For most game birds and waterfowl, the abundance of available birds for the fall hunting season is directly tied to the abundance of young birds hatched in the spring and early summer. There’s a reason most pheasants, mallards and other birds lay eight to twelve eggs or more when they nest. It’s because being a bird is a hard life. It takes that many eggs to ensure enough “parent” birds exist the following spring to make large clutches of eggs and keep the population stable.
Migration, habitat, predators — and in the case of waterfowl — hunters take a toll every year. That’s why hunting seasons are set and bag limits established — to ensure hunters only “skim the cream” from the population. Hunters harvest the amount of ducks, geese, quail or other birds which likely would have succumbed to some other demise regardless.
This is why waterfowl hunters look to the breeding surveys conducted by the US and Canadian wildlife services every year. Those numbers are used to determine if the “hatch” for the year is at average or above or below the norm and that information is used to set hunter harvest limits and season dates.
This year, the Covid-19 problem prevented both American and Canadian agencies from performing their usual surveys. However, both agencies does have biologists on the job across the primary nesting areas and so does Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited and other non-government organizations. These people see habitat conditions and actual broods of newly hatched ducks, geese and other birds as they go about their daily routines.
These personal observations give them a good idea of how the breeding success fared in their immediate area. Instead of the usual “formal” surveys, officials used these on-the-job observations from across the region to determine a good estimation of breeding success. And it looks good!
“Conditions were good in key regions for breeding ducks, and production was strong overall. If we get a few timely cold fronts, then it could be a truly memorable season for America’s duck hunters,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl. Delta Waterfowl biologists saw a mix of average to above average breeding conditions in the prairie pothole region, combined with a stable population of breeding ducks. Historically, these conditions produce a strong fall flight for the upcoming waterfowl season.
Important for hunters in our area, DW biologists expects improved flights of dabbling ducks over 2019, especially for blue-winged teal, mallards and gadwalls. Those are very important species to Indiana and Illinois hunters.
Pre-covid data indicated most duck populations were well above average (including a 2019 estimate of 38.9 million breeding ducks, 10 percent above average). This, along with the breeding habitat conditions observed across critical regions last spring had expectations high even before the pandemic stymied the official counts. The informed conclusion is most duck species experienced good to great production.
Delta Waterfowl biologists specifically pointed out mallards took advantage of wet conditions in the Dakotas and prairie Manitoba and area which always sends plenty of greenheads down the Central and Mississippi flyways. This was reflected in a strong North Dakota DNR survey, which estimated 872,982 breeding mallards, just in their state.
Mallards almost never have a terrible year because their nesting range is massive, and they re-nest aggressively throughout the breeding season. The Dakota prairies are the core breeding range of blue-winged teal, which spells good news for early teal seasons. Bluewings increased 58 percent in the North Dakota survey.
Green-winged teal are more challenging to predict, but they typically nest farther north in the stable wetlands of the Canadian parklands and boreal forest. It’s rare for greenwings to have a bad year.
Locally, my own observation (consisting of watching the wood duck nest box in my yard) shows our “local” duck population to be good, as well. Two different broods were produced from the nest box I placed in a maple tree a couple of years ago.
It looks like a good year for ducks and duck hunters. Have you bought your Duck Stamp yet?