August 22, 2023
On the surface, the news released earlier today concerning the 2023 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey wasn’t what waterfowl scientists and hunters had hoped for.
While not disastrous, it certainly wasn’t the rosy report that many had hoped for this year.
That disappointing news is based on the pond counts and duck breeding population surveys conducted in May and early June by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and other partners. With those efforts earlier this year, wildlife officials report that this year’s estimate of 32.3 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area is a decline of seven-percent from last year’s 34.7 million ducks. Worse yet, this year’s figure falls below the long-term average (1955-2022, except for 2020 and 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled survey work) by a full nine percent.
“These results are somewhat disappointing, as we had hoped for better production from the eastern prairies following improved moisture conditions in spring of 2022,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Dr. Steve Adair. “Last year’s nesting season was delayed with April snowstorms and May rains which likely impacted overall production. In the past, we have seen population growth lag moisture conditions as small, shallow wetlands recover from the lingering impacts of severe drought.”
Adair noted that this year’s duck numbers reflect the complex mix of waterfowl, habitat, and weather conditions. To that end, the Memphis, Tenn. based DU noted in its news release that corresponding pond count numbers in the U.S. and Canada were estimated at 5 million in 2023, a figure some nine percent below last year’s estimate of 5.5 million and slightly below the long-term average of 5.2 million ponds.
How did wildlife scientists arrive at this snapshot of the 2023 duck breeding population status? The information stems from the WBPHS that began in 1947, a collective effort between biologists and pilots who make up ground crews and aerial crews surveying a 2-million acre survey region on both sides of the U.S./Canada border each spring and early summer.
As these scientists and pilots fly and trek across traditional breeding areas stretching from Alaska's Seward Peninsula to the boreal forests and prairie pothole regions of Canada to the northern high plains of the U.S. and eastward to Newfoundland, data is collected to determine the population size and trends for 19 North American duck species, Canada geese, and swans. Habitat conditions are also evaluated by counting waterfowl breeding ponds available on the nesting landscape.
After several weeks of flying, driving, and hiking, the biological data that is collected works to inform wildlife managers with the information they need to make this year’s breeding population estimate and fuel hunting regulatory decisions.
With those broad brushstrokes painting a disappointing overall picture for this year’s much anticipated snapshot of breeding duck numbers, the specifics were also disappointing, and perhaps even more so. Mallards, the bread-and-butter ducks for many of the nation’s hunters in the Mississippi and Central Flyways, declined a good bit, falling to 6.129 million breeders in 2023. That’s a decrease of 18 percent from last year's 7.434 million breeders and a fall of some 23 percent below the long-term average (LTA).
Blue-winged teal, the most important of the three North American teal species in next month's early teal seasons due to their early migration push to the south, checked in at 5.253 million breeders in 2023, down 19 percent from last year's 6.491 million figure. Even so, bluewings remain just ahead of the LTA line, two percent above the 1955-2022 average.
American wigeon also tumbled this year, falling down to 1.89-million breeders, a drop of 14 percent from 2022's breeding population estimate of 2.187 million. Even more disappointing is that cottontops, or baldpates as some hunters call wigeon, are a full 28 percent below the LTA.
Gadwalls are another important species that fell this year, checking in at 2.502 million breeders, down five percent from the 2022 figure of 2.685-million. Still, the important puddle duck species that commonly finds its way into hunter's daily bag limits sits 25 percent above the LTA.
Other species of note that nest in the primary breeding grounds of the northern U.S. and southern Canada include the northern shoveler (2.859 million breeders in 2023, down six percent from the 2022 figure of 3.036 million but still eight percent above the LTA); redheads (0.931 million breeders in 2023, down 13 percent from the 2022 figure of 1.067 million but still 27 percent above the LTA); and scaup (3.519 million in 2023, down four percent from 2022's 3.655 million breeders and a disappointing 29 percent below the LTA).
On the bright side of this year's duck breeding population survey report is the canvasback, which has 0.619 million breeders in 2023, up six percent from 2022's figure of 0.587 million and five percent above the LTA. Also supplying some good news is the northern pintail, which has 2.219 million breeders in 2023, up 24 percent from 2022’s 1.784 million, but also sitting some 43 percent below the LTA. And green-winged teal checked in at 2.504 million breeders in 2023, up 16 percent from last year's figure of 2.151 million and up 15 percent over the LTA.
