WHY DUCKS HAVEN’T COME DOWN THE CENTRAL FLYWAY
What Does the Duck Problem Involve?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Everyone in the South has asked the question the last few years, what's happened to the ducks? The number of ducks coming down the Central Flyway seems to have vastly decreased, but why? Even when the ducks do come down the flyway, they only show up during the last two or three weeks of the season, or well after the season ends. Too, why has Canada experienced record numbers of ducks while the Central Flyway has had a duck drought? This week we’ll try to answer some of your questions by talking with the experts in the duck business.
Here are some other questions to which folks in the duck-hunting know need the answers.
- Do the National Federal Waterfowl Refuges in the North prevent ducks from flying South?
- Does the fact that farmers in the North and in the Midwest harvest their crops later now than they have in previous seasons impact the number of ducks flying further South?
- Do the estimates of the ducks’ production numbers present a fair picture?
- Has a decline in fur prices created an overabundance of predators that feed on ducks?
- Has global warming impacted the flights of ducks so fewer ducks will come down the flyway in the future than have come down the flyway in the past?
- Have the ducks wised-up and begun to fly at night because of intensive hunting pressure during the day?
- Have duck hunters become so proficient at taking ducks that northern waterfowlers each year decrease the population before the Yankee ducks hit the sunny beaches of the South?
- Does the increased number of duck hunters in the North and the South split up the number of available ducks and no one has shooting as good as he’s had in previous years?
To try and get a better handle on why ducks don’t come down the Central Flyway as they have in years past, we’ve interviewed a wide spectrum of waterfowlers, biologists and conservation groups.
What the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Says:
Bob Strader works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department as a supervisory wildlife biologist for the migratory field office in Jackson, Mississippi. His coverage area includes Louisiana and Mississippi. "For 50 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting waterfowl surveys,” Strader reports. “Not only do we count the ducks, but we count the broods to try and come up with a survey of the number of ducks that are anticipated to be in the fall flight. The most-critical thing to remember when you're considering why ducks aren't coming down the flyway like they have in the past is that there are many reasons for this, not just one.
“Three years ago, the number of ducks was well above the adaptive harvest-management model, what we use to set regulations for the upcoming duck season. When the model indicates that we have a large number of ducks that should be coming down the flyway, then the season is liberalized to six ducks per day per hunter for a 60-day season. Three or four years ago, we were well above the threshold, which would allow six ducks per day per hunter for a 60-day season. In 2000, we saw really high duck numbers and fairly-liberal limits. But during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, we were only slightly above the number of ducks we needed to have come down the flyway to permit that liberal season. One problem with a liberal season like six ducks per day per hunter in 60 days is that everyone’s expectations are that they should be able to go out and kill six ducks every day they go hunting during that 60-day period. Even though we enforced a six ducks-per-day limit for a 60-day season last year, the actual number of ducks coming down the flyway was 30-percent less than the number of ducks that came down the flyway in 2000. But, we didn't have to shorten the season or reduce the number of ducks because our model still showed that we were above the threshold number that we needed to have to keep the same seasons and bag limits. So, even though we've had the same seasons and bag limits since 2000, we haven't had the same number of ducks produced and coming down the flyway as there were during the bumper crop of 2000.
“Another problem that occurs when you have low duck numbers as in the last few years is that there are more-mature ducks in the population than there are when you have high duck numbers. These older ducks have already survived a trip South and are good at dodging hunters’ decoys and blinds. You have to remember that a duck’s strategy in the wintertime when it comes down the flyway is to survive -- not to get shot. These ducks that have run the gauntlet one year and survived have a really good idea of how to run that same gauntlet, where to fly, when to fly and where to hold up to avoid the hunters. Yet another factor to remember is that when young ducks make their first flight from Canada to Louisiana, they begin to see and understand what a spinning-wing decoy is, what a decoy spread looks like, what a duck blind looks like, and what kind of areas they should avoid to keep from getting shot. So even by the time some of the juvenile ducks get south, they have acquired a very good education on how to dodge hunters. These ducks come from Canada to Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana and know what kinds of regions to look for where they can feed, rest and not get shot. Ducks are survivors, even with as many waterfowl-hunting aids as there are on the market today.
“A number of species of waterfowl, like pintails, gadwalls and blue-wing teals will migrate south when the photoperiod gets right. Some of these ducks may not stop flying until they reach Louisiana or South America. Other ducks, particularly mallards and many of the ducks that don’t winter on the Louisiana Coast but instead winter in non-coastal wetlands, are pushed south more by cold weather than they are by photoperiods. The length of the days gets the mallards ready to go south, but until the ponds and rivers become frozen so the mallards don't have any places to sit on the water, they don't really get their bags packed to head south. When snow covers the duck’s food sources and the water where they swim ices over, then these birds will move south. For this reason, weather patterns play a major role in when these ducks come down the flyway. In 2000, the snowfall distribution during the first week of January came all the way down to the Louisiana/Arkansas line. So that much snow and ice up North pushed the ducks south. During that year, at that time, most of the ducks were in Mississippi and Louisiana, because that was the only place they could find open water and food. Of course the hunters were seeing a lot of ducks back then. Then the last several years, we had record warm temperatures in the North. During 2001, the snowfall line during the first week in January was up along the Canadian border. In 2002, during the first week in January, the snowfall line was well up into the Midwestern United States. The ducks didn't have to come down the flyway because more than 1 million acres of row-crop grains were north of Arkansas. Even though this grain was harvested, still quite a bit of waste grain was left, primarily soybeans and corn, for the ducks to feed on in this region. If the grain wasn’t covered by snow, the ducks had no reason to fly south. Too, during the last several years, the rivers and lakes didn’t freeze over, so the ducks had open water to rest and plenty of food to eat. The ducks were able to stay further north for most of the winter and not come down the flyway until late January or February if they reached Tennessee, Arkansas and/or Mississippi at all.
“No-till farming is another factor that has allowed ducks to stay in the North and not come down the flyway. This form of farming creates more waste grain for the ducks, provides more food for the ducks and causes the ducks not to have to move south until the snow covers their food. In past years, farmers always have tilled their soil in the fall to ready it for spring planting. But no-till farming doesn’t require that soil be turned over, which means these fields can contain a lot of waste grains and other food for ducks. To put all this information in a nutshell, you can say that the lack of waterfowl coming into the lower states on the Mississippi Flyway mainly is due to lower duck numbers than we've seen in the past, slightly-higher age ratio of ducks in the population with more older-age ducks than younger-age ducks in the population and milder-weather patterns leaving more food and habitat in the northern states, so that the ducks aren't forced to migrate farther south.”
To learn more about ducks, their nesting habitat and their migration, you can go to the DU website, www.ducksunlimited.com or www.ducks.org; or (601) 956-1936, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at www.fws.gov; or call (800) 344-WILD. For more information about ducks in each state, visit http://www.nighthawkpublications.com/freetips/freetips18.htm.
TOMORROW: WHAT DUCKS UNLIMITED THINKS