeding mallard population was estimated at 7.22 million, which is 9% below the long-term average in the survey, which dates back to 1955. In fact, the breeding mallard population is the lowest since 2005. Still, mallard production should be good this year across much of the prairie.

Blue-winged teal, the second-most abundant duck in the survey at 6.49 million, are 27% above the long-term average and 19% above the 2019 population. Green-winged teal indexed at 2.17 million, a 32% decrease from 2019 but right at the long-term average.

“Teal numbers are the surprise of the survey,” Rohwer said. “It’s the opposite of what we might expect, with bluewings being so high and greenwings being down.”

Among other puddle ducks, gadwalls came in at 2.67 million, down 18% but still 30% above the long-term average. Wigeon declined 25% to 2.13 million, 19% below the long-term average, while shovelers at 3.04 million remain 15% above the long-term average.

Among the diving duck species estimated in the survey, scaup, a.k.a. bluebills, were estimated at 3.6 million, 28% below the long-term average but unchanged from 2019. Canvasbacks came in at 585,000, which is 1% below the long-term average and 10% below 2019. Redheads increased to 991,000, up 35% from 2019 and 36% above the long-term average.

“Prairie-nesting duck species such as blue-winged teal, gadwalls, mallards and redheads should really benefit from the wet conditions in the eastern Dakotas and Manitoba,” Nicolai said. “Hunters should see a lot more young ducks compared to last year. Remember that we hunt the fall flight, not just the breeding population. The years when duck production is strong — like this year should be — generally provide the best hunting seasons.”

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Pintails remain stuck in a long-term decline. They were estimated at 1.78 million, which is 21% below 2019 and 54% below the long-term average. Their numbers are the lowest in the history of the survey.

“It’s not surprising given the drought in Saskatchewan and on the prairies last year,” Rohwer said. “It was a real bad recipe for pintails to nest.”

In the Eastern Survey Area, which estimates duck abundance on breeding grounds in the Atlantic Flyway, mallards were up 15%, black ducks climbed 9% and green-winged teal numbers rose 7% percent from 2019. Ring-necked duck populations were down 11%, goldeneyes increased 23% and mergansers were up 13%. Waterfowl breeding habitat conditions were good to excellent across the Eastern Survey Area this spring.

May pond counts are a key driver of duck production, and the news is good for most of the prairie in 2022. Drought gripped the Prairie Pothole Region in 2021, but a series of major storms dumped snow and heavy rains across Manitoba and the Dakotas earlier this year, recharging critical wetland basins. That’s reflected in the May pond count, which showed 1.98 million ponds in the north-central United States, and 3.47 million ponds in prairie Canada. The total of 5.45 million ponds is 4% above the long-term average and 9% above 2019.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>