When it comes to habitat conditions across North America, Mother Nature’s the dealer holding the deck. And when she tosses a wild card – from an El Niño winter to late season downpours, or both – conservation efforts like those delivered by DUC help wildlife adapt.
Ducks and other waterfowl faced a few abnormalities this breeding season. They returned to extremely dry conditions across much of the Canadian Prairies thanks to a warm and dry winter and little rainfall throughout the early part of May. This pushed many birds farther north to the boreal forest in search of nesting grounds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has released its 2016 Waterfowl Population Status report. Its findings are based on surveys conducted in May and early June by FWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Estimates for 2016 come in at 48.4 million breeding ducks compared to 49.5 million last year.
Sounds like a lot of birds, right? It is. Last year’s numbers were an all-time high, surpassing the survey record posted just a year prior in 2014. The fact that, despite some wild card spring conditions, overall duck numbers in the 2016 survey area are statistically similar reinforces the importance of habitat conservation.
“The report is a good reminder that we need strong habitat all across the country, because where and when it’s wet changes every year,” says Dr. Dave Howerter, DUC’s director of conservation science. “Conservation is the glue that holds together nature’s time-tested formula: abundant habitat plus water equals ducks. For example, without conservation work that protects important habitat in the boreal forest, this area may have been less able to support the amazing abundance we’re seeing again this year.”
In another twist, birds that did stick around the Prairies experienced a deluge of water in June and July as heavy rain filled ponds and potholes. While not reflected in the report, these changing conditions likely helped late-nesting species, and encouraged re-nesting for mallards. It’s also likely that these conditions improved duckling survival. However, the rains probably came too late for many of these birds.
The report shows that many popular species including mallards, teals, American wigeon and redheads have all experienced long-term population increases. However, populations of pintails have dipped below their long-term average.
“The data from this report is extremely valuable for conservation planning,” continues Howerter. “Understanding how birds are responding to the conditions around them gives us the intel we need to best support these landscapes.”
The full report, with population data and a species-by-species breakdown, can be found on ducks.org.