When the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released its Breeding Aquatic Bird Population and Habitat Survey in August, it was the first time in two years that reliable data was available on the North American duck population. Conducted jointly by the FWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service, the BPOP, as it is known, is the world’s largest and longest-running survey of waterbird surveillance. It started in 1947 but was canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. Duck and geese hunters and other waterfowl enthusiasts are studying the details of the reports in hopes of deciphering what the numbers might mean for the upcoming season.
Conducted in May and June, the endeavor involves nearly a dozen air and additional ground crews surveying a two-million-acre area from Alaska to Newfoundland and south across the pothole region of the prairie. At an average altitude of 150 feet above the ground, biologists on the planes are attempting to count every single duck, coot, swan and Canada goose within 400-foot-wide cross-sections and every single body of water large enough to contain a family of ducks feed, called the May Pond Count. Separate ground crews truthfully take a sample of the air slices to verify the accuracy of the numbers.
This year’s numbers are definitely a mixed bag for southern waterfowl. The total waterbird population in the traditional survey areas—essentially the western Great Lakes, including the US and Canada—was estimated at 34.2 million breeding ducks. That’s 12 percent lower than 2019 numbers and 4 percent lower than the long-term average since 1955. Six common species are counted in the eastern study area, which includes eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. The numbers were better there. All except collared ducks recorded gains as of 2019. In what has become a bit of a Garden & Weapon Traditionally, I called Jerry Holden, operations manager for Ducks Unlimited’s thirteen-state southern region, and we ripped out the details.
Some species suffered a significant fall. Pintails are well down, down 21 percent from 2019 and more than half below their long-term average. Why so many differences between duck species?
In this particular year, the May Pond Count was pretty good. But it’s never as simple as the bare facts of a single metric. This water came late in the season, and some species are better able to utilize the late water than others. Mallards are very resilient. If a mallard loses its nest, it will try to nest again three or four times if necessary. The winners in this late water entry scenario are the species that nest. Pintails are terrible renesters. Teal is well above 2019 and also well above the long-term average. Here, too, they are strong renesters.
But durability can’t be the only metric to consider. Some of what we’ve seen is that as the prairies become dry and crusty, many birds migrate to other landscapes like the boreal regions that are more reliably wet but lack grass. Some of the ducks whose numbers are solid are the ones that do better at nesting in non-grass areas. Black ducks are up 9 percent from 2019. Given the sensitivity of this species, that’s a really good jump. And wood ducks are 5 percent above the long-term average. For many of us, woodies are a pretty essential part of the bag, so that’s good news.
Let’s break it down by Flyway. What comes to your mind when you look at the statistics for birds on the Mississippi Flyway?
Some prairie nest sites from traditional nesting grounds — blue-winged teal, mallard, gadwall — have all been down since 2019, but if you look at the data, it’s not as bad as it was in the 1960s. These birds just came through a hell of a drought. I look at the numbers and I don’t see a downfall.
We’re in an era of liberal limits and season lengths, and that has people expecting us to have more and more ducks every year. But rainfall is highly variable, and you can’t drought-proof this landscape. Our job is to set the table and give the ducks maximum opportunity to do their thing when the rain falls.
If there’s one obvious bright spot in this year’s survey, it’s the situation on the Atlantic Flyway. While most species still remain below their long-term averages, mallards, black ducks, green-winged teal and goldeneye are well above the 2019 counts.
Eastern numbers are certainly a little more cheerful. Breeding in the eastern half of the breeding range was not as badly affected as the severe drought that was just hitting Alberta and Saskatchewan. So we didn’t see any steep drops there.
All right, the main takeaway: the numbers don’t lie, but the truth they tell is nuanced at times. What’s in your bag this year? Optimism or pessimism?
What the May and June numbers give you is a sense of production and population recruitment. It’s not the number of birds that migrate south in the fall. This number of 34.209 million breeding ducks counts only the birds that can produce a new generation of ducks. This does not include the number of young birds that are now ready to fly.
We’ve had two years of severe drought on the prairie. The age distribution could be younger this year, but that’s not all bad. A higher proportion of juveniles will make you a better duck caller and will make your lures work better. And with the May Pond numbers as a bright spot, I think there’s good reason to think we could have a better season than we’ve had in recent years. I’m cautiously optimistic that happiness will be higher than last year when we had an older, more intelligent bird population making hunting more difficult.
And to tell the whole story, let’s not overlook the fact that it’s been an excellent year for Fishing Ducks. Common, Red-breasted and Black-throated Mergansers are 19 percent above their long-term averages.
Yes, I don’t know any Sawyer Hunters. But if you’re out there, this year could be the big one.
Follow T Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens.