On Friday, August 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released the results of this year’s Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey—and generally speaking, things aren’t looking as good as some scientists would have hoped. The survey shows significant drops in mallard and widgeon numbers, as well as an overall downtick in duck numbers across North America.
The survey has been conducted annually since 1955, and it’s critical for tracking the populations of 19 duck species, the American coot, Canada geese, and swans. Each year, officials survey 2 million square miles of prime breeding habitat in Canada, Alaska, and the Prairie Potholes of the central U.S. by ground, plain, and helicopter. Wildlife managers rely heavily on the data they collect to set hunting regulations across the continent—and the results are an indicator of what you might experience on the marsh in the fall.
Unfortunately, this year’s results show a number of concerning trends. Chiefly, the mallard population estimate was 6.19 million, an 18 percent drop from 2022 and 23 percent below the long-term average. Widgeon were estimated at 1.89 million, 14 percent below 2022 and 28 percent below the long-term average. Bluewing teal and redheads were also down significantly year over year, though neither species was below its respective long-term average.
Overall, total duck populations were estimated to be 32.3 million birds in the survey area, marking a 7 percent drop from 2022 and 9 percent from the long-term average. Total breeding pond numbers were estimated at 5 million, down 9 percent from 2022 and slightly below the long-term average.
“These results are somewhat disappointing, as we had hoped for better production from the prairies following improved moisture conditions in spring of 2022,” said Ducks Unlimited (DU) Chief Scientist Dr. Steve Adair. “Last year’s nesting season was delayed with April snowstorms and May rains, which likely impacted overall production. In the past, we have seen population growth lag moisture conditions as small, shallow wetlands recover from the lingering impacts of severe drought.”
In a press release, Ducks Unlimited scientists say the mallard and widgeon population estimates are cause for “concern” and “amplify the need for sustained investments in conservation, monitoring, and targeted science.” The report’s authors note that the condition of many of the Canadian prairies was “abnormally dry to extreme drought,” perhaps explaining some of the survey’s discouraging numbers. Conversely, they pointed to improved habitat conditions in most of the U.S. prairies in the past year.
The survey did come with one important bright spot: pintails. The species’ population estimate rose 24 percent from 2022’s record low—which had put the species on the verge of being closed to hunting. That said, the pintail estimate is still 43 percent below the long-term average.
“Lower than expected numbers in this year’s survey reinforce the need for wetlands conservation as habitat continues to be lost across the continent,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam. “As much as we have accomplished, these data confirm we have more work to do.”