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Where Are the Ducks?
By Bill Hoagland
This has to be the worst duck season in the Mississippi Flyway that any duck hunter can remember. The ducks simply are not in their usual haunts as they migrate and you have to wonder if they have “migrated” at all. It is, after all, predicted to be 70 degrees on the day before Christmas, and that kind of weather will not move the ducks, pure and simple.
In looking at the Ducks Unlimited website, there is a section that allows local hunters to report what they are seeing on the ground. Several hunters, mostly in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, are reporting seeing huge clouds of mallards now swarming into reservoirs, but hunters along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers still have not been seeing any ducks at all.
So what is going on? Is it simply because it has been unseasonably warm this fall or are we witnessing a long term change in the duck migration pattern, similar to the change we saw in the Canadian goose migration pattern twenty years ago in Southern Illinois?
According to Dr. Terry Moorman, a wildlife expert, there very well could be a long term change in the migration pattern of mallards that is already underway. There are a number of reasons for this; some are obvious, such as an unusually warm winter, but other reasons may not be so obvious. According to Dr. Moorman, the variable conditions that appear to be potentially causing long term changes in migration patterns include the following: warmer fall and winter seasons; changing landscape conditions, such as loss of wetlands and loss of traditional grain cropland in Louisiana and Texas in particular; increased grain crops now being grown in northern US states and Canadian provinces; annual rainfall increases, particularly in the eastern US, resulting in providing ducks with more choices on places to spend the winter; and lastly, a increase in hunting pressure, such as overhunting traditional duck habitat. On this last point, Dr. Moorman said that it is essential that you allow these ducks to have a break from the hunting pressure during their migration or they are going to eventually go elsewhere permanently. Even allowing people to drive through a rest lake to get the ducks moving is the sort of disturbance that will have long term effects.
As long as these ducks have access to water, food and rest areas, they will remain as far north in the fall and over the winter as they can because that allows them to be that much closer to their spring breeding grounds—beating the crowd to the good spots, so to speak. And with the fall/winter season we are having this year, that is exactly why they are staying further north than usual. And here is the most concerning part of Dr. Moorman’s observations: if we continue to have the same climate conditions we have had recently, it is predicted that by 2050, the majority of the mallard population will spend their winters no further south than a line from Nebraska east to the Great Lakes.
Twenty years ago, I could not have imagined that southern Illinois in the area around Cairo someday would have no Canadian geese spending the winter there. Today, that appears to be the case. Could the same change be coming for the mallard? Let’s hope not.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.