North Dakota Reports Strong Breeding Duck Numbers

By author of The Duck Blog

Most critical species increase and remain at high levels

Biologists say North Dakota's spring breeding mallard numbers were unchanged from 2019 but remain much higher than the long-term average. Photo © Nicola K. Photos/Shutterstock

In a year filled with bad news, North Dakota has given waterfowlers reason for optimism. The state’s 2020 spring survey showed a breeding duck population of almost 4 million birds, an increase of 18 percent from 2019.

“Conditions that we have seen since 1994 seem to be the new normal, with more precipitation and higher duck numbers,” Mike Szymanski, migratory game-bird supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said in a press release. “This year’s ranking of our breeding population is a pretty good sign, as our 13 highest duck counts are all within the last 26 years. When you start getting around the 4 million range, you are talking about very, very good duck numbers. So it is good to see us getting back to the middle of the road for the new normal.”

The survey indicated stable to increasing numbers for most primary species. Mallard numbers didn’t change from 2019 but remained about 84 percent higher than the long-term (72-year) average. Ruddy ducks were up 87 percent, blue-winged teal increased by about 58 percent, and green-winged teal were up 66 percent and at a record high. Redheads were down about 12 percent but remained about 72 percent higher than the long-term average. All other ducks ranged from down about 2 percent (pintails) to up 40 (scaup) from 2019. Except for pintails, all critical species were well higher than their long-term averages.

The state completed the survey despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled most waterfowl surveys in North America, including the federal Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. Syzmanski said the agency made adjustments to continue its survey and acquire more long-term data.

“Crews were turned into single-person crews to make sure there was only one person in a vehicle, and we changed some of the route assignments to accommodate increased driving distances and workloads but still maintained overlap with our fall wetland survey routes,” he said. “It was definitely quite a bit more work, and we are grateful that our crew members were up for the challenge.”

North Dakota’s spring’s wetlands index also brought good news. The number of temporary and seasonal wetlands was up about 65 percent from 2019, the sixth-highest figure on record. It marked the second consecutive year the wetlands index was substantially higher than the previous year. The index is based on basins with water but does not necessarily represent the amount of water in wetlands or the type of wetlands represented.

“Not surprisingly, we found really good wetland conditions during this year’s survey,” Szymanski said. “We had an unusually large amount of rain last fall, but have really been drying up since, especially in the western half of the state. The eastern half of North Dakota is still incredibly wet, and wetland numbers in the western half of the state are still in pretty good shape despite some drying.”

North Dakota’s July brood survey typically provides a better idea of duck production and insight into expectations for fall, Szymanski said.

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