The results of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2012 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey are in, and the news should make duck hunters smile.
Based on aerial surveys covering more than 2 million square miles, the preliminary estimate of total ducks in North America was 48.6 million, up from last year's estimate of 45.6 million and 43 percent greater than the 1955-2008 long-term average.
The key to waterfowl populations is habitat, measured as the number of ponds, the result of the past year's snow melt and rainfall. The total pond estimate for the continent's "duck factory," the prairie provinces of Canada and northern U.S. prairie states, was 5.5 million, about 9 percent above the long-term average of 5.1 million ponds.
The vast majority of the continent's ducks nest around the "prairie potholes" that dot the Dakotas, Minnesota, eastern Montana and Canadian prairies.
In conjunction with international partners, Fish and Wildlife personnel rely on survey results and work with state-agency biologists to establish waterfowl hunting season dates and bag limits.
The survey also covers eastern Canada. Results there indicated stable numbers of American black ducks and mallards. Estimates of other eastern dabbling and diving ducks also maintained their long-term averages.
Though many Pennsylvania wetlands support significant populations of breeding ducks, their numbers are small when compared to prairie populations. For example, fewer than a half million mallards were tabulated in the eastern survey. But many ducks killed in Pennsylvania originate to the north, and diving ducks such as redheads and canvasbacks pass through Pennsylvania as they head from the prairie potholes to East Coast wintering grounds.
Mallards are widespread and abundant across the continent, so it's instructive to focus on them. This year the estimated mallard population was 10.6 million birds, 15 percent higher than last year and 39 percent more than the long term average of 7.6 million. The record year for mallards came in 1958 (11.2 million), and the worst mallard year was 1985 (5 million).
Other species are also having good years. Gadwalls are up 96 percent over the long-term average; blue-winged teal are up 94 percent; green-winged teal are up 74 percent; and northern shovelers are up 111 percent.
It should be a good year to be a duck hunter.
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Rd., Cameron, WV 26033.