What if there isn’t any water?
Dry conditions across California this spring reduced the population of breeding mallard ducks by nearly one-quarter, to levels not seen since the drought of the late 2000s.
In round numbers, the population decreased from 387,100 ducks last year to 298,600 ducks this year.
Reductions in water supply often make headlines for the impact on farms, cities and endangered fish. But this year’s poor duck count demonstrates how waterfowl, too, are susceptible to drought.
The results, released last week by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, have implications for the hunting community in Stockton and elsewhere, since hunting regulations next fall will be based in part on how many ducks were breeding this past spring. The economic benefit of waterfowl hunting in California has been estimated at more than $100 million.
Waterfowl are faring much better in other parts of North America, but 70 percent of the mallard ducks harvested by California hunters come from this state, making it important to ensure the birds have quality habitat and water here at home.
Caroline Brady, programs coordinator for the California Waterfowl Association, said she doubts hunters will be surprised by the reduction in population.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a shock because of the lack of water,” she said.
The good news is that populations could bounce back if next winter is wet. The numbers have fluctuated up and down over the past two decades, and bag limits are actually more liberal today than they were more than a decade ago, Brady said.
“The important thing to look at is the general trend,” she said. “For the most part there’s years when it’s really high and there’s years when it’s really low.”
But, she added, “Some water (next year) would do everyone some good.”
Ducks usually pair up in late winter, and once spring arrives, they work together to find a nesting site. They’ll pick one that is upwind and not far from water.
The problem during a year like this, Brady said, is that water is moved around so much, particularly on private lands.
Ducks that pick a nest based on availability of water may suddenly find themselves five miles from the nearest source.
Fish and Wildlife has been conducting its waterfowl surveys since 1955, flying fixed-wing aircraft up and down the Valley and over the farms and wetlands of far northeastern California. The California Waterfowl Association assists, using low-flying helicopters to watch for birds on the ground.
Mallards weren’t the only concern this spring. The total number of ducks of all species declined from 529,700 last year to 451,300 this year, which is 77 percent of the long-term average.