Also included in the 2023 FWS report are breeding population estimates for six common duck species groups from the Eastern Survey Area, which covers eastern Canada and the northeastern states from Virginia to Maine.
In that survey area, mallards checked in at 1.20 million breeders in 2023 (down fourvpercent from 2022's 1.254 million and down six percent from the LTA); wood ducks at 1.00 million (no change from 2022 and up 11 percent over the LTA); American black ducks at 0.732 million (up eight percent from 2022's 0.676 million breeders and six percent above the LTA); mergansers at 0.949 million (down one percent from 2022's 0.954 million and up 24 percent over the LTA); goldeneyes at 0.848 million (up 28 percent from 2022's 0.655 million and up 28 percent over the LTA); ring-necked ducks at 0.660 million (down three percent from 2022's 0.679 million and down five percent over the LTA); and green-winged teal at 0.386 million (up 17 percent from 2022's 0.330 million and up nine percent over the LTA).
While today’s much anticipated annual report gives biologists, wildlife managers, and hunters a good look at where the breeding population stood a few weeks ago, it doesn’t give those stakeholders a complete look at this year’s overall picture concerning North America’s duck population and the fall flight that will be produced in a few weeks.
To that end, Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl noted that there’s still more to consider when figuring out this year’s waterfowl numbers puzzle.
“We don’t hunt the breeding population,” Rohwer said in a news release. “We hunt the fall flight, which is made of the breeding population plus this year’s duck production. Duck production is the key to the upcoming hunting season.”
Rohwer and others with the Bismarck, N.D. based conservation group still believe there is reason for optimism this fall if you have a retriever, a garage full of decoys, and plans for a few early morning visits to the duck blind.
That hope is based on rains after the WBPHS survey was completed, precipitation that Delta Waterfowl believes should boost duck production in key areas of the prairie pothole region, including North and South Dakota and southern Saskatchewan.
“I think duck production is going to be a much better picture than what we’re seeing in these survey numbers,” Rohwer noted. “The Dakotas got rain in late May after the pond count data was assessed, and then we’ve had intermittent rain throughout the summer.
“Many areas of the key PPR breeding grounds stayed relatively wet, and that’s really good for renesting and duckling survival—two of the big drivers of duck production. Saskatchewan started the spring with better water conditions than in 2022, and summer rains helped keep that water later in the nesting season than we have seen in recent years. I was impressed by the number of blue-winged teal broods I saw in southern Saskatchewan in July.”
And while water and the habitat conditions it drives are the most important factors in each year's WBPHS report, Delta Waterfowl officials note that there are other considerations that will factor into this year's waterfowl production, one of those being fewer predators on the landscape after last year's harsh winter in the Dakotas and southern Manitoba. With fewer raccoons and skunks out there, that could mean fewer predators on the landscape and better nesting success and recruitment for the ducks that hatched out broods.
"The Dakotas got a lot of snow in early November, and winter never let up until mid-April,” said Mike Buxton, who directs Delta Waterfowl's Predator Management Program. “We never had that winter thaw. It was a long, hard, cold winter. Any animal that wasn’t in tip-top shape going into the winter probably had it rough.”
DU’s waterfowl scientists also point out that another reason for guarded optimism is based on reports from waterfowl managers and wildlife disease experts of partner agencies, who so far don’t have any expectations of a significant impact of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) on duck populations this year after last year’s HPAI outbreak.
That being said, this year’s news on duck breeding population declines certainly brings concerns for biologists and hunters after several years of previously good to even record breaking breeding population numbers. That illustrates the ongoing need for investment in wildlife and waterfowl conservation efforts.
"Lower than expected numbers in this year's survey reinforce the need for wetlands conservation as habitat continues to be lost across the continent," said DU CEO Adam Putnam. "For over 86 years, DU has focused on North American wetlands and grasslands that sustain healthy waterfowl populations, and support clean water for people, too. As much as we have accomplished, these data confirm we have more work to do."