Arkansas Game and Fish
Total duck population estimates in spring 2022 declined 12% from the last recorded survey taken in 2019, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s report Waterfowl Population Status, 2022, which was released in late August.
Mallard populations saw a large decline, dropping to 7.2 million birds, down 23% from 2019. Gadwall, northern shoveler and green-winged teal all saw similar declines from 2019 numbers. Blue-winged teal and redhead ducks were the only species recorded that saw an increase since the last surveys flown.
Experts caution there’s a lot more to those numbers than a simple bar chart that looks like bad news.
This is the first time in three years biologists were able to conduct the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey because of travel restrictions and other limitations concerning covid-19. The survey estimates the number of breeding pairs of waterfowl and the number of ponds available to support those birds in Canada and the north-central United States. It is conducted in partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Canadian Wildlife Service and many state and provincial agencies.
Biologists gather to fly transect lines across established routes above the breeding grounds, tallying the number of birds and the habitat conditions on their route while ground crews work in tandem to validate aerial observations. While the total duck count was down from 2019, the number of ponds available actually was up slightly from that last survey period.
“With the survey being absent for two years, Fish and Wildlife used modeled data to set season criteria the past two years, but we can’t say for certain exactly what took place on the breeding grounds during that gap,” said Luke Naylor, wildlife management chief with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “We know the prairies became increasingly dry in many places, but we can’t quantify those numbers with real confidence.”
Data from surveys of harvested duck wings submitted by hunters through the Harvest Information Program, however, can give a good indication of the effect of habitat conditions on duck production.
“We saw a harvest ratio of only 0.5 for mallards last year,” Naylor said. “That means one juvenile mallard was harvested for every two adult birds. That indicates extremely low production.”
“Even with the 27% decrease since 2019, there were still an estimated 7.2 million mallards on the breeding grounds and only 700,000 birds fewer than the long-term average,” Naylor said. “If you consider the variance in those estimates, it could be as close as 500,000 birds below the long-term average. So there isn’t a need to slam on the brakes. Especially with the incomplete dataset we have from the missing survey years.”
What should hunters expect this season? It’s still too early to tell, Naylor said. Total duck and mallard populations are not in dire straits, so with the right set of weather conditions and timing of cold fronts to keep ducks moving, there may not be a noticeable difference from last year, he said.