It seems over the last decade, hunters have debated more than they have in the past century, and it's over the amount of ducks they are harvesting. There are as many conspiracy theories over this question as there are for JFK's assassination, and we are going to investigate this dilemma of extreme importance.
First is the theory that there a just not as many ducks as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) says there are. Many hunters believe that these surveyors intentionally inflate the numbers. I can tell you I have worked for the USFWS as a young wildlife student and nothing I saw or heard from these surveyors would lead me to believe this is true. I worked with both young and seasoned biologists who surveyed both local populations as well as those into Canada, and believe me, they were trying to be as accurate as possible. They have no incentive for overestimating as some believe. Or do they? On the contrary, if they underestimate, the USFWS would probably receive more funding for research into the "Why" the numbers are declining.
Second, the refuge system is melting waters to keep ducks. This is an exaggeration, and one that can't feasibly be done on a large scale. I have read some reports of agitators to slow the freezing of ponds as well as outfalls from some type of heated water source (refinery operations), but it was more of an unintended benefit and not the sole purpose. Heating and agitating that much water to thaw waters would quickly deplete the funds of most if not all refuges.
Third, the new genetically modified rice strains are too tough for the ducks to eat. I had a good friend who was touting in 2017 that they had leased an "Old School" farm that only uses traditional rice strains and none of the modified strains. They had a terrible season.
Let's look at the other side of the coin. I have friends who, for the last two years, never harvested so many ducks. I have other friends who are on the verge of taking up deer hunting and fishing due to the lack of limits they are getting. It also seems there is a lot more duck habitat than there used to be. From increased rice farming to more refuges and mega duck hunting lodges managing for waterfowl, the duck numbers will be scattered and not concentrated like they used to. Regardless of what one believes is causing global warming, it definitely seems to be occurring and most of the old timers will tell you that winters were just colder when they were younger; the 1940's-1960's, which would cause more ducks to winter farther south. This has happened throughout history and will most likely continue for the upcoming millions of years even if we do accelerate warming by a degree or two. Duck hunter numbers are supposedly down, but in Southwest LA, it seems "Duck Dynasty" has caused an influx of duck hunters who can quickly push ducks out from there usual haunts and move them into less pressured areas. Hunters just can't be everywhere.
Fourth, and this may be the biggest argument, is that northern farmers are using non-agricultural practices illegally to hold and hunt birds. This argument may have some merit. Farmers are planting corn with no intent to harvest, and then flooding it which is not a part of corn farming. Furthermore, they often roll a pond to give the ducks a runway to land and make them more easily hunted. I hear that the FSA (Farm Service Agency) has allowed this which gives the farmers the law variance needed to legally to do this. I have also worked with the FSA, actually the NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service-formerly the Soil Conservation Service), but it was in the same office as the FSA so I know a little about this too. Both the NRCS and the FSA are in the business of improving farmlands and soil. By planting a cover crop, it reduces erosion, as does flooding. When a field is flooded, it doesn't erode, so this is probably the way these farmers are getting away with this. But, I think it's a stretch and probably illegal to do these things and then hunt over it. The intent was for erosion control, not improved hunting opportunities. It should probably be considered baiting. This practice has become so rampant that it does seem to be stopping, at least for the majority of the season, the migration until all of the corn is gone. But by the time the ducks arrive the season is over and the southern hunters disgusted.
Whatever it is, as humans we will adapt and hopefully continue to enjoy the long-time honored tradition of duck hunting. Not only for the number of ducks we harvest, but for the camaraderie, the lessons it teaches, and the out of this world camp cooking that one can find nowhere else. I realize this feel-good talk goes out the window when you spend $20,000 a year on a lease only to bag 10 ducks.
This leads me to me final thought, which is, If you are going to be disgusted after spending whatever amount of money it is on a lease, and bagging very few birds, then maybe you shouldn't spend the money, because that will always be a possibility. We're dealing with wild and unpredictable animals. We can study them as much as we want in an attempt to gain some type of understanding, but just like humans, who one day may want a cheeseburger and the next day a taco, maybe it's the same with ducks. One day the ducks may want a rice field, and the next day a secluded coffee bean infested marsh without the first bit of food. Furthermore, if they can expend less energy and winter much farther north with very little pressure, than that's highly likely what they'll do. Habitat, hunting pressure, weather, and food all play a part, as well as the elusive desire of a duck to do whatever it is a duck wants to do that determines where the ducks will be.
Happy hunting friends.
Photo credit: Illinois DNR