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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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By Mark Petrie, Ph.D., and John Coluccy, Ph.D.

"Rained all of the after part of last night; rain continues this morning. I slept but very little last night for the noise kept up during the whole of the night by swans, geese, white and gray brant, ducks, etc., on small sand island close under the port side; they were immensely numerous, and their noise horrid." —William Clark, 1805

For many of us who have suffered a slow day in the duck blind, Bill comes off as a bit of a whiner. In fact, we're reasonably sure that most duck hunters would relish the conditions described by William Clark as he struggled to remain dry and catch a nap along the banks of the Columbia River. Other eyewitness accounts of early duck populations told of "bank to bank canvasback on the Susquehanna River" and "ducks so thick they blotted out the sun." Nice images to be sure, but they fall a little short when trying to relate historic duck populations to the modern hunting experience. For the purposes of this article, we decided to take a shot at reviving those long-lost waterfowl populations using a little science, conjecture, and some plain old feeling around in the dark. 

Just how large were duck populations when Lewis and Clark left St. Louis to explore the uncharted West? We need to answer three questions before offering a guess. How large are duck populations today? How are these populations distributed among breeding habitats in Canada and the United States? And finally, how did European settlement reduce the number of birds breeding in these habitats and the young they produced?

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