Where Are the Ducks

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 23, 2010

“Where are the ducks?” hunters ask us each fall. “And what makes for a good season?” Yet most have theories of their own. Some of the competing ideas we’ve heard include:

“If we’d only have a dry year, then the ducks would be concentrated in the places that have water,” versus, “If we would only have a wet year, there would be more habitat available and more ducks.”

“Hunting would be better if we could hunt refuges and get the ducks to spread out,” versus, “We need more refuges in our hunting area to attract more ducks.”

And, “We have a hunting lease and can’t compete with public areas and their big refuges,” versus, “We’re lucky to have a duck hunting lease close to a Department of Conservation refuge—it provides a source of ducks.”

So which are correct? The above ideas stem from two opposing perspectives. One is that Missouri has reached its “carrying capacity” for migrating waterfowl. In other words, it has enough wetland habitat for the ducks that migrate through each fall. Hunters in this camp often blame poor duck hunting on refuges or the restoration of wetlands (private or public) that lure ducks away from their favorite hunting spots.

The other perspective is that Missouri has not reached its “carrying capacity” for migrating waterfowl. Hunters in this camp believe that if we restore more wetlands or create more refuges, Missouri will attract more ducks and have better hunting.

After hearing from hunters on both sides of the issue, we decided to take a more in-depth look at how restoring wetlands and adding refuges has affected duck hunting in Missouri.

Wetlands: Past, Present and Future

Missouri’s wetlands serve the vital function of providing migrating waterfowl a place to rest and replenish energy reserves lost in flight. This recovery takes time. To illustrate, a duck flying nonstop from North Dakota to Missouri requires about 14 days to recover the fat reserves expended in flight. If ducks lose too much weight in migration, they reach their southern wintering grounds in poor shape and are less likely to successfully produce ducklings the following spring.

Although wetlands in mid-latitude states are critical for migrating ducks, most of them have been destroyed or drained. Less than 15 percent of the historic wetlands remain in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois, compared to about 50 percent in the breeding grounds and wintering grounds. Wetland habitat from north to south now resembles an hourglass.

To the north, the

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