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July 3, 2012

Early spring creates staggered duck breeding and migration schedule

MADISON - The spring 2012 waterfowl breeding picture was marked by an early spring, unusual weather, and dry conditions, which state wildlife officials say, created a challenge to survey breeding ducks in 2012. Despite that difficulty they say breeding waterfowl numbers appear to be "about average."

"Overall, wetland numbers this spring were down but in Wisconsin our abundant permanent water contained in 15,000 lakes reduces the impact of dry conditions on the ducks," said Kent Van Horn, Department of Natural Resources migratory waterfowl biologist. "Some areas have good wetland conditions while other areas are still very dry. But despite those dry conditions across important duck breeding areas in Wisconsin, this spring, the total breeding duck numbers in Wisconsin appear to be near the average of the last 10 years. 2012 should provide fair to good duck production across Wisconsin. Summer rains will be particularly important this year to maintain brood rearing habitat."

Wisconsin's warm weather in March triggered an early duck migration and breeding activity among mallards and Canada geese. However, in April a return of cold temperatures stalled the breeding activity of blue-winged teal and the migration of other duck species through Wisconsin. As a result, the spring waterfowl survey was initiated earlier than normal on April 23 in order to have the best count of breeding mallards; blue-winged teal that were still in migration through the state were counted.

Wisconsin had a dry, mild winter and entered a March where temperatures were 14 to 16 degrees above normal. Winter precipitation was 25 percent below normal which provided fewer temporary and seasonal wetlands when ducks arrived in Wisconsin this spring. However, rain did come in some northern and central state areas and the spring (March- May) rainfall was 15 percent above normal statewide, which filled seasonal wetlands in some regions.

Variation from year to year in wetland conditions and breeding ducks is part of the natural cycle in the world of wetland wildlife. Wetlands need dry periods to maintain long-term productivity and ducks are able to adapt to changing wetland conditions among years and across the continent. Conservation dollars and efforts of waterfowl hunters over the decades have protected and managed wetland and upland habitats important to breeding ducks. Protection of these areas even in dry years provides the setting for good duck responses when the rainfall increases during wet years.

Annual surveys lead to season structure

Three primary sources of information on annual waterfowl breeding conditions are used to determine the fall hunting season structure for Wisconsin, according to Van Horn.

"We've completed the annual Wisconsin Breeding Waterfowl Survey, which is very important since a large proportion of the ducks harvested in Wisconsin are raised in Wisconsin," Van Horn said. "The full version of the report is available on the waterfowl page of the DNR website, under the Management Information tab."

A cooperative survey of Canada geese, the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) Breeding Survey, organized by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has also been completed.

The final piece is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service breeding waterfowl survey for the northern United States, Canada and Alaska. That information is expected in the next few weeks and will form the framework for the 2012 fall hunting seasons. Only preliminary wetland data is available at this time.


Waterfowl breeding areas in parkland and prairie Canada for spring 2012 were drastically different from the widespread excellent conditions in 2011. Most areas were in fair to good condition with only a small area in southeast Saskatchewan rated as excellent. Spring habitat conditions for the Dakotas and Minnesota were also drier than the wet conditions of last year. In North Dakota, the 2012 wetland count was 57 percent below 2011 and 6 percent below the long term mean.

However, following the excellent duck production of 2012 there were still abundant ducks on the landscape. The 2012 total breeding duck estimate of 4.8 million for North Dakota was 16 percent higher than 2011 and 112 percent above the long term mean. Minnesota had a very dry early spring and survey numbers showed a 37 percent decrease in wetland numbers from 2011, but spring rains following the survey filled many wetlands and created flooding in some areas. The Minnesota total duck estimate of 479,000 was 32 percent lower than 2011 and 33 percent below the state's long term mean

In Wisconsin, despite overall dry conditions in late April and early May and challenges related to survey timing, the total estimated breeding ducks were similar to last year and the average for the last 10 years. The total breeding duck population estimate for 2012 was 521,079, which was similar to the 2011 estimate of 513,746 and the average of the last 10 years at 545,240.

The four most abundant ducks in Wisconsin's fall hunting harvest are mallards, wood ducks, green-winged teal, and blue-winged teal. Van Horn notes that many of the ducks harvested in Wisconsin come from birds that breed in Wisconsin, in contrast to other states in the flyway, which rely more heavily on birds raised in the prairies or boreal forests of Canada.

The 2012 total mallard population estimate of 196,950 is similar to the 2011 estimate of 187,862 mallards and 8 percent above the long-term average (39 year). Mallards contribute to nearly 40 percent of the state duck harvest in Wisconsin. Overall the breeding population of mallards in Wisconsin has leveled off near 200,000 in recent years depending on annual wetland conditions. For 2012 hunters should expect average production and fall mallard numbers.

