The Plain Truth About Prairie Ducks

Some things haven't changed.

By Matt Young

Throughout history, there have been visionaries in every field whose ideas were decades ahead of their time. In physics, there was Sir Isaac Newton; in astronomy, there was Galileo; and in the young science of waterfowl management, there was John J. "Johnny" Lynch. A field biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Lynch helped design and conduct many of the first scientific surveys of waterfowl populations during the 1940s and 1950s. The countless hours he spent observing the birds and their habitats from the air and on the ground gave him exceptional insight about waterfowl, especially prairie ducks.

Ducks Unlimited's (former) Chief Biologist Dr. Bruce Batt explains, "Johnny Lynch developed an incredible understanding of the factors that drive mid-continent duck populations. Even with all of our modern technology and decades of additional data, we have really only fine-tuned and refined the fundamental concepts described by Lynch more than 50 years ago."


Lynch was among the first waterfowl biologists to understand how climate, land use, and geography affect duck nesting success. Lynch encapsulated much of his knowledge about breeding ducks in an internal USFWS report titled "Escape from Mediocrity," which he penned in 1951. Having little patience for dry, technical writing, he used plainspoken vernacular throughout the report for emphasis and entertainment value. It remains one of the most informative essays about ducks ever written.

"The real important part of the Big Duck Factory is the BOP, which is short for ‘Bald Open Prairie,' " Lynch wrote. "This [area] is a big wad of grasslands, about 100,000 square miles worth, lying in the heart of the Prairie Provinces in western Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta , and running down a ways into Montana and North Dakota . It is genuine prairie, or at least was, until the wheat farmer found out how easy it was to plow this land on account of there were no stumps. On account of there was no trees. This BOP. . . can be the duck raising'est place in North America ."

Lynch's assertions were correct. Re-search conducted by Ducks Unlimited, government agencies, universities, and other conservation organizations has confirmed that breeding ducks generally have better nesting success on the grasslands—covering roughly the southern half of the Prairie Pothole Region—than in the more forested parklands to the north and east (see map on page 51). Because there are fewer trees, as Lynch noted, there are fewer avian predators, especially raptors, which can take a significant toll on nesting hens and ducklings. In addition, on landscapes where extensive tracts of grassland remain intact, the dominant land predators are coyotes and badgers, which have larger home ranges than smaller carnivores, such as skunks, foxes, and raccoons. Hence, there are fewer kinds of predators per square mile on the landscape in search of nesting hens and their eggs, which Lynch also described in his report.

Dr. Jim Ringelman, senior director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains office, elaborates, "Waterfowl nest success on the prairies always has been and always will be highly variable in response to annual variations in climate. However, extensive research indicates that breeding ducks most often achieve population-expanding nesting success in areas where large tracts of grassland remain intact. Unfortunately, as grasslands are lost and fragmented, the productivity of breeding ducks declines. Given the staggering pace at which grasslands are being converted to other uses on the prairies today, it makes good sense—both biologically and financially—that we use our limited conservation resources wisely and protect the remaining landscapes on the prairies where breeding ducks continue to have the best nesting success."

DU and its partners in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) are working against time to conserve the most productive areas for breeding waterfowl on the prairies. DU is using several methods of protecting these critical habitats. In the Dakotas , the majority of the acreage is being secured through grassland and wetland easements purchased from landowners in cooperation with the USFWS. These agreements, in which farmers and ranchers receive a one-time payment for granting permanent protection to wetlands and grassland on their property, are a cost-effective approach to conserving waterfowl habitat, while also keeping land in private ownership. DU also protects native prairie habitats in the United States and Canada by accepting conservation easements donated by private landowners and by directly purchasing select properties threatened with imminent development. In addition, DU regularly consults with federal officials in both countries to promote wise wetland policies and agricultural programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States and Greencover Canada , which provide farmers with financial incentives to protect and restore wetlands and grasslands.

In areas where upland cover is limited, breeding ducks, especially pintails, often nest in crop stubble surrounding wetlands. Unfortunately, many of these nests are destroyed when farmers work their fields in the spring. DU helps farmers in prime pintail breeding areas switch from growing spring-seeded crops to winter wheat and fall rye, which provide more secure upland nesting cover for ducks and are not disturbed by cultivation, seeding, or other ground manipulations while hens are incubating their nests.

A study conducted by DU in Saskatchewan found ducks that nested in winter wheat enjoyed 20 percent nest success on average—a level that will support growing populations. In 2004, Canadian farmers planted more than 700,000 acres of winter wheat in Alberta , Saskatchewan , and Manitoba , a 52 percent increase over the amount of acreage planted in winter wheat the year before. Since 1992, DU's efforts, combined with favorable growing conditions, have fostered a 500 percent increase in the acreage of winter wheat and other fall cereals grown in Canada . This growing trend offers hope that pintails and other ducks will be able to find productive new tracts of nesting habitat on intensively farmed prairie landscapes.


