Mallards and pintails are experiencing significant population declines, according to the 2023 Ducks Unlimited Waterfowl Population Survey.
Released Aug. 18, the survey estimates the North American mallard population at 6.1 million. It is the most abundant duck species, but the survey notes with subtle alarm that mallards experienced reductions of 18% and 23% in consecutive years from the long-term average.
Northern pintails, whose numbers have been trending downward for decades, hit a record low of 1.78 million in 2022. At 1.75 million, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will close the season on them.
In 2023, observers noted a 24% increase to 2.2 million birds. That’s encouraging, but this year’s pintail population still represents a 43% decline over the long-term average.
For perspective, consider that the pintail was once considered a “trash” duck. During the point system of the 1970s and 1980s, a drake pintail was worth 10 points in the federal point system, which limited hunters to an aggregate daily bag limit of 100 points. Under that system you could kill up to 10 pintail drakes a day if you didn’t kill anything else. Mallard drakes were worth 25 points, and a mallard hen was worth 75 points.
Thankfully, pintails have accrued a much higher stature. Hunters like them and care about them, and we are happy to see a spike in their number.
Steve Adair, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited, said that long-term declines are attributable to the continuing loss and degradation of habitat in the prairies. This will have long-term impacts on carrying capacity and productivity.
Chris Nikolai, chief scientist for Delta Waterfowl, speculates that pintails might be more numerous than surveys indicate. He believes that pintails might be nesting farther north due to habitat loss in the south. Pintails are increasingly absent from the traditional survey area, but they might be numerous in places where researchers aren’t looking.
On the other hand, pintails nesting farther north will also produce fewer young, so even if pintails are being miscounted, the difference is essentially a wash.
This theory is not supported by any published research.
The downward trend of the American wigeon is almost identical to that of the mallard. The wigeon experienced a 14% percent drop from 2022, and a 28% decrease from its long-term average.
Overall, the survey counted a total of of 32.3 million ducks. That is a 7% decrease from 2022, and 9% down from the long-term average. Seven of the 10 species counted declined from 2022, but six species increased above their respective long-term averages.
Scientists are disappointed in the survey results because habitat conditions were good, especially on the eastern prairies, which experienced a wet spring. It is possible, Adair said, that population growth hasn’t caught up with the temporary improvement in conditions yet, especially after unusual weather patterns in 2022 pushed back the nesting timeline.
Gadwall numbers, estimated at 2.562 million, dropped 5% from 2022, but they are 25% above their long-term average.
Green-winged teal are thriving. Their numbers, estimated at 2.504 million, surged 16% above 2022, and they are 15% above their long-term average.
Blue-winged teal aren’t doing as well. At 5.253 million, their numbers fell 19% below 2022, but they are 2% above their long-term average.
Northern shovelers, estimated at 2.859 million, fell 6% from 2022, but they are 8% above their long-term average.
Redheads, whose number fell below 1 million in 2023, declined 13% from 2022, but they are 27% above their long-term average.
Researchers counted only 619,000 canvasbacks. That’s a 6% increase from 2022 and 5% above their long-term average.
Scaup, numbering 3.519 million, declined 4% from 2022, and they are 29% below their long-term average.
The declines are proportional to a decline in available breeding habitat during the spring. Researchers counted 4.975 ponds in the United States and Canada, compared to 5.457 ponds in May 2022. That’s a 9% decrease and a 5% drop from the long-term average.