Although a publication entitled “Annual Waterfowl Status, 2019” will never be a best-seller, in the eyes of duck hunters across the country this obscure report is one of the most important texts printed this year. The reason for this is it provides wildfowlers with a glimpse of how many ducks will be winging their way south this autumn.
The report summarizes the results of the 2019 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey conducted this past spring and summer by personnel from the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies and a number of private organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited.
This massive annual survey effort, the largest of its kind in the world, covers some 1.3 million acres extending from Alaska and northern Canada to the north-central United States and south-central Canada. This area is popularly known as North America’s Duck Factory. This is where the majority of the continent’s ducks are raised.
Each year a small army of surveyors monitor both the number of breeding ponds and ducks returning to breed. These data play an integral role is forecasting the size of the fall flight. As you might expect more ponds and greater numbers of ducks, coupled with good brood rearing conditions, translates into more ducks funneling their way south along North America’s flyways.
This year researchers found some five million ponds (Prairie Canada and north-central United States combined) greeted ducks returning this past spring. This estimate was similar to the 2018 estimate and long-term average (LTA).
The 2019 survey also revealed 38.9 million ducks returned to this key waterfowl production area. This figure is six percent lower than the 41.2 million birds recorded last year. However, duck hunters can find solace knowing this year’s breeding population is roughly 10 percent above the long-term average (1955-2018).
The bad news is this marks the first year since 2008 the numbers of ducks breeding in the Duck Factory slipped below 40 million. The fact that in 2017 the surveys revealed 47.3 million ducks puts this gradual decline in perspective.
Fortunately, the mallard, the most-harvested duck in North America, continues to do well. Some 9.4 million mallards were tallied this year. This represents a 2 percent increase above 2018. The current mallard population is 19 percent higher than the LTA.
It is heartening to find gadwalls rebounded from the 2018 survey estimate. This year the gadwall breeding population, estimated to be 3.2 million birds, is up 13 percent from 2018 and is 61 percent above the LTA.
According to the 2019 survey, American wigeon numbers (2.8 million) remained unchanged from 2018 yet are 8 percent above its LTA.
When it comes to green-winged and blue-winged teal things are quite different. The green-winged teal (3.1 million) population increased four percent over 2018 and is 47 percent higher than its LTA. Although more blue-winged teal (5.4 million) were recorded, the species’ population fell 15 percent from last year. However, the population is still six percent above its LTA.
While it is comforting to know the survey indicates the northern shoveler population is 39 percent above its LTA, unfortunately the 2019 population slipped 13 percent lower than it was a year ago.
Northern pintails are also down this year. The 2.2 million birds reaching the breeding grounds represent a decline of four percent from 2018. More alarming is the fact current numbers are 42 percent below the LTA for the species.
The populations of both redheads and canvasbacks remain low. Only 732,000 redheads (-27 percent from 2018) were seen. The species remains at its LTA. In comparison, the current estimate of 651,000 canvasbacks is down five percent from last year. In spite of this decline, the species stands at 10 percent above its LTA).
The scaup (lesser and greater) population continues to be a cause of concern. The population of these two diving ducks (3.5 million) fell 10 percent from 2018. In addition, the population is 28 percent below its LTA.
Survey estimates suggest populations of ring-necked ducks (700,000) and mergansers (600,000) were similar to both 2018, and LTA estimates.
In the case of the black duck, the 2019 estimate of 700,000 birds suggests its population remains unchanged; however it is 16 percent below the LTA for the species.
Figures are not available for the wood duck--Georgia’s most harvested duck. There are two reasons for this. First, it does not nest in the Duck Factory. Second, no reliable technique has been developed to survey the population size of a duck that breeds in or near the woodland ponds and streams of Eastern North America.
In conclusion, if wood duck production this year was at least equal to what is was in 2018, it appears Monroe County duck hunters will be seeing somewhat fewer ducks zipping past their decoys this fall.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at email@example.com.