It is now rare to see a black duck in Monroe County, although they were abundant prior to the 1960’s. (Photo/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Every so often, you hear or see something that just makes your day. Such an occurrence happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

Recently while conducting my weekly winter bird survey I encountered a flock of close to 400 ducks loafing a few hundred yards from shore. Whenever I find a large flock of ducks, I count the birds with the aid of a spotting scope. As I count the birds, I call out the numbers of individuals of each species I see. These numbers are recorded by my longtime survey assistant Melissa Hayes. 

In this case, I began tallying the birds swimming on the left side of the flock. I commenced by working my way through small groups of gadwalls intermixed with American wigeon, green-winged teal, a lesser scaup and a lone ring-necked duck. Near the extreme right side of the flock, I noticed a single mallard-sized sooty-black duck sporting an olive-green bill. I knew in an instant I was looking at a drake black duck--a bird I had not seen in years. What a treat!

The black duck’s breeding range extends from the Midwest eastward throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern United States southward to Cape Hatteras. Two-thirds of the birds winter from Long Island to North Carolina, although black ducks also winter in the Deep South.

Duck hunters have long held the black duck in high esteem. Perhaps Francis Kortright expressed this feeling best when he wrote, “The black duck is the most sagacious, wary, and wildest of all ducks...”  

Black ducks are among the wariest of all waterfowl and are difficult to lure into a set of decoys. When hunting pressure becomes too intense, they have even been known to feed at night long after hunters have abandoned their blinds.

Throughout much of the 20th century, their numbers typically outnumbered other freshwater ducks in the Atlantic Flyway.  However, beginning more than half a century ago (just about the time I began hunting ducks) their numbers started to plummet. As late as 1952-54, the black duck population was estimated to be 1,310,000.  By the period extending from 1959-62, black duck numbers had dropped to only 804,000 birds. 

Locally, throughout the 48-year history of the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge/Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area Christmas Bird, the most black ducks seen on a count were 124 in 1983. Nowadays the bird is rarely spotted.

This precipitous decline prompted many waterfowl biologists to fear we may lose the bird. Fortunately, this fear has not been realized. However, this fabulous duck still faces an uncertain future.

More than 30 years ago, waterfowl biologists established a winter population goal of 385,000 black ducks as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Unfortunately, while surveys indicate the black duck population is gradually increasing, currently population numbers are less than 30 percent of the goal set for the species. That is one of the reasons why we are allowed to bag only one black duck per day during the 2019-20 Georgia Waterfowl Hunting Season.

A number of possible reasons for the decline of black duck populations have been offered. They range from pollution, habitat loss, disease, and one that you probably never suspected--hybridization with mallards.

Canadian, Federal, state and private conservation groups are diligently working to identify and hopefully alleviate the reasons for the declines. For example, governmental agencies are preserving and enhancing black duck habitats throughout the bird’s breeding and wintering grounds. In addition, Ducks Unlimited, the premiere private waterfowl conservation organization, has also been active in this area. A prime example of this is Ducks Unlimited’s work in helping conserve 7,600-plus acres of critical black duck tidal marsh habitat along New Jersey and Delaware Bare. This area is the winter home of 60 percent of the black duck population.

As for hybridization, it seems that, when given the chance, male mallards will often mate with female black ducks. The young produced by such unions show physical characteristics of both black ducks and mallards. Such matings have undoubtedly gone on for centuries but have become more common since mallards have become more abundant in the black duck’s breeding ground. Whereas, historically black ducks far outnumbered mallards in the Atlantic Flyway, the reverse is true today.

The results of a study conducted by Penn State biologists demonstrate how serious this problem has become. When they examined 135 wings submitted by hunters from Maine to South Carolina they found more wings came from black/mallard hybrids (48) than black ducks (42) and mallards (45).   

Unfortunately nobody has formulated a solution to this problem.

Clearly it is going to take a tremendous amount of work by governmental agencies and private groups such as Ducks Unlimited to save this precious resource.

Meanwhile, I hope I will not have to wait several more years before I see another black duck.

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