By Mike Brasher, PhD; Dan Smith, PhD; John Coluccy, PhD

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Scott Fink


For most waterfowl biologists and hunters, some of this year’s waterfowl survey results, which were released in mid-August by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), came as an unpleasant surprise. In the spring of 2022, following years of prairie drought, the number of ducks arriving and settling on the breeding grounds was lower than it had been since 2005. However, improved wetland conditions in many areas led biologists to believe that those ducks would have good breeding success overall, resulting in more ducks in the fall flight and more ducks returning to the breeding grounds in 2023. It is understandable, then, if waterfowl enthusiasts were surprised when many of this year’s breeding duck populations had, in fact, declined.

For over 65 years, federal, state, and provincial agencies have conducted surveys to estimate numbers of ducks, geese, and swans in North America. Those results are used to monitor waterfowl abundance and habitats, inform harvest regulations, and grow our understanding of populations and conservation needs. Results are summarized each year in the USFWS’s Waterfowl Population Status report to provide a comprehensive review of the abundance of North America’s ducks, geese, and swans.

These numbers come from two survey regions: the traditional survey area and eastern survey area. The traditional survey area accounts for 75 to 85 percent of total estimated duck populations and encompasses breeding habitats from Alaska to western Ontario and south to the Dakotas and Montana. The eastern survey area, spanning central Ontario to Newfoundland and south to Maine, is characterized by more stable wetland conditions and smaller annual changes in waterfowl population sizes and is of primary importance to hunters in the Atlantic Flyway. In this special report, we will review the 2023 survey results and share insights from DU scientists on what this information might mean for the fall flight and hunting prospects in each flyway.

Because the traditional survey area encompasses the highly productive Prairie Pothole Region, where habitat conditions and duck populations fluctuate in response to periodic wet and dry cycles, the fortunes of most waterfowl populations—and hunters—are tied to these variable conditions. The estimate for total ducks in this area, including the 16 most common duck species, was 32.3 million birds, a 7 percent drop from 2022 and 9 percent below the long-term average.

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Chart: DU

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, breeding populations of the 16 most common duck species totaled 32.3 million birds in the traditional survey area. This estimate was down 7 percent from the 2022 survey and 9 percent below the long-term average.

“These results are somewhat disappointing, as we had hoped for better production from the eastern prairies due to improved moisture in spring of 2022,” says DU Chief Scientist Dr. Steve Adair. But a closer examination of prairie weather conditions may explain the lackluster response by breeding ducks. “Last year’s nesting season was delayed by April snowstorms and May rains, which likely impacted overall production. In the past, we have seen population growth lag behind moisture conditions as small, shallow wetlands recover from the lingering impacts of severe drought,” Adair notes.

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Chart: DU

Numbers in millions. LTA (Long-term Average). Based on Traditional Survey Area.

Estimates for several dabbling duck species in the traditional survey area continued to decline from record highs during the previous decade. The mallard breeding population was estimated at 6.1 million birds, an 18 percent drop from 2022 and a level 23 percent below the long-term average. This was the lowest mallard estimate since 1994. Similar declines were seen in blue-winged teal and American wigeon. Despite this year’s decrease, bluewing numbers remained near their long-term average. Estimates for American wigeon, however, were 28 percent below their long-term average.

Estimates for five duck species—northern shovelers, canvasbacks, gadwalls, redheads, and scaup—were relatively unchanged from 2022 estimates. Northern shoveler and canvasback numbers remained near their long-term averages, while gadwalls and redheads were 25 and 27 percent above their long-term averages, respectively. Estimates for scaup were 29 percent below the long-term average but have been stable in each of the past three surveys.

In more positive news, American green-winged teal were up 16 percent, marking the 25th consecutive year that this population was above the long-term average. Northern pintails provided the most encouraging result, as their breeding population increased 24 percent to just over 2.2 million birds, a welcome turnaround from a record low of only 1.78 million in 2022. While this increase was newsworthy and removed any concern for restrictive harvest regulations in 2024–25, the pintail remains a species of conservation concern as its population remained 43 percent below the long-term average.

