Are Duck Migrations Changing?

Are Duck Migrations Changing?

Almost everything changes, even in the waterfowling world. (Photo By: Dean Pearson)

As I listen to a bitter north wind blowing outside as I write this, I distinctly remember the first time I saw the print Pintail Alley, the first artwork of the late sporting artist John Cowan that I had ever laid eyes on.

Featuring a steely gray dawn as a pair of waterfowlers chased the pintails that once made duck hunting famous on the Texas Gulf Coast, the print from the talented artist’s hands immortalized the coastal waterfowling possibilities along the Lone Star State’s saltwater edge. And the very real possibility—back in the era of the points system, that is—of being able to take a limit of 10 bull sprigs in hallowed spots like Port O’Connor, Rockport, and the Laguna Madre.

I first saw that painting in the Sportsman’s Restaurant in Eagle Lake, Texas one morning as my friend Steve Hollensed and I waited on our guide Rod, who worked for the Clifton Tyler Goose Hunting Club. As we shoveled in fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns, our heads swiveled about, looking at all of the waterfowling artwork, the photos of famous people going on snow goose hunts, and plenty of duck and goose taxidermy mounts on the wall.

That entire area—both the rice prairies and the coastal flats so rich with waterfowl—seemed like an annual fall and wintertime pageant of wings that promised to go on forever.

Except that it didn’t. Eventually—even after my wife gave me the Cowan print Rags to Riches for Christmas one year—the celebrated rice field goose hunting and the nearby pintail rich coastal flats saw the inevitable pendulum of change from climate shifts, altered agricultural practices, and land development.

flock of pintail ducks flying above a marsh
While there is still some fairly good hunting in that same region, it’s only a shadow of what it once was as those long-ago clouds of snow geese stormed the fields and big flocks of pintails circled, and circled, and circled. (Photo By: Dean Pearson)

A Change in the Air

And that leads to the main topic of this particular Conservation Corner, the question of whether or not duck migrations are changing. And while the simple answer is yes, just like they always have, the more complete answer brings plenty of complexity and nuance, more than this space will allow for. But the trends are obvious, as many southern duck hunters have lamented in recent seasons.

“I would say that waterfowl migration patterns have definitely seen some changes,” said Dr. Steve Adair, the Bismarck, North Dakota based chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited. “But there are a number of factors in play, including changing climate conditions, food resources, and changes in disturbances for waterfowl. And depending on the particular year, and how those various factors come together, all of those changes can be different, at least in how they impact ducks and how they move about through the flyways.”

Adair knows what he is talking about, having seen himself the changes described at this column’s outset as pintails have seen a big downturn in their population numbers while lots of Texas snow geese—the same ones that used to winter in the rice fields around Eagle Lake, El Campo, and the Katy Prairie near Houston—have shifted northeastward towards the rice fields in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie region near Stuttgart.

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The Texas Shuffle

Growing up in Angleton, Texas, and getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas in Austin, a masters from Texas A&M, and his PhD from Utah State, Adair has certainly witnessed the changes in the Lone Star State. But he also points out that in many cases, waterfowl species remain resilient and resist change as long as their daily needs are being met.

In fact, some of Adair’s work as a biologist has occurred on the famed King and Kennedy ranches of the South Texas coastal plains, important work that showed why so many of the North American continent’s redheads consistently utilize the coastal reaches between Houston and northeastern Mexico every winter. Put simply, after spending the day on the grass rich, hyper saline waters of the Texas coast, those redheads retreat inland, looking for a freshwater drink.

But even in coastal South Texas, where redheads have migrated for many years, change can happen as coastal freeze events take place—one was happening as this column was written with Adair’s North Dakota home far below zero and my Texas home in the low teens—along with the passage of strong tropical cyclones like Hurricane Harvey, the never-ending cycle of drought and floods, and human intrusion, all of those things interacting.

blue-winged teal drake swimming in a marsh
Change, in some form or another, is a constant for wildlife and fish species these days, species that have been learning to change and adapt for eons. (Photo By: Dean Pearson)

Shifting and Swinging

And it’s not just Texas where such change is noted. All across the southern latitudes, from one end of the country to the other, change is in the wind, sometimes subtly and slowly over time and sometimes quite quickly and harshly.

Take, for instance, the ongoing issue of climate change that is altering the waterfowler’s landscape. Ask hunters in South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and westward to California, and many have stories in recent years of sitting in once busy duck blinds and wondering where all of their favorite duck species have disappeared to now.

“There is certainly mounting evidence of ducks wintering further north, and waterfowl that are arriving in southern areas of the country later than they once did and leaving southern places earlier than they used to,” Adair said, noting a recent study of 16 common duck species that winter in the southeastern U.S.

That study, which was reported in the spring of 2021, was a joint effort between the National Audubon Society and Clemson University’s James C. Kennedy Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation Center. The resulting work showed that as temperatures have changed in the past 50 years, so have the wintering duck populations noted above, which have shifted northward over time, even if their numbers have remained somewhat steady.

