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Breeding Duck Numbers Down in North Dakota

The Duck Blog

Breeding Duck Numbers Down in North Dakota

Posted 2024-06-20  by  Brian Lovett

Biologists continue to caution about widespread nesting habitat loss

Image: smalll_broods

Many migrating ducks probably flew past North Dakota because of poor early spring water conditions. Photo by Pazyuk

Breeding duck numbers decreased slightly this spring in North Dakota, and the state’s annual spring index also carried a continuing warning about a concerning trend.

North Dakota’s 77th annual spring breeding duck survey, conducted in May, showed an index of about 2.9 million birds, which was down from about 3.4 million in 2023, or about 15%. The 2024 index was still the 30th highest on record and 17% higher than the long-term (1948 through 2023) average.

“By and large, all species were flat to down,” Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said in a press release. “Mallards, for instance, were down about 19%, pintails were down about 29%, and blue-winged teal down roughly 13%. These species being down from last year is one thing, but when you compare it back to what we consider to be one of our best periods for breeding ducks in North Dakota (1994 through 2016), we’re down a lot more than that. So overall, mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, gadwall, wigeon and northern shovelers are down anywhere from 24 to 49% from that 1994 to 2016 time period.”

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As Szymanski has pointed out previously, the decline in breeding duck numbers has a lot to do with the loss of CRP and perennial grasses used as nesting cover by ducks. CRP acreage in the Prairie Pothole Region is about half of what it was at its peak. North Dakota has dropped to about 1 million acres after peaking at about 2.7 million acres.

“While our overall duck population count this year was about 2.9 million birds, that hardly compares to 5.4 million in 2002, our record high,” he said. “So, we’re down considerably, and were getting into this realm of a lower average where we probably won’t be above 3 million breeding ducks very often based on our landscape conditions.”

During the survey, Szymanski and his crew ran more than 1,800 miles of transects counting wetlands and waterfowl. The 2024 wetland count was the 32nd highest in 77 years.

“Coming out of winter, we were certainly quite dry after having a mostly open winter across the state, but it rained a fair bit in the 30 days leading up to our survey, so that kept it from being really dry,” Szymanski said. “At the time of our survey, wetland conditions were considered fair. We had a lot of new water on the landscape during the survey that really wasn’t there when ducks were moving through.”

And that timing might have been a critical factor. Mike Buxton, waterfowl programs director for Delta Waterfowl, said in a press release that some migrating ducks probably flew past North Dakota this spring, contributing to lower survey numbers.

“We’re coming out of several years of lower duck production because of drought across a wide swatch of the Prairie Pothole Region,” he said. “It takes time to build the breeding population up again.”

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Szymanski said rains in late May into June should boost renesting opportunities and overall nesting success for ducks.

“There should be a pretty good nesting effort by ducks this year in what upland nesting habitat is available,” he said. “Wetlands are in much better shape now, and there should be a really good renesting effort for those birds that had nests destroyed by predators.”

The annual North Dakota survey is an important early indicator of breeding duck populations in the prairies. As in North Dakota, wetland conditions have improved the past two months across prairie Canada, which should boost duck production.

Hunters will soon have a better idea about the upcoming fall flight. Data from the 2024 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service, is expected to be released in late August.

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