Where Are the Ducks
The Role of Refuges
Decades of research have demonstrated that refuges provide essential undisturbed habitat for ducks to rest and replenish energy reserves. When ducks face too much disturbance they often leave an area entirely.
For example, in states without much refuge, over half of the harvest often occurs within the first 10 days of the season. Hunters in these states frequently talk about areas being “burned out” from too much hunting pressure. What past research doesn’t tell us is if we have reached the point where we have too much refuge here in Missouri.
To answer this question in Missouri, we examined the relationships among refuge size, duck numbers and harvest. The results indicated that areas with large refuges held the most ducks and supported the highest harvest.
The importance of refuges became more apparent when we factored in the additional “refuge” provided on areas that allowed only half-day hunting. Furthermore, the results suggested that if ducks don’t have adequate refuge, they will leave the area.
Our analysis also revealed that, at some areas, harvest was not as high as we expected based on refuge size. The harvest at Ted Shanks CA, for example, was much lower than our statistical model predicted. We expect that this result was due to the loss of bottomland forest and lack of food. The Department of Conservation is now aggressively working to restore quality habitat at Ted Shanks CA.
Strategies to Improve Success
The results of our study support the perspective that Missouri has not reached its carrying capacity for migrating waterfowl. We haven’t witnessed a decline in harvest at Department of Conservation areas when new areas were added nearby.
Department-managed wetlands still account for only 15 percent of the statewide harvest. During years when we have additional habitat due to wet conditions, we tend to have more ducks and better hunting.
We did not find any evidence to suggest that Missouri’s refuges are detracting from hunting. Instead, it appears that Missouri’s refuges are one of the major factors contributing to hunters’ success on both public and private lands.
So, if refuges and restored wetlands aren’t to blame, what is causing poor hunting in some areas? Weather, hunting pressure, food and refuge mainly influence which wetlands are attractive to ducks. We can’t control the weather, but we can improve duck hunting by limiting hunting pressure, growing quality food and providing adequate refuge.
When you’re getting ready for next duck hunting season, take a look at your favorite spots and see if they are providing all of these ingredients. Is there a refuge of 200 or more acres within 15 miles? Is there a diversity of food available? Is hunting pressure in your immediate area limited, such as by half-day hunting?
If the duck population is up next year, the weather cooperates and you’ve answered yes to each of these questions, you should be in for a good season and there won’t be any reason to ask, “Where are the ducks?” because you’ll already know.