Changes in total duck populations are consistent with broader wetland trends, as nearly 70 years of data show well-aligned peaks and valleys of duck populations and wetlands. In addition to counting waterfowl, pilot-biologists record the number of wetlands on survey transects in the Prairie Pothole Region. Referred to as May ponds, these data serve as an index of habitat conditions for breeding waterfowl. In 2023, the estimate for May ponds declined 9 percent from 2022 and was 5 percent below the long-term average. Pond estimates were similar to the long-term average in each of the past four surveys. As noted by Dr. Matt Dyson, waterfowl research scientist with DU Canada, “It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve seen consecutive years of excellent prairie wetland conditions on both sides of the border. That’s what we’ll need to get back to record populations of the mid-2010s.”

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Chart: DU

Data courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

For the eastern survey area, breeding duck populations were generally unchanged this spring from 2022 estimates. Total abundance for the nine surveyed duck species was 4.8 million birds, similar to 2022 and 8 percent above the long-term average. Mallard estimates were also similar to last year and the long-term average, ensuring another year of liberal bag limits for mallards in the Atlantic Flyway. The estimate for American black ducks increased modestly (up 8 percent) from 2022 and was roughly at the long-term average.

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Chart: DU

Numbers in thousands. LTA (Long-term Average). *Atlantic Flyway Estimate.

The numbers included in this report are estimates of spring breeding populations and do not account for waterfowl produced during the breeding season. As many hunters can attest, it is often the abundance of young, naïve birds in the fall population that makes or breaks a hunting season, and the production of juvenile birds is heavily influenced by breeding habitat conditions. The following sections provide regional coverage of waterfowl populations and habitat conditions most likely to influence hunting success across the flyways.

Pacific Flyway


Waterfowl harvested in the Pacific Flyway originate primarily from Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, and local populations in Washington, Oregon, and California. Total breeding ducks in these areas in 2023 were estimated at 14.7 million birds, 7 percent below the 2022 estimate and 15 percent below the long-term average. A major cause for this year’s decline was a 50 percent drop in estimated duck numbers in Alaska. Most other northern breeding regions had minor changes (less than 10 percent) in population size. Results from southern breeding areas in the flyway were mixed. Duck populations in Washington declined by 7 percent, while those in Oregon declined by 43 percent. Record snowfall and above-average rain improved habitat conditions across much of California, leading to a 30 percent increase in the number of breeding ducks in the state. Nevertheless, effects of the recent multi-year drought continue to be felt, as the breeding duck population in California remained 8 percent below the long-term average.

Five species account for over 80 percent of the annual duck harvest in the Pacific Flyway—mallards, green-winged teal, American wigeon, northern shovelers, and northern pintails. Mallard numbers across Pacific Flyway breeding areas declined 11 percent from 2022 and were 19 percent below the long-term average. Green-winged teal increased 20 percent over the previous year’s estimate and the long-term average. American wigeon and northern shovelers declined by 20 and 24 percent, respectively, and both were below their long-term averages. Pintail estimates were similar to 2022 but remained 43 percent below the long-term average.

Sharp declines in duck populations in Alaska survey regions were largely unexpected, as habitat conditions last year were reported to be excellent. Insights from partner biologists suggest that cooler-than-average spring temperatures and above-average snow and ice cover may have challenged survey timing in some regions and caused a redistribution of breeding ducks. Paired with declines in survey results across Alaska were increases in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and northern Alberta. Warmer conditions arrived suddenly, causing flooding in interior Alaska as the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers swelled. Habitat conditions in the Northwest Territories varied from excellent on the Arctic Coastal Plain to poor in the Boreal Forest to the southeast, where hot, dry conditions reduced wetland availability for waterfowl and contributed to widespread wildfires. Overall, observers expected good to excellent production in Alaska, the Yukon, and the Arctic Coastal Plain, and fair to poor production across Boreal regions of the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta.

