WASHINGTON, D.C. — North America’s total spring duck population is the highest ever recorded, according to the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey released last week.
Conducted each May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service, the survey puts the duck population at 48.6 million birds. That represents a 7-percent increase from 2011’s record number of 45.6 million.
“This is the highest duck count since we started the survey in 1955,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl’s scientific director. “We had excellent wetland conditions in 2011, the second-highest pond count ever. So last year, we made a pile of ducks. This year, we’re counting them.”
Mallards, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, gadwalls, canvasbacks, northern shovelers and scaup are all up significantly from last year, with both species of teal and shovelers at all-time highs. Blue-winged teal are estimated at 9.2 million, green-winged teal number more than 3.4 million and shovelers now top 5 million.
Mallard breeding numbers sit at 10.6 million, a 15-percent increase over 2011 and 40-percent over the long-term average. Gadwall increased 10-percent over last year, and now total 3.5 million. The population is nearly double the long-term average for gadwalls.
American wigeon are up slightly to 2.1 million, but are still 17-percent below their long-term average. Scaup numbers are up 21 percent to 5.2 million, the seventh-straight year that the bluebill count has gone up. Scaup are at their highest breeding population since 1991. Redheads declined slightly to just under 1.3 million, but still registered the second-highest population estimate in the history of the survey. Canvasbacks jumped 10 percent to 760,000, the fourth-highest count on record.
While the total breeding population is strong, the news is different for breeding habitat. The survey is calling 2012 an “average to below-average” year for moisture. The total pond count for prairie Canada and United States combined has dropped 32 percent, from an estimated 8.1 million ponds last year to 5.5 million this year.
“The ponds that are dry are the important ones for ducks — the temporary and seasonal wetlands,” Rohwer says. “We kept the large ponds, but lost the small ponds.” Drier conditions may account for the one species that shows a significant drop in the survey area. Northern pintails are down more than one million birds, from 4.4 million birds last year to 3.4 million. One possible explanation is that pintails didn’t like the look of the drier conditions and just kept flying north.
“Pintails numbers increased in northerly habitats such as Alaska,” said John Devney, Delta’s senior policy director of U.S. policy. “This suggests sprig over-flew the prairies this spring. Research has well documented that in average or dry conditions, many pintails head north to the boreal forest. The survey’s ability to detect them is reduced.”
The entire “Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, 1955-2012” report can be downloaded from the Service’s Web site at http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds.
MORE DUCKS WERE counted during the spring breeding survey this year than anytime since the counts began in 1955, boding well for the upcoming season. WON PHOTO BY BILL KARR