2022 North American Spring Waterfowl Breeding Survey Results Are in With Ups and Downs

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2022 North American Spring Waterfowl Breeding Survey Results Are in With Ups and Downs

After waterfowl breeding surveys were locked out due to the COVID-19 pandemic in both 2020 and 2021, biologists and aviators with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service were able to get back out this past May. (Photo By: Robert Thiemann/Unsplash.com)

Back in the Saddle

When they flew familiar survey routes in the various parts of North America’s duck breeding grounds, they found much of what they expected after drought and a two-year absence of hard data. And that news, conveyed in the release of the USFWS 2022 Waterfowl Status Report showed that indeed, North America’s duck populations have slid down a bit from historic highs recorded only a few years ago.

But still, things aren’t as glum as they could have been given the two years of missing data and the serious 2021 drought that gripped big portions of the so-called Duck Factory in the northern Great Plains and southern Canada. And there are also plenty of bright spots to look at individually, with several species trending strongly in the right direction.

dry, cracked mud in cornfield during drought
Several areas in the middle of North America were affected by droughts in 2021. (Photo By: Md. Hasanuzzaman Himel/Unsplash.com)

Breaking News

That news came down today, on Friday, August 19, just weeks before early teal seasons will open in a number of places across the North American continent. And not far behind that will be waterfowl campaigns in Canada and the northern U.S.

With all of that looming in a few weeks, the USFWS report showed that total waterfowl breeding numbers in the routinely surveyed portions of the North American duck factory numbered an estimated 34.2 million birds in 2022, a full 12 percent lower than the 38.9 million that biologists estimated in the last survey back in 2019. While the falling count wasn’t unexpected, it was four-percent below the long-term average (LTA) between 1955 and 2019.

By the Numbers

In a breakdown by species, the waterfowl breeding population survey this year shows that breeding mallards numbered at 7.223 million greenheads in 2022, down from 9.423 million in 2019, a 23-percent fall over the past three years and a 9-percent departure from the LTA.

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Next up in terms of biggest overall numbers is the blue-winged teal, which are starting to push south through the flyways in advance of September early teal seasons. In terms of breeding numbers, blue-wings showed 6.485 million birds in 2022. That’s actually up 19-percent from 2019’s figure of 5.427 million and up 27-percent over the LTA.

Bluebills (greater and lesser scaup) had 3.599 million birds in this year’s breeding population survey, basically unchanged from 2019’s 3.590 million birds. Still, with bluebills struggling against the historical norms, the species is 28-percent below the LTA.

drake bluebill flying over water
Bluebills (greater and lesser scaup, are one of a few waterfowl species to have been reported with numbers well below their long-term average population. (Photo By: Ray Hennessy/Unsplash.com)

Other Waterfowl Species Surveyed

Gadwalls at 2.665 million in 2022, compared to 3.258 million in 2019; this year’s numbers are down 18 percent from 2019, but up 30-percent from the LTA.

American wigeon at 2.127 million in 2022, compared to 2.832 million in 2019; this year’s numbers are down 25 percent from 2019 and 19 percent against the LTA.

Green-winged teal stand at 2.170 million birds this year in the breeding population survey, down from 3.178 million in 2019; this year’s numbers are down 32 percent from 2019 but fall right on the long-term average.

Northern Shovelers had a 2022 breeding population figure of 3.041 million birds, down from 2019’s 3.649 million breeding birds; this year’s figures are 17 percent below the shoveler’s breeding number from three years ago but are up 15 percent over the LTA.

Northern Pintails had 1.783 million birds this year in the survey, down from 2.268 million pintails in 2019; this year’s numbers are down 21 percent from 2019 and down a stunning 54 percent as compared to the LTA.

Redheads have 0.991 million breeders this year, compared to 0.732 million breeding redheads in 2019; those figures are bright spots in this year’s survey, up 35 percent from 2019 and up 36 percent against the LTA.

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Canvasback stand at 0.585 million breeding cans in 2022, down from 2019’s breeding population number of 0.651 million; those numbers are down 10 percent from three years ago and down 1 percent versus the LTA.

While waterfowl managers and hunting industry veterans like Wildfowl editor Skip Knowles are still digesting today’s breaking news, there are certainly a few reasons to smile.

“Overall numbers might be down a bit from 2019, but there are certainly a few positives this year, like big increases in redheads and blue-winged teal, and gadwall still way above long-term averages,” said Knowles. “We always said here at WILDFOWL that those island-nesting gaddies were the duck of the future! Considering the brutality and depth of the 2021 drought we could be in much worse shape. We all can’t wait to go hunting this fall and expect to see plenty of ducks over our decoys.”

waterfowl hunter in goose decoys at sunrise
While there may be some bumps and blips in waterfowl populations, the opportunity to hunt them will not be in short supply this season. (Photo By: Jeff Phillips)

The Look Ahead

The biologists are singing a similar tune to Knowles, noting that there is some glum news in the downward trend in numbers, but also a few bright spots to cheer.

“Although the beneficial effects of timely precipitation during late winter and spring were evident by high pond counts across the eastern prairies, the total duck estimate in the Traditional Survey Area was the lowest in nearly 20 years,” said Dr. Steve Adair, the Bismarck, ND based chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited, in their news release.

“The drop in duck numbers reflects the consequences of low production caused by multiple years of prairie drought, including 2021,” added Adair, “Which was one of the most severe and widespread in nearly 4 decades. But the survey revealed some bright spots for duck populations and provided optimism for good production this summer and carry-over of favorable pond conditions into fall and winter.”

Delta Waterfowl’s biologists also pointed out the increased water and potential for both late-hatches this summer and good carry-over into the fall and winter, hopefully setting the stage for a better spring of production in 2024. Those hopes are fueled by this year’s better precipitation trends, which found the May pond count showing 5.45 million ponds, some four-percent above the LTA and nine-percent above the 2019 figure.

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“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, in the news release from the Bismarck, N.D. based conservation organization. “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.”

Even with the downturn in spring breeding numbers, Nicolai would classify this year’s breeding effort as a strong one. And that will hopefully mean that hunters will be mostly happy this fall when they return to their duck blinds, toss out the decoys, and watch the skies with a whining retriever.

“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,” said Nicolai in another Delta press release. “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.”

Whatever the breeding numbers are this year, and whatever the full effects are on the fall flight this autumn, there’s once again plenty of incentive to do all that one can do to support the cause of waterfowl and wetland conservation, from buying excise-tax paying new gear to purchasing an extra duck stamp to introducing someone new to the sport of waterfowling, and of course, by attending your favorite local conservation fundraising dinner and spending a few George Washingtons.

Because in wet years and dry, the work of waterfowl conservation never ceases, global pandemic or not.

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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 >>