Fewer ducks getting busy. Thanks, drought!

By Brooke Purves

A multi-year drought has claimed another cruel casualty—duck love.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s waterfowl breeding population survey for 2014, the estimated number of breeding ducks this year is 23 percent below the long-term average.

“Habitat conditions were poor the last two years in both northeastern California and the Central Valley and the production of young ducks was reduced as a result,” waterfowl program biologist Melanie Weaver said in a statement.

Not all wintering birds suffered from drought-stricken libidos, however. The breeding grounds up north for several other species of waterfowl were favorable, with the CDFW survey indicating the largest numbers in waterfowl since surveying began in 1955.

Survival may be a different matter. Although there will be plenty of birds to hunt, there may not be enough available plants, seeds and aquatic invertebrates in the dried-up wetlands and rice fields for waterfowl to dine on, said Jeff Smith, program coordinator for California Waterfowl. “Drought puts a strain on waterfowl in general.”

Flooded rice fields in the Central Valley are 16 percent below their normal levels, according to a report from Ducks Unlimited. The two groups recently released a joint statement asking rice farmers to help wintering waterfowl by installing boards to collect rainwater in the fields and to leave the fields minimally tilled, allowing the best chance for food access.

Smith predicted that some wildlife refuges and private hunting clubs will have to eliminate hunts, and that densely populated wet areas will be monitored more closely for outbreaks of avian cholera. The healthy waterfowl populations currently headed south to the Central Valley will probably return home with a smaller than normal fat reserve, which may affect next year’s breeding numbers.

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