Inside the Outdoors: Never too early for good duck news

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It’s only mid-August, far too soon to wish away summer. But there’s also no doubt that early signs of autumn are already evident.

If you have a canine that rouses you before the sun peeks over the eastern horizon, wanting to be let out for its “morning business,” you can hardly miss the nip in the air when you slide the door open for its exit and re-entry. If you’ve been on the water early, executing a slow troll over your favorite walleye structure or swinging a long rod to launch puppy-sized muskie lures, you’ve likely found a sweatshirt and a windbreaker more than welcome. And, if you spend even a little time traveling in forest or farm grove country, you may have already seen the first brilliant tones of orange in the leaves of mountain maples, the smallest of the five maple varieties native to Minnesota.

Too soon to anticipate autumn? Hardly. If you’re a hunter, you’ve already been wondering about prospects for the upcoming seasons. This is certainly true of waterfowl hunters, who religiously keep an eye peeled for broods of ducks and geese on ponds and wetlands.

One of the tools by which duck and goose abundance is traditionally measured—an indicator of prospects for an upcoming season—is the annual survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). It’s called the Waterfowl Breeding and Habitat Survey, and has been conducted annually since 1955. It is done in cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service, which is logical because so much of the area in which the continent’s ducks and geese are born lies north of the U.S.-Canada border.

This survey does not measure duck and goose numbers after the year’s crop has been hatched and fledged. It is done earlier in the year, and measures the number of ducks and geese that have returned north to breed, and the amount and quality of wetland habitat available to offer them a chance for nesting success.


These things, the estimated number of breeding birds, and the amount of habitat where they can raise their young, give biologists a basis for estimating potential—potential—abundance later in the year. It is a “bird in the bush,” rather than a “bird in the hand” approach. A lot can happen over the spring-to-fall period to affect the fall population; things like flooding, drought, death by predator and—on the flipside—success in re-nesting if a first attempt fails. But, as imperfect as this population measuring approach might be, it is better than nothing.

This year, when so many things are different due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Waterfowl Breeding and Habitat Survey was not conducted by the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service, due to the need for social distancing. But that does not mean there is no one out there to offer an estimate of what hunters are likely to find, when—come fall—they spread their decoys on the waters of marshes and shallow lakes, or in harvested crop fields.

One of the alternatives for a 2020 prediction is provided by Delta Waterfowl, a non-profit hunter advocacy organization whose origin and mission are tied to the famed Delta Marsh in the Canadian province of Manitoba. The Delta Waterfowl Research Station was established there in 1931, with funding provided by wealthy Minnesotan James Ford Bell, a principal of General Mills, who had a hunting club on the Delta Marsh. Some of the most important research on ducks and geese on this continent has come from this facility, which was staffed by some of the most able pioneering wildlife biologists.

Much like Ducks Unlimited, habitat protection and hunter advocacy are a big part of what the Delta Waterfowl organization is about today. Delta recently released its own forecast of what might be expected in the fall flight of ducks and geese in our Mississippi Flyway, the corridor—one of four from Atlantic to Pacific Oceans—down which funnel the migrating ducks and geese from Canada to wintering destinations in Mexico, Central and South America.

There is a certain amount of conjecture involved in Delta’s 2020 estimate. It is based in part on this spring’s actual wetland conditions in key waterfowl production regions, including North and South Dakota, and Canadian prairie provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Habitat conditions this spring were judged to be excellent in the Dakotas, very good in Manitoba, good in Alberta, but poor in Saskatchewan.

The other component of Delta Waterfowl’s 2020 predictions is not based on the traditional spring counting of breeding birds—suspended by the pandemic—but instead on favorable long-term averages for the various duck species. According to Delta’s reasoning, the fact that most duck species’ numbers have been holding steady and above average in recent years—coupled with good nesting habitat in 2020—“will result in a strong fall flight for the upcoming waterfowl season.”

Does this compute? A cynic might point out that there’s an incentive for Delta Waterfowl—whose mission includes retaining current waterfowl hunters, and recruiting new ones—to paint a rosy picture of 2020 hunting prospects. It’s easier to keep waterfowl hunters engaged, renewing memberships, buying licenses and duck stamps and making the effort—greater effort than is needed in many kinds of hunting—to stay in the game. But, given the positive reputation that Delta Waterfowl has enjoyed, it’s encouraging to hear their hopeful predictions, and easier to parry the nay-sayers.

For Minnesota hunters, the news from Delta Waterfowl appears to be mostly good. Delta’s predictions are positive for the species of ducks we traditionally harvest most. This includes mallards, blue wing teal, ringnecks—“ringbills,” many call them—and wood ducks. For other species that Minnesota hunters have always prized, like canvasbacks and bluebills, the Delta-delivered news is less rosy.


Only the arrival of late September, October and November will deliver evidence to confirm the accuracy of Delta’s predictions. In the meantime, those predictions seem reason for optimism.

Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

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