December 11, 2021
The morning push to our spot wasn’t easy. The water was skinny, the bottom was soft, and the tide and wind both were inbound. Everything shifted overnight, and those conditions pushed so much dang cord grass close to shore that I didn’t think I could pole through it. The motivation came when the skies opened and rain spit in our faces. Jeff and I knew it was going to be good.
Our anchor point was a channel edge beyond the curve in the 10-acre patch of reeds and salt hay. When the tide was right, the birds would leave their roosting areas, fly over the dunes and into the wind, cup their wings, and drift into the open water next to the reeds. They’d pause for a bit, check things out, and if the coast was clear they’d swim into the reeds. They’d get three hours of feeding until half tide when the water was too deep, when they’d pick up and move to a shallower area.
Fifteen minutes after legal shooting they arrived, right on schedule. There were three of ‘em, all black duck drakes, and they flew towards us and cupped when they saw our spread. I sat up, Jeff sat up, and after a boom, boom only one flew away. After that, I could have sworn I was in Arkansas. There was an eruption of wings pushing air that resembled a Marine Corps Harrier at lift off. Brittle, hollow stems snapped, crackled and popped, and when the flock was all in the air the sky went black.
There were a thousand black ducks if there was one, but Jeff and I were limited out. Wouldn’t you know those ducks taunted us for the next few hours. They piled in, a dozen here, four or five there, a pair or three. It was almost like they studied the regs and knew we'd limited out.
“I’m tired of shooting black ducks,” I said.
“Me too,” Jeff said. “It’s a lot of work for a one and done.”
“A little diversity would be nice.”
“Let’s shoot some sea ducks.”
East Coast Views
While the rest of the country is light on black ducks, we’re covered up with ‘em here in Cape Cod. I first noticed the change during the 1997-1998 El Nino era. Normally we’d hunt puddle ducks inland. When the ponds and rivers froze solid and the ducks bailed, we’d head to the coast for Brant, seaducks, and divers. It was still cold inland, but El Nino kept the coastline free and clear of ice. The Canadas and the black ducks moved to the sea, and were joined by migratory black ducks from Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, and they stayed for the winter. That four-year period of unusually warm winters with lots of precipitation altered their migration, just as it did with Canada geese.
The black ducks haven’t had it very easy over time. During the market hunting era that also included spring harvests, black ducks were wary enough to avoid much of the traditional areas. They first started favoring the coast in the early 1970’s, and that was driven by habitat changes. A 50% loss of shallow freshwater marshes occurred between 1951-1971, and urbanization of farmlands contributed, too. Folks don’t cotton much to bugs, and heavy amounts of pesticides including DDT were sprayed to keep the mosquitos away. Those chemicals had a negative effect.
Black Ducks by the Numbers
Low black duck counts came from the North American Breeding Bird Survey which showed an 84% decline between 1966 and 2014. Black ducks were always a favorite target among hunters, and an estimated 800,000 black ducks were harvested each year between 1966 and 2014. When the bag limit was reduced in the 1980’s, the result of a lawsuit pursued by the Humane Society, annual harvests levels decreased. About 166,000 black ducks were harvested annually throughout the 1990’s, with that number dropping to around 115,000 per year today. Declines have slowed down since the early 2000’s, and they are not on the State of the Bird’s Watch List.
Ask Rick Kaminski, a Clemson University duck biologist and long-time duck hunter if warmer winters slow waterfowl migration, especially for black ducks, and he’ll say yes. To understand if there was a shortage of black ducks, the biologist first looked at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s winter waterfowl surveys. Those counts have been historically conducted at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1980’s, black ducks numbered in the thousands, but most recently they’ve dropped off big time. “They’re still doing the surveys and they might see two or three hundred black ducks,” Kaminski said. He cited a reason being that warmer winters meant food and water wasn’t buried under snow or ice. “I was struck by the fact that most of the species are showing this trend of increasing wintering at more northern latitudes.”
