For the Birds: Ducks faring well in midst of bad news

Photo by Chris Bosak
Hooded mergansers in New England.

I have written extensively about the recent study that shows bird populations in North America have dropped by 29 percent over the last 50 years. While the news overall is concerning, the study did reveal some bright spots.

One piece of good news is that ducks appear to be increasing. Waterfowl are a favorite bird type of mine so this news was heartening. Give me a cool late autumn day, a large pond, a spotting scope and ducks swimming all around, and I’m as happy as a lark.

The duck population increase, in large part, is credited to wetland conservation efforts, much of which was and continues to be paid for by hunters. While this has worked exceptionally well for ducks, it hasn’t worked out quite as well for rails and other marsh birds. There is still work to be done in that area.

But let’s stay positive for this column. Preserving wetlands has led to increased duck numbers. No one can say more ducks is a bad thing.

It also stresses the importance of land conservation as a powerful tool in preserving our birds and other animals. While hunters, through the purchase of stamps and other fees, have contributed mightily to this effort, conserving land is something easily done by anyone. Support your local land trust or other conservation organization and you’re doing your part to help birds in all sorts of habitats.

To put it in numbers, wetland birds have increased by 20 million birds since 1970, according to the recent study conducted by several leading conservation groups. Compare that to the loss of 2.9 billion birds overall in the same time frame.

With the fall waterfowl migration under way, this seems like a good time to look at how some of New England’s more familiar ducks are doing. For this, I studied the summaries written by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the country’s foremost authorities on all things birds. Cornell used data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Partners in Flight to arrive at their conservation status levels. Spoiler alert, all species below except one is listed as “low concern.”

Mallards are North America’s most abundant duck and their population has increased slightly since 1966. Quick quiz: What is North America’s most abundant diving duck? Keep reading to find the answer.

The American black duck is one of several examples of how this can get tricky. On one hand, black ducks have decreased by 84 percent since 1966, according to the NA Breeding Bird Survey. On the other hand, they are still common and of low concern. Cornell added that the declines have slowed since 2004.

Green-winged teal are numerous and increasing, as are gadwall. American wigeons are common but their population has decreased by 65 percent since 1966.

Hooded mergansers, one of my favorite birds, are “fairly common” and are stable or increasing. Common mergansers, despite the huge rafts seen throughout New England during migration, have declined by 65 percent — two percent a year — since 1966. Again, however, they are listed as low concern. Red-breasted mergansers are common and stable.

Common goldeneye are also numerous and either stable or increasing. Bufflehead are decreasing in some areas but increasing overall.

Northern shovelers, redheads and ring-necked ducks are common and stable. Northern pintails, one of New England’s more handsome ducks, are also listed as “common,” but have seen a 70 percent cumulative decline since 1966.

Canvasback have bounced back from low numbers in the 1980s that had landed them on the special concern list and are now considered stable with an estimated 700,000 individuals.

Wood ducks are common and increasing, another good conservation story as their numbers were dangerously low in the late 1800s.

Now for the answers to the spoiler alert and quick quiz. Hint, they come from the same family.

The lesser scaup is the most abundant diving duck in North America, despite a 1.8 percent per year decline since 1966. The global breeding population of lesser scaup is estimated at 3.8 million, according to Partners in Flight.

Finally, greater scaup are “common throughout their range, but their populations are rapidly declining,” according to Cornell. That puts them on the “common species in steep decline” list.

Since this is New England, I figured I’d better include common loons, even though they are technically not ducks. According to Cornell, common loons are “stable and healthy overall.” This despite a slew of threats they face on their breeding grounds.

In a study filled with distressing news about bird populations, ducks and loons thankfully have bucked the trend. Now, let’s keep it that way.

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