Based on Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count from 1969 through 2019, and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, the mid-winter study by biologists and individual citizens, confirms that waterfowl species like the East Coast’s black duck are indeed staying further north as the years pass by.

“We’ve suspected that warming temperatures are changing the types of waterfowl that we’re seeing in different regions, and these data confirm that,” said Dr. Tim Meehan, an ecologist and lead author, in an online Audubon story that dealt with the study’s results. “The weather has stopped becoming severe enough in the winter to prompt the birds to fly south. They’re staying farther north, and they’re telling us that something fundamental has changed in their environment.”

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Factors of Change

In addition to changing weather, and open reservoirs and rivers in the north, the availability of food resources like corn and soybeans are shifting the annual migration patterns too, along with urban development and hunting pressure in certain spots.

Adair, who has done biological study work in South Carlina, notes that waterfowling in the Palmetto State has certainly changed in the past two or three decades for waterfowlers used to seeing mallards and black ducks at their Low Country duck camps, places that now see species like green-winged teal and gadwalls drop into decoy spreads more often.

“That can certainly be disappointing for families and clubs with traditions of hunting those bigger ducks,” he said. “Because you’ve got to shift techniques and traditions at times to other species.”

One prime example of this shift in waterfowl migration patterns is the black brant, a species that wings its way from Alaska down the North American continent’s west coast.

“A group of us were up in Cold Bay and the Aleutian Islands recently, on a kind of bucket list hunt for species we typically don’t see, like the harlequin duck and the black brant,” said Adair. “In years past, the black brant population would leave the Arctic country, hit the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, and fly south to Baja. Now, up to 40-percent of them winter in Alaska, and that’s definitely a wow kind of thing.”

Keep in mind that such changes aren’t confined to the waterfowler’s world, either. For anglers, Adair points out that snook are appearing further north along the Texas Gulf Coast. I’d add that the same thing is happening for striped bass that in some cases, are staying further north these days during the winter months along the Atlantic Seaboard.

In the hunting world, there has even been a push of white-winged doves to the north, a species that historically was confined to Mexico and extreme southern Texas before the infamous December 1983 two-week long freeze that wiped out nesting habitat in the citrus groves of the Rio Grande Valley. Today, big numbers of whitewings are seen further north, and the species is pushing eastward to some extent according to anecdotal reports.

Tipping the Scales

Also keep in mind that this is not just true on a macro scale, but also on a smaller, more localized scale too.

Case in point is my own backyard in North Texas, a place that once upon a time had a smorgasbord of greenheads—not Stuttgart, Ark. good, mind you, but still pretty good—back in the 1980s and 1990s when peanuts were farmed all across the region. In fact, when I first started duck hunting in high school, most greenheads that came to my duck strap had craws bulging with peanuts.

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During that infamous 1983 freeze referenced above, my longtime hunting mentor and friend Jim Lillis, a man who retired from Ducks Unlimited as a senior regional director a few years ago and someone with six decades plus of waterfowling experience, had some almost unimaginably good hunting at times, especially during events like the 1983 cold snap.

Launching his airboat onto the ice during that cold snap, Lillis and his hunting partners slid across the hardened water for several miles until they finally found what they were looking for. And that was a spot of water kept open near the Red River channel by scores of hungry mallards that were feeding in nearby peanut fields.

For several days running during the Christmas holiday break, Lillis and his cronies couldn’t drive the ducks out of that hole, shooting easy limits of tasty mallard drakes, then settling back to drink steaming hot coffee and watch the ongoing aerial show.

Why the easy shooting? Peanuts and open water, that’s why.

“Anytime you’ve got ice out on these lakes, the rivers attract good numbers of these birds because of the open, flowing water,” said Lillis.

But while cold weather and ice still comes to North Texas from time to time, the goobers went away after changes in the 1990s. Also going away were scores of peanut fed mallards that once descended upon the region every December and January.

But even with the changes in what constitutes his daily bag limit—including fewer lesser Canada geese, waterfowl that now opt to skip the Red River Valley and winter in the agricultural rich areas of northwestern Texas and western Oklahoma—Lillis continues to adapt and change as he, his son Jeff, and friends still get up early and toss the decoys out before dawn.

“We don’t have the number of mallards, pintails, and even green-winged teal that we once had,” said Lillis. “But there are still ducks to be hunted, since now we seem to have more gadwalls, wigeon, and divers than maybe we once did.”

And in some years, Lillis notes that there are surprises in his waterfowling backyard.

“I have a friend that fishes a lot on a nearby lake,” said Lillis. “He called me up the other day to talk and he said there were a lot of ducks on his end of the lake, more than he remembered seeing in a good while.”

Showing that ducks are resilient, they keep flying down the flyways each fall, and you never know what you’ll see out in the duck blind.

As long as you’re willing to set the alarm clock early and go, that is. Because while the puzzle of migration is changing, no doubt, the ducks are still getting restless and winging south every fall and winter, just like they have since the beginning of time.