Photo by Nikki White.
Waterfowl Overview and Outlook for 2022
Duck and Goose Populations and Wetlands on the Breeding Grounds
Following two years of canceled spring surveys due to COVID-19 restrictions, biologists were able to complete the North American Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey in 2022. Biologists conduct these aerial surveys to document water on the landscape, drought conditions, and waterfowl numbers, and results provide important data sets that assist waterfowl biologists in making decisions concerning hunting regulations. As waterfowl regulations are set as part of a 2-year cycle (i.e. 2022 data sets are used to determine 2023 regulations), biologists will once again be able to use this crucial data in population and harvest models.
In 2022, surveys indicated that recent drought conditions improved in the Prairie Pothole Region of the U.S. and Canada, and pond numbers increased from 2019. The estimated number of wetlands on the 2022 spring survey was 5.45 million, 9 percent above the 2019 estimate of 4.99 million and 4 percent above the long-term average. After several years of widespread drought, population estimates for most duck species declined. Number of breeding ducks estimated on this year’s North American spring waterfowl survey was 34.2 million. This estimate is 12 percent below the 2019 estimate of 38.9 million and is 4 percent lower than the long-term average.
Based on all that, what does this mean for hunters in Illinois and other midwestern states? Typically, wetter habitat conditions in the breeding grounds translates into higher breeding success and more first-year birds flying south. This is good for hunters, as first-year birds are often more responsive to calling and decoys than adults. Unfortunately, for three of Illinois’ four most-harvested species, breeding population estimates are down from 2019. Mallards (-23 percent), green-winged teal (-32 percent), and gadwall (-18 percent) are all down significantly in the past three years, although gadwall and green-winged teal still are at, or above, their long-term averages. The fourth species, wood ducks, are often produced locally, and their population numbers aren’t as tied to habitat conditions further north as the other three species.
Estimates for Mississippi Flyway Canada geese indicate that breeding populations are stable, though slightly below estimates from 2019. Still, numbers of temperate-breeding Canada geese are above long-term population goals set by the Mississippi Flyway Council. Locally, Canada geese that nest in Illinois continue to maintain a stable to slightly increasing population. The breeding population index for Interior Canada geese (formerly called Mississippi Valley Population, or MVP) which nest near southern Hudson Bay shows a stable population trend, which is good news as they continue to make up a significant number of birds harvested in portions of Illinois.
Preliminary reports from banding crews working in the Arctic indicate good production for greater white-fronted geese, or specklebellies, Illinois hunters are consistently seeing increased numbers of greater white-fronted geese, especially in portions of southern, central, and western Illinois, and many hunters have begun specifically targeting them.
Similar to last year, production of light geese in the Central Arctic appears poor again, although banding crews found good production of cackling geese and white-fronted geese in this area. In contrast, banding crews working on West Hudson Bay and in the Eastern Arctic found good production of light geese. Snow geese and Ross’s geese harvested in Illinois are associated with many different nesting colonies throughout the Arctic. Good production of light geese from several major nesting colonies is an encouraging sign for hunters pursuing light geese in Illinois this winter and spring.
As usual, it’s hard to predict how many ducks and geese hunters in Illinois will see each fall and winter while in the field. Even though overall duck populations are expected to be lower this year than in recent years, local habitat conditions, migration events and weather conditions have an important influence on hunting success. In many areas, river levels and timely rains have cooperated, resulting in development of abundant moist-soil plant communities which should provide excellent food for migrating waterfowl. This is an important component for keeping ducks in the area and giving hunters more opportunities. Keep your eyes on weather patterns and fronts, especially further north in the Midwest, that may push birds into your area. As winters become seemingly milder, the snow line can be a good indicator of when and where birds, especially geese, are going to stop. Watch for winds out of the north as potential flight days, where you may lose current birds to the south and pick up more birds from the north.
Many public sites have moved away from COVID-era practices, so check with your local managers to understand how site procedures may have shifted.
For additional information on waterfowl harvests, populations, surveys, and hunter opinions, visit these websites:
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Forbes Biological Station—Illinois Natural History Survey
- Prairie Research Institute
- Illinois Department of Natural Resources Waterfowl Hunting
Ben Williams is the IDNR Division of Wildlife Resources Urban Waterfowl Project Manager and Dan Holm is the IDNR Division of Wildlife Resources Waterfowl Project Manager.