Understanding Waterfowl: Bringing Back the Black Duck

Ducks Unlimited and its partners are using new scientific tools to restore this iconic species and its habitats

Photo © MichaelFurtman.com

By Chris Sebastian

The American black duck holds a special place in the hearts of waterfowlers in the eastern United States and Canada. Historically, this highly prized species was among the most abundant and commonly harvested ducks in the Atlantic Flyway. Sadly, the continental black duck population declined dramatically during the latter half of the 20th century. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, black duck numbers fell by more than 50 percent between the 1950s and 1980s.

Many theories have been proposed to explain the decline of the black duck, including overharvest, interactions with mallards, a decrease in the quality and quantity of nonbreeding and breeding habitat, and environmental contamination. The Black Duck Joint Venture (BDJV), the first species-specific joint venture established under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), was launched in 1989 to coordinate monitoring, research, and communications efforts to help restore this iconic species and its habitats. While black duck numbers have stabilized since 1990, the population remains below the NAWMP goal of 640,000 birds. 

The black duck's core breeding, migration, and wintering areas fall within the focus areas of Ducks Unlimited's Completing the Cycle Initiative. For more than 70 years, DU has been at the forefront of black duck conservation and management, restoring key habitats and supporting research and public policies that benefit the species. Dozens of research projects have examined black duck habitat use and behavior, food and habitat availability, energy content of foods, and daily energy requirements. 

Knowledge gained from this research enabled Ducks Unlimited, the BDJV, and the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture (ACJV) to develop what is known as the Black Duck Decision Support Tool. This powerful scientific tool is being used to guide black duck conservation efforts by identifying priority habitats for protection and restoration. Areas of the eastern United States and Canada that are of high importance to black ducks have suffered extensive habitat loss. Significant wetland losses have occurred on the black duck's Canadian breeding grounds in southern Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces. In the United States, nearly 7 million wetland acres have been lost from Maine to Maryland

"What we're trying to understand is what we need to do, where we need to do it, and how much habitat restoration will be required to increase black duck populations," says Dr. John Coluccy, DU's director of conservation planning in the Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.

The Black Duck Decision Support Tool helps conservation planners determine which landscapes offer the most food energy potential for black ducks. "What makes this tool unique is that it applies future landscape predictions in the model," says Patrick Devers, science coordinator for the BDJV. "It enables us to think about protecting and managing not only good habitat today but also land that will be good habitat in the future. We have limited financial resources to acquire and manage habitat, so we have to get the biggest bang for the buck."

The decision support tool is already being used to guide efforts to conserve black duck habitats through the ACJV. For example, the black duck was recently named a priority species in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia as part of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's Working Lands for Wildlife program. In addition, Ducks Unlimited received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund to lead land protection efforts in black duck priority areas of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. This grant will enable DU and its partners to protect a minimum of 300 acres, and likely more than 1,000 acres, to benefit black ducks and a variety of other wildlife. 

Ducks Unlimited is also actively working with partners to conduct research that will provide useful information about black duck conservation needs. For example, DU recently received a $100,000 grant from the Waterfowl Research Foundation to support two regional research projects. Part of the grant will allow DU to determine the daily energy requirements of black ducks. This research will help refine the decision support tool. Also, DU and its partners are collaborating with the State University of New York–College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY–ESF) to study the ecology of black ducks and mallards that winter in the state's Finger Lakes region. The BDJV, Ducks Unlimited, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are working with SUNY−ESF graduate students to determine if there are differences in habitat use and migration habits between mallards and black ducks during winter and spring. This information could allow scientists, conservationists, and landowners to develop new management plans to sustain populations of breeding, migrating, and wintering black ducks in the state of New York.

Ducks Unlimited's goals for the Completing the Cycle Initiative are ambitious. DU plans to invest more than $18 million to conserve 7,135 acres of prime habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife in the initiative area. These efforts will include protecting and restoring high-priority black duck wintering habitats in coastal salt marshes and breeding habitats in freshwater forested wetlands. From the Susquehanna Flats, Delaware Bay, and Long Island up to Canada's eastern provinces, Ducks Unlimited and our partners are committed to ensuring a bright future for black ducks across their North American range. 


Chris Sebastian is a public affairs coordinator in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.

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A banded black duck is released at DU's Center for Wetlands and Waterfowling in Flanders, New York.

Photo © Chris Sebastian, DU

Celebrating the Black Duck on Long Island

Black ducks have relied on Long Island's coastal salt marshes for migration and wintering habitat for millennia. Since 1995, researchers at Ducks Unlimited's Center for Wetlands and Waterfowling on Long Island have studied this iconic species' migration and food needs, while giving residents an up close look at waterfowl. The center is located at Hubbard County Park in Flanders, New York. The park was a historical hunting club before being acquired by Suffolk County in the 1970s. 

Craig Kessler, a former DU regional director and manager of conservation programs, has known this area since the 1960s, when he was a guide at the hunting club. "In the 1950s and 1960s, the black duck habitat on Long Island was terrific," Kessler says. "But in the 1970s, many of the coastal wetlands were claimed by development. I could see it personally, as the marshes disappeared behind my house."

During the mid-1990s, Ducks Unlimited partnered with Suffolk County to take advantage of conservation and educational opportunities at the park. "We entered into a stewardship agreement, where we would deliver wetland restoration work and educational programs," Kessler says.

Over the years, many DU biologists and university graduate students have spent time at the center while studying black duck food requirements and tracking birds fitted with satellite telemetry equipment during migration. Now retired, Kessler hosts public outreach events at the center as a volunteer. These activities include duck banding days in the spring, decoy shows, and mentored youth waterfowl hunts. Black duck research will also continue at the site.

"This area has a special place in waterfowling history. People have been hunting black ducks on Long Island and the Atlantic Coast for generations, and we would like to see that grand tradition continue," Kessler says.