Habitat conditions improved in Washington, Oregon, and California this spring. Heavy rains provided some drought relief in Washington, while excellent snowpack in Oregon recharged eastern basins after three years of dry conditions. Record mountain snow and abundant winter rain in California recharged most reservoirs to above-normal capacity and provided ample water for managed wetlands and rice production in the Central Valley. Waterfowl production in southern breeding regions was expected to be good to excellent, which should have added young birds to the fall flight and improved hunting prospects. However, water woes continue to plague other critical habitats for waterfowl, including the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which faces its fourth year of limited or no water.

Central and Mississippi Flyways

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Scott Fink

Most ducks encountered by Central and Mississippi Flyway waterfowlers come from the Prairie Pothole Region, Western Boreal Forest, and Great Lakes region. Excluding estimates from Alaska and the Yukon Territories, which are a major source of birds for the Pacific Flyway, combined breeding duck numbers in these regions were essentially unchanged from 2022. Although winter snow and spring rains produced what one pilot-biologist described as “the most impressive” breeding conditions across the Dakotas in 15 years, habitat conditions weren’t uniform across the prairies. Pond counts and total ducks in the eastern Dakotas both declined by 25 percent from 2022, but increases were seen in the western Dakotas and Montana. Breeding duck estimates also declined in southern Manitoba as pond numbers were down by 24 percent following exceptionally wet conditions the previous spring.

Elsewhere, large portions of the Canadian prairies had below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures, resulting in fewer wetlands on the landscape. Conditions in southern Alberta were particularly poor, as pond counts were 18 percent below the long-term average. Much of the Boreal Forest experienced hot, dry conditions, and extreme temperatures beginning in May fueled wildfires that burned over 35 million acres and forced the evacuation of many communities. While duck production in fire-affected landscapes was expected to be depressed, biologists did not expect major impacts on the fall flight. Duck production on the US prairies was expected to be good to excellent, but dry conditions likely caused fair to poor production across much of Prairie Canada.

At the individual species level, the most noteworthy change occurred for mallards, North America’s most commonly harvested duck. Estimates were flat or down in every survey region across the prairies and Boreal Forest, with a 36 percent decline across the eastern Dakotas. Blue-winged teal were down by 1.2 million birds, or 19 percent. Redhead and canvasback numbers remained strong in the face of drought, as their populations were near or above their long-term averages. Northern pintails were up significantly in essentially every survey region, headlined by a 203 percent increase in southern Saskatchewan.

Two main factors influence breeding duck estimates across the landscape—the production and carryover of young from the previous year and habitat conditions that affect settling patterns of nesting hens the following spring. These factors appear to have again been in play during 2023. “We had recovery from the drought of 2021, but it certainly didn’t cover the entire prairies,” recalls Dr. Scott Stephens, DU Canada director of conservation strategy and support. “And the rains that fell in spring of 2022 came late across much of Prairie Canada, which is never ideal from a production standpoint. Couple that with overall drier conditions and another delayed spring this year and the survey results seem to make a bit of sense.”

Hunters in the upper half of the Mississippi Flyway also rely on locally produced waterfowl from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. During 2023, both total ducks and mallard populations surveyed across these states were down by 15 percent and 20 percent, respectively. However, spring habitat conditions were described as good to excellent in many areas, and although water levels declined during late spring and summer, biologists expected average duck production in this region.

Atlantic Flyway

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Steve Oehlenschlager

While the Atlantic Flyway receives some waterfowl from the prairies and Western Boreal Forest, most of the birds that hunters see here are produced in the Great Lakes region, eastern Canada, and local habitats in the northeastern United States. In general, wetland conditions in the east are relatively stable from year to year and so are breeding duck populations. Notable exceptions this year were goldeneyes and green-winged teal, which increased by 28 percent and 17 percent, respectively. Although similar to 2022 estimates, American black duck numbers increased for the second consecutive year, climbing 8 percent this spring, and were above the long-term average.

