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Ducks Migrating North Found Poor Breeding Conditions



July 19, 2004

Nicholas Throckmorton, 202-208-5636


Migrating ducks returning to important nesting areas in the north-central U.S. and southern Canadian prairies this spring were greeted by dry conditions, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's annual waterfowl survey. Although many areas received winter snow, including a late spring snowstorm in the southern portions of the survey area, the snowmelt was absorbed by the parched ground.

In the traditional survey area, known as the Prairie Pothole region, the total duck population estimate (excluding scoters, eiders, long-tailed ducks, mergansers, and wood ducks) was 32.2 million birds. This estimate is 11 percent below last year's estimate of 36.2 million birds, and similar to the 1955-2003 long-term average.

"The 'duck factory' in the prairie potholes was much drier this May than last," said Service Director Steve Williams. "Unfortunately, the return of water to the short-grass prairie of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan seen last year did not continue, and habitat in these areas went from good last year to fair or poor this year. Areas east of the Great Lakes had plenty of water, and breeding conditions there were better than last year."

The Waterfowl Breeding Ground Population and Habitat Survey, the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind in the world, samples 1.3 million square miles across the north-central United States, south-central and northern Canada, and Alaska. The survey estimates the number of ducks in the continent's most important nesting grounds, commonly referred to as the traditional survey area. Many State and Canadian partners help collect the data.

Annual survey results help guide the Service in managing its waterfowl conservation programs under authority of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Service works in partnership with state representatives from the four flyways - the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific - that waterfowl and other birds use during their migrations, to establish regulatory frameworks on waterfowl hunting season lengths, dates and bag limits.

  • Mallard abundance was 7.4 million birds, which was similar to last year's estimate of 7.9 million birds and the long-term average.
  • Blue-winged teal were estimated at 4.1 million birds, 26 percent below last year's estimate of 5.5 million and 10 percent below the long-term average.
  • Among other duck species, only shoveler, at 2.8 million, and wigeon, at 2.0 million, estimates were significantly different from those of last year. Both of which were 22 percent lower than in 2003 estimates.
  • In comparison with long-term averages, the 2004 estimates were higher for gadwall at 2.6 million (+56 percent), green-winged teal at 2.5 million (+33 percent), and shovelers (+32 percent), and lower for pintails at 2.2 million (- 48 percent), scaup at 3.8 million (- 27 percent), and wigeon (- 25 percent). Redhead, at 605,000, and canvasback, at 617,000, estimates were similar to their long-term averages.

Most of the U.S. and Canadian prairies were much drier in May of 2004 than in May of 2003. Total pond numbers were 24 percent lower than last year, and the change was greater in Canada, down 29 percent to 2.5 million ponds, than in the north-central United States, down 16 percent to 1.4 million ponds. Snow and low temperatures during May probably had an adverse impact on early-nesting species and young broods. Although many prairie areas received abundant rain after the May surveys, this water likely did not alleviate the dry conditions, because much of it also soaked into the ground.

The Northwest Territories, Northern Alberta, Northern Saskatchewan, and Northern Manitoba were exceptionally late in thawing this year, so the birds that over-flew the dry prairies encountered winter-like conditions and nesting may have been curtailed. This is especially true for early-nesting species such as mallards and pintails. Late-nesters will have better success.

Alaska birds should produce well because of excellent habitat conditions. Areas south of Alaska's Brooks Range experienced a widespread, record-setting early spring breakup, and flooding due to the rapid thaw was minor.

In the eastern United States and Canada, breeding habitat conditions generally were good to excellent. Although spring was late in most areas,biologists believed that nesting was not significantly affected because of abundant spring rain and mild temperatures.

In the eastern survey area, the 2004 total duck population estimate was 3.9 million birds, similar to both last year and the 1996-2003 average.

Estimates for individual species also were similar to those of last year and the 8-year average, with the exception of ring-necked ducks, which was 67 percent above the 2003 estimate, and wigeon and goldeneyes, which were 61 percent and 42 percent below their 8-year averages, respectively.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 544 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 63 Fish and Wildlife Management offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.


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