Waterfowl Season Preview: Predictions on Duck Populations

 By Brent Birch, contributing editor

The proverbial dog days of summer are upon us, and while Mother Nature has it sizzling outside, daydreams about mallards maple-leafing through the Arkansas flooded timber are on the rise. While admittedly counterintuitive given the heat wave that is gripping much of the country, this is actually a key time to prepare for the upcoming duck season. Blinds are built or rehabilitated, food plots are planted, and ducks are raising babies on the breeding grounds.

By all accounts, this year’s spring and summer conditions are much improved over the last few years in Prairie Canada and the Dakotas. The May Pond Counts conducted by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service were positive after no surveys were performed in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a dismal report in 2019. North Dakota performed its 75th annual survey this past May with a count of nearly 3.4 million birds, up 16% from last year. Importantly, mallards were up 58% from 2021 and represented the 25th highest count on record.

For an idea of just how bad the last few years have been conditions-wise for breeding ducks, the number of temporary and seasonal wetlands were up 616% compared to May 2021. That represents the largest single year increase on record for the survey. Consequently, North Dakota’s May duck survey was the 23rd highest on record and stands 38% above the long-term (1948-2021) average.

The Canada Prairie Pothole Region survey results should be out in August, but early indicators point to a bounce back year. Outside of western Saskatchewan and southern Alberta, everywhere else has more than adequate water for ducks to have a successful breeding season. Soggy springs are crucial for duck production, and Mother Nature has done her part this year, which in turn should give waterfowlers a little pep in their step as the season approaches. 

While the habitat in the duck factory seems to be having one of its better years of late, there are issues at hand on the wintering grounds. Habitat for wintering waterfowl is shrinking with each passing year. Not only with loss of habitat as it’s converted to other uses but also the manner in which habitat is managed while the ducks are around.

In my home state of Arkansas, we are seeing degradation of the famed flooded green timber on our public shooting grounds. After several wet springs in a row, the inability to effectively drain the water out of the man-made greentree reservoirs (GTRs) as the growing season starts has either damaged or stunted the viability of the duck desirable red oaks. As the red oaks die off or stop producing acorns, the more water tolerant white oaks begin to take over. The problem with the white oak takeover is they produce acorns far too big for a mallard to consume. 

Mallards gain substantial energy requirements from consuming acorns, typically from nuttall and willow oaks, to ride out the occasional cold snaps. Ducks also benefit from the invertebrates that can be found on forest floors, as they follow the rising or falling water’s edge to gobble up fresh food as needed. These two components are crucial to the health of wintering mallards, and any further decline in tree health will be detrimental to Arkansas's and other states’ public green timber hunting opportunities.

To combat the issues plaguing Arkansas’s public GTRs, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC) has implemented major overhauls to how the water is managed on these tracts, as well as improving water control structures and the bottomland forest inventory. In the old days, before so much was known about GTR management, the water control structures were set to hold water well before duck season started so water would be available for migrating mallards and hunters. As winter precipitation came along, followed by big spring rains, the ability to drain these impoundments became a challenge, and the trees paid the price. 

The AGFC has now moved to a model to gradually flood the GTRs with staggered timing and levels to prevent too much water, too early on the tail end of the growing season, which in turn should lead to less water to expel as the spring growing season begins. This new strategy has proven to be unpopular with some hunters as there is less flooded timber to hunt early in the season, but many realize there is no choice in the matter. Making the move to more closely mimic how Mother Nature floods these bottomland hardwoods is required to perpetuate famed hunting grounds such as the nearly 34,000 acre George H. Dunklin, Jr.  Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. 

The ability to manage the water levels requires significant upgrades to the dated water control structures. The AGFC has partnered with Ducks Unlimited to raise funds to re-engineer the structures with modern equipment and new techniques. Through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), DU is able to raise funds dedicated to these projects and receive 10:1 matching dollars from the federal government. Fundraising is underway in earnest with the goal to raise $5 million over 10 years with $20 million in federal matching funds. 

Waterfowlers coast to coast dream of coming to Arkansas’s flooded timber to experience the unique and historic style of hunting. With the AGFC’s and Ducks Unlimited’s bold efforts to be resource first, hunter needs second, odds are strong that the public hunting opportunities will hold firm and subsequently improve as the habitat bounces back. All in an effort to ensure future generations will have the opportunity to do what made Arkansas duck hunting famous. 

About the Author

Brent Birch is a contributing editor to the Tom Beckbe Field Journal. A lifelong waterfowler who cut his teeth duck hunting in the White River Bottoms at Crocketts Bluff as well as rice fields and reservoirs across Lonoke, Prairie, and Arkansas counties, Birch is the publisher of The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting’s Hallowed Ground, which details the legacy of Arkansas’s rich waterfowling history. He is also co-creator and editor of Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting Magazine and co-founder of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame located in Stuttgart, Arkansas.