Despite the great productivity of the grasslands during wet years, the parklands—stretching across the northern half of the pothole region in Manitoba , Saskatchewan , and Alberta —are also critically important to breeding waterfowl populations. Lynch wrote, "This parkland country can and does raise quite a few ducks. Its water economy (less evaporation per more inches of rainfall) is better than that of the true prairie grasslands. . . By itself, the [region] produces a very ordinary crop [of ducks], one that seldom is real bad, and hardly ever real good. It is the kind of crop that maintains waterfowl populations at safe levels, with some left over for shooting purposes."

Dr. David Howerter, research scientist with DU's Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research in Canada , elaborates, " Parkland wetlands typically have more stable water levels and, consequently, provide more reliable habitat for breeding waterfowl than do prairie wetlands, which are more frequently impacted by drought. As a result, the parklands support more breeding ducks on average than the grasslands, making the region a high-priority conservation area."

DU and its NAWMP partners work closely with private landowners in the parklands to conserve native upland habitats, convert croplands to forage production, and manage pasture and haylands in a manner that provides more secure nesting cover for breeding waterfowl. "Our assessment research indicates planted cover is especially beneficial to hen mallards that nest earlier in the spring, when little other cover is available on the landscape," Howerter reports. "Recent studies have shown these ‘early birds' are very important for building waterfowl populations because their young survive and return to breed at a much higher rate than ducklings hatched later in the breeding season."


Above all else, however, Lynch understood that climate drives the boom and bust cycle of breeding waterfowl on the prairies, and, therefore, continental waterfowl populations as a whole. "The thing [the BOP] lacks the most of, most of the time, is plain ordinary H-two-Oh. It is dry country. In fact, it is semi-arid, and usually is just one thundershower ahead of being a . . . desert. When it does have water, it is a duck paradise. Let good fall rains soak the soil, and heavy winter snows melt quickly in spring so snow-water runs into the sloughs instead of the ground, and the BOP is ready to raise ducks. Add liberal spring and summer rains, and these fowl multiply like bacteria."

While Lynch intentionally exaggerated in this instance, extensive research has confirmed that breeding ducks can be remarkably prolific on the prairies when water is plentiful. "Most duck populations made a strong and rapid recovery during the mid-1990s," Ringleman says. "In fact, total breeding duck numbers in 1999 reached the highest level in more than 50 years. It's reassuring that most prairie-nesting ducks still have the capability to reach the population levels witnessed by Johnny Lynch when conditions are favorable."

More recently, in 2003 and 2004, DU researchers in Prairie Canada observed a similarly impressive response among breeding waterfowl in areas of the grasslands where heavy precipitation created good wetland habitat (see chart on page 52). Howerter reports, "Southern Saskatchewan suffered from a very severe drought during 2000-2002. At its peak, the countryside was so dry in certain areas that ranchers and some communities had to rely on wetlands managed by Ducks Unlimited as emergency water sources. In 2003, southern Saskatchewan received an April blizzard and heavy spring rains that refilled wetlands. Large numbers of waterfowl settled to breed in the region that year, and our research crews documented that nesting ducks did very well. All six of our sites had better than 23 percent nesting success—above the level required for duck populations to grow—including sites with low levels of perennial cover.

"In 2004, our research teams moved to southern Alberta, where wetland conditions had improved from the year before," Howerter continues. "The birds monitored on four of our five sites had better than 24 percent nesting success, including three sites where nesting success exceeded 40 percent. These results help explain the impressive increases that waterfowl populations achieved during the 1990s and following every previous drought. During very wet years on the prairies, breeding ducks can get the job done, in some cases on landscapes with low levels of upland cover. This highlights the importance of protecting and restoring prairie wetlands."

Unfortunately, the unusually wet weather conditions that produce bumper crops of ducks come infrequently on the prairies. Lynch wrote, "On rare occasions, the BOP gets dripping wet, and goes into real production. When this happens, the adjoining [parkland] is usually even wetter, and its production also shoots up. Their combined productivity gives us a super-crop that year, and gives the duck population a shot in the arm. A couple of years like this in a row, and, brother, we got ducks. That's an amazing, but an all too rare escape from mediocrity . . . The BOP never stays in peak production more than two or three years in a row . . . Then the following year it folds, and stays out of production maybe for the next five years. "

Batt offers a modern perspective on Lynch's words. "Waterfowlers may be discouraged that a factor beyond our control—climate—dictates that management alone cannot produce a bumper crop of ducks every year. However, during dry times on the prairies, we must continue to restore and protect wetlands and grasslands, so duck populations can continue to have explosive growth when wet weather returns to the region. If we don't, the prairie will, in effect, be a desert for ducks no matter how many thunderstorms soak the land. Memories of past bumper crops of ducks, and anticipation of future ones, are the fuel that sustains waterfowl conservation through drier times."
Johnny Lynch certainly would have agreed.