Climate Change and the Ducks

Wait, don’t touch that dial! (as they used to say in the early days of radio.) If you are as tired as I am of arguments about climate change, be at ease. This article, is about how a warming planet will affect ducks and duck hunting.

Let’s start with the basics. In order to have good duck hunting, we need a lot of ducks. In order to have a lot of ducks, we need places where the birds can nest and raise their broods. Since we are talking about a North American breeding duck population of some 40 million birds, this requires an awful lot of nesting habitat—both wetlands and prairies.

Duck factories plowed under

More than 80 percent of the continent’s waterfowl nesting habitat lies within the “Duck Factory”: North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. This is a land of vast prairies, dotted with innumerable shallow ponds, or potholes. Breeding success in this area determines the abundance of ducks that filter down the flyways each fall and hopefully check out your decoys. The potholes and a suitable margin of cover around them are vital to maintaining strong waterfowl populations.

The Duck Factory’s prairies are not only attractive to nesting waterfowl, they are also coveted for farming by humans. As European settlers pushed westward, much of the prairie was ploughed up and turned into agricultural land. This wasn’t so bad for waterfowl… unless the farmer also drained potholes and tore out the natural cover around them, which they did to some extent.

Breeding ducks require a certain amount of space around their nests to provide an adequate food source for their ducklings. They will fight off other birds to maintain it. It cannot be assumed that a duck driven off a plowed-up pond will merely nest on another one. In all probability, they won’t nest at all. The overall population will suffer.

Duck-protecting delegations

This is why organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl work so hard to protect the Duck Factory from human exploitation. Through political lobbying and habitat conservation and restoration, these groups have protected the millions of acres of nesting habitat in the Duck Factory. This helps preserve North America’s waterfowl resource. If you are a waterfowl hunter and don’t currently support the efforts of D.U. and Delta, you should.

Now, along comes a warming trend that has impacted the entire planet. The Duck Factory is no exception. In some areas of the Canadian prairie, the annual temperature has already risen 3.6 degrees. This has extended the growing season by two weeks. Briefly, what this warming trend means is that a farmer who once could only grow cereal grains, such as wheat, oats, or barely, can now plant corn and soybeans, which translate into higher crop prices.

As with real estate anywhere, its value is determined by its highest and best use. Canadian farmers are not unaware of this opportunity to increase their income, along with the rising value of their acreage. Some areas have seen agricultural land values jump to over five times what it sold for ten years ago. In fact, in the upper reaches of the Duck Factory, formerly worthless sub-arctic scrub forests are now being ripped out to make way for agricultural use. This adaptation to weather conditions by agricultural interests is normal and will not be reversed.

Less habitat means less ducks

Now, back to duck hunting. Whether a field is planted with wheat or soybeans probably won’t make much difference to the ducks, but it will to the farmer. The incentive to plow up small potholes and replace them with profitable corn will grow. Remember, the Duck Factory is a land of wet and drought periods. During the droughts, many of the potholes completely dry out. Left alone, these shallow potholes would eventually refill. If they are cultivated and the marginal cover destroyed, their value to nesting waterfowl could be seriously impacted.

My point is, it is unlikely that we are going to reverse or avoid impending climate change. So far, we have done little else except to wring our hands and talk about it. However, humans are—if nothing else—resourceful. We will adapt to whatever changes occur in ways beneficial to our species. At the same time, we must adapt our conservation policies in ways that benefit the other species we share space with here on Mother Earth. That includes the ducks.