Waterfowl Numbers Down Slightly

Outdoors with Forda Birds—By John Andreoni

Not too long after WWII ended, I was spending many fall evenings riding along with my dad scouting for ducks in the family’s 1937 Plymouth. Unlike today, at the ripe old age of six I rode in the front seat without a seatbelt enjoying an ever present mixture of stale and fresh cigar smoke. Those trips were some of the happiest days of my life. Duck hunters talked about those times as the glory years. At the right place, at the right time, one could see flocks of ducks heading out to feed that stretched well over a mile long. It was an exciting time, and seeing those large number of ducks, mostly mallards, lasted for many years. Around here, it has been well over 20 years since I’ve seen anything resembling those glory years. What’s interesting is that there is probably a larger population of mallards today than there were in the late 1940s and early 1950s. One has to conclude that things have changed over the last 70 years to make the birds change flight paths or just not hang around.

Looking back over the years, I can probably make an educated guess why the annual fall migration of ducks isn’t what it used to be. My first conclusion is that Lake St. Marys no longer provides the backwater roosting areas it once had. Southside backwater areas once covered with potholes and cattails no longer exist. Those areas offered cover and protection for thousands of migrating waterfowl each year. Of course, hunters did hunt the cattail marshes, but it was a chore and limited. The only open water in the marshes were man-made potholes and the paths that joined them. Access was by flat-bottom or an occasional double-pointed rowboat. If you were tough and a glutton for punishment, wading the marshes was possible. I don’t ever recall using more than a dozen decoys in these spots and for many years hunted with eight wooden ones that weighed a ton.

Today, the marshes are gone and open-water duck blinds are found in many of the old marsh areas. The backwater at the Mercer Wildlife Area provides protection for some birds, and that’s why duck blinds around that location are so popular. The new treatment trains at Prairie Creek, Coldwater Creek, and Beaver Creek have great potential to provide protected areas for migrating waterfowl. If land becomes available for treatment trains at the other creeks running into the lake, even more waterfowl habitat will be available once vegetation is established.

It’s hard to determine the number of ducks that currently migrate through this area. Many older hunters accept that our waterfowl migration pattern has changed over the years. Some hunters have suggested that large additions of wetlands in counties north of us have short-stopped the ducks. I’ve talked to some property owners in that area who said it was more profitable to turn marginal ground into wetlands rather than try to produce a crop. With possible government funds available for wetland production, from what I understand, ground could potentially be purchased and maintained by these subsidies. There is little ground in this neighborhood that isn’t in production. Land is too expensive to sit idle.

Current farming practices have definitely had an impact on stopping birds during their fall migration. Waste corn has always been a staple for migrating ducks and geese. Current machinery is so efficient, little waste grain remains after harvest. Immediate fall plowing removes much of what little remains, depending on how the fields are plowed. My father recalls hunting when farmers shocked their corn. Although labor intensive, harvesting corn by hand is very efficient. When I first started hanging out in cornfields, even though the yield wasn’t as great as today, a two-row corn picker left a lot of ears on the ground, especially if it wasn’t tuned up correctly. By the time farmers were harvesting 100 bushels per acre, self-propelled combines were shelling the corn in the fields and still leaving significant waste. Mechanical picking was convenient, fast, and waste was an accepted consequence. Today, in a good year, farmers will produce well over 200 bushels an acre and leave hardly any waste with a modern, well maintained combine.

Oops, I almost forgot about the 2019 duck population numbers. Overall, the breeding number of ducks was 6% lower than last year, but those are still good numbers. Mallards were slightly better than last year, blue-winged teal numbers were significantly lower, and gadwall were significantly higher. For the diver hunters, redhead breeders were 27% down, canvasbacks a -5%, and bluebills -10% which is 28% below the long-term average. The mallard fall-flight index is roughly 11 million birds, gradually decreasing since the 2015’s peak year of 12 million.

What does all of this information mean to area waterfowl hunters? First of all, we have the same, if not more ducks than we had back in the good old days. Next, according to the F&W Service, “Ultimately, however, hunting success and numbers of birds observed will vary with the onset of fall and winter cold fronts and arrival of winter conditions necessary to force birds to migrate, and also with regional habitat conditions.” That means, 2019 local duck hunting looks like another crap shoot, which is par for the course.