Duck population sets record

Monday, October 24, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 24, 2011

Duck Season

There are several waterfowl seasons in Missouri. Duck season this year is staggered between three zones. Hunting in the north zone runs Oct. 29- Dec. 27, the middle zone runs Nov. 5- Jan. 3 and the south zone runs Nov. 24- Jan. 22. Northern Boone County is in the north zone and the southern half is in the middle zone.

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COLUMBIA — The breeding population of ducks in North America is the highest since 1955, when U.S. and Canada wildlife officials began tracking the waterfowl population.  

The 45.6 million ducks migrating south this fall is 11 percent more than last year and represents a 35 percent increase from the long-term average that dates to 1955.

One of the most popular kinds of duck to hunt, the mallard, numbers 9.2 million, which is up 9 percent from 2010 and 22 percent above the long-term average. 

"The good news is right now, waterfowl and the people who love them have it good," Jim Low, news services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said.

In the past five years, Low said, there has been plenty of rainfall in the prairie pothole region, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana as well as Saskatchewan, Manitoba and parts of Alberta, Canada. Most of the ducks in Missouri migrate from the prairie pothole region.

"We have had outstanding conditions on our breeding grounds," Andy Raedeke, Conservation Department resource scientist, said. "Much of North Dakota had extreme amounts of rainfall and lots of snow. The snow melt and rain helped to fill the wetlands."

"Right now we're in a wonderful wet period," Low said. "The best habitat is only of limited use to ducks without adequate water."

Birds need a place to rest and eat after their long flight, and habitat along migration routes has helped drive populations higher, according to Low.

After spending the winter in warmer climates, waterfowl use restored wetlands in Missouri and other states to recuperate during their long flight north. If the ducks get to the northern breeding ground in bad condition, Raedeke said, it can delay nesting and reproduction.

This wetland habitat is important for fall and winter hunting season, too. An area with food and open water is what ducks look for in a place to rest on their journey south. Ducks might stay for a couple weeks in this kind of habitat to replenish fat reserves, Raedeke said. 

"It's a question mark," Conservation Department resource scientist Doreen Mengel said. "There's a lot of birds, but how many stop in Missouri will depend on habitat, weather events and timing of migration."

The quality of the wetland habitat in Missouri varies this year. 

Some public wetlands, like the Bob Brown Conservation Area in northwest Missouri, were flooded for most of the summer, meaning there's little food to encourage ducks to stop there, Mengel said.

Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, south of Columbia and along the Missouri River, was not flooded so the crops that produce food for ducks thrived, Mengel said.

A change in land use poses challenges for future waterfowl populations. In the prairie pothole region, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to plant grasses instead of crops around wetland areas to provide nesting areas for the birds, Mengel said. 

The lands are enrolled in 10-year cycles, but Low said because of the high price of corn and soybeans, farmers are beginning to take their lands out of reserve when the cycle ends, which leads to less wetland habitat for waterfowl.

Since 2007, about 1.5 million acres from North and South Dakota have been taken out.

"The more land that is withdrawn from the Conservation Reserve Program, the less nesting habitat the ducks will have and their population is bound to decrease," Low said.

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Gerald Shelnutt October 24, 2011 | 3:19 p.m.

Much of this is thanks to hunters.

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