Other species of importance were stable compared to last year’s numbers. The breeding population for mallards was 1.2 million birds, roughly unchanged from the 2022 estimate. Ring-necked ducks and three species of mergansers were also similar to last year. Combined estimates of the nine most abundant species counted in the eastern survey area were relatively unchanged (up 5 percent) but were 8 percent above the long-term average. Because surveying wood ducks is difficult using traditional methods, populations of these birds in the Atlantic Flyway are estimated using long-term datasets and mathematical models. The 2023 estimate for wood ducks was approximately 1 million birds, which was similar to last year and the long-term average.

Despite a dry spring in the Atlantic provinces, habitat conditions across eastern Canada were generally good to excellent, with many areas receiving near or above-average precipitation and winter snowfall. Breeding habitats in the eastern United States, spanning from Virginia to New Hampshire, were a mixed bag of fair to good conditions. In general, duck production across much of the Atlantic Flyway was expected to be average or better.

Outlook for Geese

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Steve Oehlenschlager

Goose populations are calculated using a combination of aerial surveys and models that rely on band recovery and harvest estimates. Viewed broadly, estimates for most goose populations were down in 2023 compared to the previous year. With a few exceptions, however, these declines come amid prolonged periods of population growth or stability and are not expected to greatly affect hunting opportunities. Given the continued robust population sizes of most geese, the proportion of young birds in the fall flight, combined with regional weather and habitat conditions, will likely have the biggest impacts on hunting success this season.

Changes in annual goose productivity are heavily influenced by weather events during spring and summer, and anecdotal reports from the field provide reason for optimism. Ground crews working in the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta, Copper River Delta, and Arctic Coastal Plain reported good nesting success for geese, which likely resulted in good production and a better-than-average fall flight. This fall hunters in Saskatchewan have reported a large percentage of juvenile birds in flocks of Ross’s geese, another potential indicator of good production in the north. In the central Arctic, spring was reported as very early or early to average in other areas of the Canadian Arctic and subarctic. Warm weather in early June led to rapidly melting sea ice in Hudson Bay, which caused coastal flooding in the western and central lowlands along the bay. These conditions could have impacted goose production in the region, although flooding prevented research teams from accessing long-term monitoring sites. Overall, the resilience of goose populations and their ability to exploit ever-changing landscapes continues to be an impressive waterfowl success story, and hunters should expect another year of widespread goose hunting opportunities this season.

Looking Ahead

Despite declines among several species and in many survey regions, waterfowl populations remain healthy overall relative to historical trends. Conservation is indeed a long game, and Ducks Unlimited’s decisions on where and how to protect priority waterfowl habitats are not based on a single year’s data. “Lower-than-expected numbers in this year’s survey reinforce the need for wetlands conservation as habitat continues to be lost across the continent,” says DU CEO Adam Putnam. “For over 86 years, DU has focused on North American wetlands and grasslands that sustain healthy waterfowl populations and provide clean water for people too. As much as we have accomplished, these data confirm we have more work to do.”

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from decades of tracking and discussing waterfowl populations, it is that we rarely encounter years in which populations and habitat conditions are good across all breeding areas. Thus, keeping the table set through habitat conservation programs across all four flyways is a necessity. Improved habitat conditions on some landscapes this spring were conducive to average to excellent waterfowl production, while others continued to struggle with dry conditions and likely had fair to poor production. Although we shouldn’t expect a bumper crop of young ducks in the fall flight this year, there should be enough to keep us optimistic while enjoying our time with family and friends in the blind

Liberal Harvest Frameworks Likely to Remain in Place

Results from the 2023 breeding waterfowl population and habitat surveys will be used by federal and state agencies to determine harvest regulations for the 2024–25 seasons. The Adaptive Harvest Management report, released along with the waterfowl status report, describes the structured process used by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to determine optimal waterfowl harvests. Based on results from the 2023 surveys, the recommended harvest frameworks for the 2024–25 season are expected to be unchanged across all four flyways, meaning hunters should prepare for another year of liberal regulations for most duck species.