The News from Duckville

The numbers are mixed, but there are plenty of reasons for duck hunters to take aim this season.

Field & Stream Online Editors

This year, it may not be the ducks that dictate what kind of hunting season you have. That's because the news from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Migratory Bird Management is that waterfowl numbers tallied during its massive spring and summer head count are decidedly mixed. The annual estimate of breeding waterfowl for the "traditional survey area"-essentially the pond-rich country from the prairie potholes north to Alaska-fell 11 percent over last year's numbers. A diligent dissection of the figures, however, suggests there's more to the story than that single statistic. There's good news tucked among the not-so-great news. And there's an overriding message for duck hunters: This year your skills and commitment to hunting hard and smart will very likely make the difference in the duck blind.

On the face of it, an 11 percent drop in breeding ducks isn't what hunters want to hear. Recall, however, that last year brought a bumper crop of birds into the continental duck population. Some species posted extraordinary leaps, such as the one-year, 43 percent bump in breeding pintails. A shallow decline in numbers this year is no reason to shove the decoys deeper into your closet.

First, the good news. Overall mallard numbers in this year's census in the traditional survey area fell 7 percent compared with last year's numbers, and only 4 percent in the East. Statistically, that's a dead heat-"normal fluctuation," says Jerry Serie, a USFWS biologist. In the traditional survey area, several birds that gunners love to cross beads on showed gains, such as gadwall (+2%), canvasbacks (+11%), and scaup (+2%).

It's only better in the Atlantic Flyway. "There's a noticeable contrast between the East and the more western regions this year," says Serie. Population estimates of the East's trophy duck-the American black duck-soared 37 percent. Greenwing teal climbed a whopping 22 percent. And even though the East isn't known as a diver duck destination, its breeding population of ringnecks shot up 67 percent.

[NEXT "Continued..."] However, there are devils in the details of this year's survey. Pintail populations turned south again. Bluewing teal and wigeon are both coveted birds in the bag-and both tumbled. And the overall picture may not turn out as rosy as that 11 percent drop suggests, says David Sharp, a Central Flyway biologist with the USFWS. "We saw a big redistribution of ducks on the breeding grounds," Sharp explains. "There was definitely an overflight, and that's never good." What he means is that southerly breeding areas in the prairie pothole region saw significant declines of birds, whereas more northerly transects-across northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta, for example-exhibited large gains. Due to dry conditions on the prairies, breeding birds flew right over them and into the bush country, where raising babies becomes more difficult.

What It All Means
From the long-term perspective, many duck species remain well above their average numbers, as counted from 1955 to the present. In the traditional survey area, gadwall are up 56 percent. Greenwing teal are up by a third. Canvasbacks are up by 10 percent. In the East, mallards are up 18 percent, black ducks by 47, and greenwing teal by 56. For diehard sea duck gunners, these are the salad days. Eastern populations of scoters are up 10 percent over last year, and 70 points above the long-term average.

And even though breeding conditions across much of North America were only fair in late spring, buckets of rain fell across much of the region in midsummer. "There was a remarkable recovery in habitat in a lot of places," reports Sharp. That's heartening news, because habitat conditions late in the summer and into autumn are all a part of the equation. "There are so many variables," figures Ken Gamble, a USFWS biologist in the Mississippi Flyway. "Reproductive success, habitat cconditions during fall and winter migrations, weather-none of those can be factored into the breeding numbers, yet they all play a big role in terms of what shows up in front of a hunter's blind."

As does knowing which end of a duck call to blow into: The numbers suggest that hunters themselves could play a major role in whether this turns out to be a season to remember. These kinds of figures inspire real waterfowlers to break out the calling tapes and paint the decoys. In short: It's time to act like a duck hunter.