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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Ducks in Wild Abundance

Just how good were the good old days? Waterfowl biologists explore how large the fall flight might have been in early America
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  • photo by Michaelfurtman.com
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What about the rest of the U.S. prairies? North Dakota now supports 2 million pairs of breeding ducks in good years, though the state has lost half of its temporary and seasonal wetlands. South Dakota has lost a third of these habitats and can host 1.75 million breeding pairs under the right water conditions. North Dakota may have once supported 4 million pairs of breeding ducks, while South Dakota hosted another 2.7 million pairs. In total, the U.S. prairies may have historically supported 10.7 million duck pairs, compared to just 4.25 million in recent years. 

Looking north, duck counts on the Canadian prairies have traditionally averaged twice that of the United States. Thus we might expect the Canadian duck factory to support roughly 8.5 million breeding pairs today. Unfortunately, wetland loss on the Canadian prairies over the past 25 years has far exceeded that of the United States, so it's unlikely that Canada still supports double the number of ducks. A better estimate is somewhere around 7 million breeding pairs. Canada's prairies have been stripped of 60 to 70 percent of their temporary and seasonal wetlands. With these habitats intact, the region may have hosted up to 20 million pairs of breeding ducks in wet years. Together, the U.S. and Canadian prairies may have supported 30 million pairs of breeding ducks compared to just 11 million today. 

What about breeding duck populations outside the prairies? Canada's western boreal forest is now experiencing a variety of natural resources development. While this is cause for serious concern, breeding duck numbers in this region have managed to hold their own so far. Dabbling duck populations in Alaska have actually increased over the past 50 years and may now exceed presettlement levels. In eastern North America, long-term changes in duck populations are harder to discern. Beavers, which create much of our eastern breeding habitat, are at record numbers thanks to favorable forestry practices and a weak fur market. As a result, habitat loss on the prairies is almost certainly responsible for most of the decline in breeding duck numbers during the modern era. 

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