The second most abundant duck in the fall harvest is the wood duck and breeding wood duck populations continue to provide an encouraging outlook for ducks in Wisconsin. In 2012, the population estimate for wood ducks of 106,626 is 36 percent above the long-term average.

The 2012 blue-winged teal breeding population estimate of 105,791 is near the long term average for breeding blue-winged teal in Wisconsin. However, the 2012 blue-winged teal estimates should be interpreted with caution since the teal arrived early in March but then their migration and breeding activity stalled when cooler temperatures returned in April. The 2012 teal numbers likely include a higher than normal proportion of migrating teal which were passing through Wisconsin to more northern breeding areas.

While blue-winged teal populations have recently been at some of the highest continental population levels in more than 50 years of surveys, their breeding population in Wisconsin is much lower than during the early 1970s. A continued commitment to grassland conservation which is important for blue-winged teal nesting habitat is important to the future of blue-winged teal in Wisconsin. Based on the 2012 wetland habitat conditions and estimated breeding population we expect fair to good blue-winged teal production this year but it will depend on June-July rainfall to continue to provide adequate brood habitat.

Canada geese

"We expect good Canada goose hunting opportunities this fall, particularly for the Early September Canada goose season (September 1-15 with a 5 bird daily bag limit)," says Van Horn.

"There are two different populations of Canada geese that represent most of the geese in Wisconsin during the regular fall hunting season. The average over the last several years has shown the hunting harvest split roughly 50:50 between these two populations during the regular hunting seasons," Van Horn said.

One population, called resident giant Canada geese, nests in Wisconsin. The 2012 Wisconsin breeding Canada goose population estimate of 145,386 is down 17 percent from 2011 and is 62 percent above the long-term (25 year) average. The 2012 data on resident breeding Canada geese, however, should be interpreted with caution because we know they were well into their nesting period by the time of the survey which may have reduced their detectability. The early and warm spring generally results in better Canada goose production and field reports indicate that goose broods are 1-2 weeks older than normal at this time of year and survival looks good.

By federal rule, the Early September Canada goose season harvest must remain more than 90 percent giant Canada geese that nest in Wisconsin or adjacent states. The season is scheduled early to target this population.

The second Canada goose population is the Mississippi Valley Population, which is made up of slightly smaller birds that nest along the coast of Hudson Bay in northern Ontario and migrate through Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. The 2012 breeding population estimate is 268,891 is similar to the 2011 estimate of 269,840. This would suggest that the MVP breeding population remains about 25 percent below the long term average. The total MVP population estimate, which includes non-breeding birds, is up slightly from 2011 at 402,844. Spring phenology and habitat suggest that Canada goose production in northern Ontario should be about average.

Overall, 2012 appears to be a generally average year for duck and Canada goose populations, Van Horn says. However, this is one of the most difficult years to interpret the survey results because of the unusual weather conditions this spring. Of course, each hunter's waterfowl hunting success in the fall depends more on their scouting and fall water and weather conditions than it does on the spring breeding numbers.

Final continental numbers will not be available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until mid-July. Once these data are available, Wisconsin DNR staff will meet with other state, federal and provincial agencies at the Mississippi Flyway Council meeting at the end of July. After this series of meetings, state biologists will have a clearer picture of how the population data will impact the 2012 waterfowl hunting regulations.

The Mississippi Flyway Council

The Mississippi Flyway Council, which is made up of waterfowl specialists and wildlife directors from the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan will meet later this summer to analyze survey data and make recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on waterfowl hunting regulations before the federal agency establishes a framework under which states and provinces can set waterfowl hunting seasons.

Following the flyway council meeting and after the USFWS sets a season framework, public hearings on Wisconsin's proposed waterfowl seasons will be held in late July and early August. The final Wisconsin seasons will be set by the state Natural Resource Board at its Aug. 8 meeting in Germantown.

"As we do each year, the public will have opportunities to provide input on waterfowl hunting season during our meetings and hearings," said Van Horn. "These public meetings are also a great opportunity to hear the latest on waterfowl management and population status. We'll take the public input to the Natural Resources Board along with a season structure proposal for approval."

DNR's proposed waterfowl seasons will be available at the end of July. They will be available by searching for waterfowl on the DNR website. The public can send comments on the proposal to the Assistant Migratory Game Bird Ecologist before midnight on Thursday, August 2.

Comments on the seasons should be sent to James Christopoulos, DNR Bureau of Wildlife Management, PO Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921 or by email to:

The following meetings on the status of waterfowl populations and possible season structures will be held:

Pre-Flyway Meeting

Post-Flyway Meetings

Public Hearing Locations

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Kent Van Horn - (608) 266-8841

Last Revised: Tuesday, July 03, 2012

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