Kaminski then teamed up with the Audubon Society to search for answers in their annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC was started in 1900 and is the nation’s longest-running community science initiative. Birders from across the country methodically count wild birds, and their data coming from over a century of research is key. Kaminski worked with CBC lead analyst Tim Meehan to examine the long-term waterfowl data in both the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways to answer a question; why aren’t Southern waterfowlers seeing many black ducks. Their initial findings? Warmer winters caused migrations to stop short, if they even begin. It confirmed the findings from Tennessee.
Kaminski and Meehan studied 16 common species over the past 50 years and found a pattern. While many ducks did not show a behavioral change, some changed a lot. The biggest shift came with black ducks followed by Northern Pintails and Northern Shovelers. Their information mirrored patterns observed by duck hunters in those two flyways. “When we related those trends to temperature, sure enough, there’s a very clear relationship,” Meehan said. “Basically, it’s confirmation of what people on the ground have been suspecting.”
So the number of black ducks isn’t necessarily in decline, but their pattern shift is well-known. “People have been concerned in the mid-Atlantic and the South of the United States that the species is declining,” Meehan said. “Folks hadn’t really been looking north of the border and realizing, wow, they’re actually increasing in Canada. So we’re not seeing a species decline, we’re just seeing a wholesale range shift—they’re just not coming so far down south anymore.”
Re-establishing black duck habitat has been a critical focus, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers funding to landowners interested in improving habitat. Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia are the targeted areas, with much of the attention being on those states’ coastal areas. Planting salt-tolerant grasses, restoring forested wetlands and controlling invasive Phragmites is part of the goal. "The targeted habitat restoration effort will benefit additional waterfowl species like the northern pintail, mallard and teal, along with other wildlife,” said Kasey Taylor, Delaware State Conservationist.
At first light it’s tough to tell the difference between a black duck from a hen mallard. Both are mostly brown, both are the same size, and both have colorful speculums. At a distance, the blacks are darker and more gray, they have an olive drab bill, and no white lines on the speculum. The hen mallard’s bill is orange and black, she has a white patch on her belly, and a white line on the speculum. If it’s tough for hunters to tell the difference then imagine what it’s like for a mallard drake wound up during breeding season?
Concerns of species degradation coming from mallard drake/black duck hen are common. But a 2019 study published by Phillip Lavretsky, Thijs Janzen, and Kevin G. McCracken titled Identifying Hybrids & the Genomics of Hybridization: Mallards & American Black Ducks of Eastern North America says it’s not an issue. The research scientists evaluated ancestry, DNA, chromosomes, and the like in ducks from the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Western Flyways. Their findings were that significant breeding between the two species did not offer results that would predict the hybrid swarm that has been feared.
Black Ducks Abroad
Numbers of black ducks distributed in the South continues to be an issue. Brad Arington, the owner of Georgia’s Mossy Pond Retrievers in Patterson, Georgia, has a first-hand view of the mixed bag. The Eukanuba pro trainer doesn’t see many black ducks in the Mississippi Flyway, but does see them along the Georgia coast. “I train and run dogs in a lot of great lodges throughout the Mississippi Flyway,” he said. “We kill a ton of mallards, pintails, wigeon, and other ducks all season long. If we kill five or six black ducks each year that’s a lot.
“Now back home in Georgia it’s completely different. There are few blacks inland, but if I head over to the coast I’ll see a lot. For every five mallards we shoot along the coast we’ll kill three black ducks. That’s a trend I’ve been seeing for the past 20 years.”
Before you fire up the grill, know this: coastal black ducks taste a lot different from their sweetwater counterparts. In freshwater, they’ll feed on grasses, pondweeds and seeds. In the brine, their food sources change to eel grass, sea lettuce, mussels, snails, and other crustaceans. Tidal variation around my home is a robust 12 feet. That means that a dabbling duck will change feeding locations as the water rises. Birds will feed on the flats when the water is low, and progressively move into the shallows as the tide floods. Because of their diet shift and the salt water their taste is more similar to a sea duck than a puddle duck. Coastal black ducks can taste strong.
Ask a waterfowler who lives in most parts of the country if he wants to shoot a black duck and the answer is almost always ‘hell yeah!’ But not me and my friends. We’re covered up in ‘em, and I’d trade ‘em all for just about any other species. Now hold on, that might be a little crazy. Let’s just say I’d trade about half of ‘em….