Very dry conditions, along with a decline in numbers of breeding ducks compared to last year, were found during the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 74th annual breeding duck survey.
The 2021 May water index was down 80% from 2020, and nearly 68% below the 1948-2020 average. The percentage-based change in the number of wetlands holding water is the greatest seen in the history of the survey.
Mike Szymanski, Department migratory game bird management supervisor, said 2020 was the sixth wettest year and 2021, according to the survey, is the fifth driest in 74 years.
“That’s an indication of how dynamic this system is that we work in,” he said. “We essentially have no temporary and seasonal basins holding water on the landscape right now. And that has huge ramifications for duck production in the state.”
A drastic decline in areas for ducks to establish pair territories and for hens to find high quality forage for egg production doesn’t bode well for whether ducks will decide to nest.
“If a hen sees an area with poor or declining wetland conditions, she’s going to work under the assumption that there’s no place to raise a brood later,” Szymanski said. “Even though we counted a fairly large number of ducks (2.9 million) on our survey, most of those ducks are not going to nest unless we have a very, very dramatic change on the landscape.”
While this year’s breeding duck index was down nearly 27%, it was above the 73-year average by about 19%, and the 48th highest on record.
Indices decreased for all primary species from 2020, including mallards (minus 48.7%), representing the 28th highest count on record, but the lowest since 1993. Some of North Dakota’s other common species dropped below their long-term averages, most notably pintails (-68%), with their lowest count since 1991.
The exception was a 47% increase in the gadwall index from 2020.
“We have seen these oddities in the gadwall index when coming abruptly from wet conditions to rather dry conditions,” Szymanski said. “Being a late-nesting species, gadwall that won’t breed this year are still in the process of aggregating for departure to more secure molting habitats.”
Szymanski said typically it’s probably too early to make any big predictions about the coming fall hunting season. Yet, based on how things are playing out in North Dakota and much of the Prairie Pothole Region, it’s likely going to be tough hunting without a lot of young birds in the air.
“Of course, we’ll do a duck brood survey in July to get another handle on habitat conditions and what we see for production,” Szymanski said. “But based on social mannerisms of ducks right now, it seems like there is very little breeding activity happening.”