Duck numbers were down in many flyways this season. Most of the migrating waterfowl stayed up north because of unseasonably mild winters.

Duck numbers were down in many flyways this season. Most of the migrating waterfowl stayed up north because of unseasonably mild winters.

This could be good news for duck breeding stock – depending on conditions in breeding ground regions. In other words, pray for rain, but not too much!

Overall the northern regions have been dry with little snow pack and unseasonably warm temperatures, all of which have negative impacts for habitat conditions this spring. There has been good carryover water in some areas, and there is still time for late winter and spring snowfall, but the trend this year is dry and warm with very little snow.

Conditions are variable in the British Columbia/Western Boreal Forest Region, where large flocks of wintering waterfowl can be found around the Fraser River Delta and along the east coast of Vancouver Island. Winter has been dry and warm in the Prairie Region. In Alberta, temperatures and snowpack accumulations have set record extremes in some areas.

Although Saskatchewan is expecting little spring runoff, wetlands may still benefit from carry-over water from last summer. Carry-over water is also supporting wetlands in Manitoba, although some seasonal basins could be in jeopardy. It has also been a warm winter in eastern Canada, where total precipitation has varied but Ontario and Atlantic Canada have received more rain than snow.
But we may still have good duck production.

“There will likely be good numbers of ducks in the breeding population returning to the breeding grounds because we came out of last year with strong numbers and good breeding success,” said J. Mike Checkett, senior communications specialist for Ducks Unlimited. “The question will be what will the habitat look like when they fly and will the returning birds be on the traditional breeding grounds to be counted while attempting to breed?”

The count in May will drive the regulation cycle. Biologists know that when dry conditions return birds, efforts to breed will not be as strong, or in extreme conditions they will forgo breeding entirely and fly farther north to sit out the season.  

“If you are thinking that because it was warm and the migration was stalled, fewer ducks were probably shot, that just isn’t what happens,” Checkett said. “You have to remember that harvest tends to be compensatory, and let’s say if the southern harvest of mallards is down, the northern harvest of mallards is likely up.  Birds tend to be in front of the gun somewhere.”

 Over the last few years of 60-day seasons and 1.4 or so million hunters, the U.S. harvest has been averaging around 13.5 million, of which 4.5 million or so are mallards. Remember warm winters really only impact mallard and Canada goose migrations. Most other species move on the time of the year.

“Hunting along the Texas and Louisiana coasts was outstanding this year,” Checkett said. “Pintail, gadwall, teal, redheads, wigeon were all down there in impressive numbers.  Our season in Arkansas was pretty good despite the lack of mallards as the other ducks filled in for the mallard absence. We shot close to an average total number of ducks for our club. However, our mallard numbers were down 20 to 30 percent.”

So what does this mean to you as a Midwestern hunter? The same as any other season. We will always be at the mercy of mother nature’s fury or calm demeanor. I believe the duck’s worse enemy is unseasonably warm or cold temperatures and rainfall amounts.

For example, unseasonably cold weather in May up north might mean baby ducks dying from exposure – although they have a better chance than most upland game bird species like quail or pheasants. Too much rain could wash out nests. A long, hot summer could eliminate much needed moisture.

We can only wait for ideal conditions while contributing to habitat restoration or maintenance while praying for the best.