Duck, goose populations soar this year
If ducks and geese were oil and gas, there might be a few more millionaires come this fall.
There's a boom winging this way for hunters willing to take advantage.
Duck and goose numbers exploded this spring, continentally speaking. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service have been surveying waterfowl populations since 1955. The joint effort rates as the longest-running wildlife survey anywhere in the world.
Never before — at any time in the last 59 years — has it put the number of ducks and geese on the landscape as high as right now.
Scientists estimate this year's breeding duck population at a record 49.2 million birds. That's about 8 percent more than last year's 45.6 million, and about 1 percent more than the previous high of 48.6 million in 2012.
That's a lot of birds.
“At this point, it looks like it's going to be a pretty good year for ducks,” said Jim Feaga, regional biologist serving Pennsylvania and New Jersey for Ducks Unlimited. “Definitely breeding populations are doing pretty well.”
The reason duck numbers are “off the charts” is habitat, said Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl.
Ducks in particular need lots of water — without too much — to breed most successfully, he said. They got everything in just the right quantities this year.
“Exceptional water this year will lead to high duck production,” Rohwer said. “When the prairies are really wet, ducks settle in the best quality habitat. Hens will nest and re-nest vigorously, and duckling survival will be high.”
The waterfowl gusher won't be shared equally by hunters all over the country. Duck and goose populations in the Midwest prairie pothole region tend to fluctuate, and much of the increase in waterfowl being seen across the nation is coming from an upward surge there, said Kevin Jacobs, waterfowl biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Things are typically much more stable in this part of the country. Nearly 80 percent of mallards, 70 percent of Canada geese and 50 percent of the wood ducks shot in Pennsylvania were born here, he said, so habitat conditions elsewhere don't have as much impact.
But that doesn't mean the hunting here will be poor, he added. Just the opposite is expected.
Habitat conditions in the areas from which Pennsylvania draws its birds were rated as good to excellent, and that should mean average to above average numbers of birds.
“We're anticipating a good season,” Jacobs said. “Now, of course, we have to see how the weather plays out, and what that means in terms of triggering movements of ducks. But we should be seeing healthy fall flights throughout Pennsylvania this year.”
Mallards are the most important duck to Pennsylvania. Hunters took 38,476 last season. Their numbers are stable, by recent standards, if below the long-term average, Jacobs said. There were an estimated 72,014 breeding pairs this spring.
The number of wood ducks, the second-most harvested duck with 22,511 taken last year, are stable to increasing, Jacobs said. There were an estimated 61,153 breeding pairs this year, an increase of 16 percent over the long-term average.
As for Canada geese, well, there's no shortage of them either.
Ideally, Pennsylvania should be home to about 150,000 breeding pairs, Jacobs said. It has about 241,000, with the highest concentrations in the southwest and southeast corners of the state.
That's partly because hunters are taking as many as hoped.
They killed 104,000 geese last fall and winter. That's about 41 percent fewer than they take in more typical years, though. Jacobs blamed that on lack of effort. Hunters — because of the poor economy, lack of time, family commitments or something else — aren't killing geese the way they were prior to 2008.
“The amount of effort in terms of hunter days really drives our harvest numbers. They're very highly correlated, hunter days and harvest,” he said.
Those who go out looking for ducks and geese should find them in lots of places. In wet years, when there are lot of ponds, seeps and wet spots, waterfowl tend to disperse, Feaga said.
That's a good thing, Jacobs said. Hunters won't find birds concentrated in just a few spots, as in dry years, so they may have to do a little more scouting and move around a bit to keep on them.
But, he added, that means less pressure on individual birds, something that will likely keep them around longer into the season.
“You can oftentimes find new birds in secluded areas away from hunting pressure,” Jacobs said. “You just have to keep poking around and looking for the good habitat.”
Certainly, this is the year to do that, Feaga added. There will be lots of opportunity.
“We may not have the ducks and geese they do in the prairie pothole region or the Mississippi Flyway, but we still get our fair share, enough to keep the great waterfowling tradition we have alive,” he said.