Myth-Guided: Taking Aim at Some of Duck Hunting's Most Persistent Theories
As long as ducks wing south each winter and back north in the spring, there will be myths, conspiracy theories and misinformation about waterfowl.
Given the migratory disposition of ducks and geese, a lot of guessing goes on as to where they are, where they go and why. Unlike turkey and deer, who breathe, feed and breed in the same general area their entire life, waterfowl range significantly farther, with some geese spending the summer more 3,000 miles away from Arkansas.
From politics to the pandemic, the level of misinformation has skyrocketed the past few years as social media has each day become a bigger part of our lives. However, despite the negative connotation, misinformation when it comes to waterfowling isn’t always harmful. For example, the notion that mallard drakes with the super-bright orange, almost red, legs and feet are considered to be “new ducks,” meaning they’ve been flying and not sitting in muddy rice fields, therefore the ducks should decoy better as they are desperate to refuel.
Old-timers have passed on this theory of “red leg mallards” for decades, but in actuality, the bright legs come from an increase in the mallard drakes’ hormone levels while seeking a mate. These drakes are putting their best foot forward (pun intended) as a part of the courtship and pairing dynamic.
Therefore mallard drakes decoy better because they are desperately seeking a suitable partner for the upcoming breeding season, not because they are hungry.
Myth busted. But whatever the reason, hunters benefit.
In an attempt to spread factual information about frequently discussed, modern-day topics that are bandied about, Greenhead has consulted with experts to see if certain waterfowler myths hold water.
MYTH: Ducks don’t migrate to Arkansas and other southern states because of the volume of flooded, unharvested corn available in midwestern states.
THE TEST: Flooded corn exists up and down the Mississippi Flyway on state, federal and private lands. There have been few concerted research efforts to inventory the amounts of flooded corn and its use by waterfowl at regional scales, and researchers have thus far have been unsuccessful at inventorying the corn across entire flyways.
Satellite imagery and other data sets are becoming available and would enable these types of studies currently and in the future, but it is more difficult to quantify the amounts and distribution of flooded corn in the past. Without comparison data it is difficult to measure how the volume of flooded corn has changed.
Any conversation about flooded corn’s influence on waterfowl migration must include other influential factors, many of which can be clearly documented to have changed over time. One is the amount of corn grown commercially on American farms. National agricultural crop statistics reveal there has been a doubling of corn acres in North Dakota and South Dakota since 1990. Corn acres have increased by 12.6 million in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas during this period. Despite evidence of the increased number of corn acres on private lands, we still have no way of knowing how this has influenced waterfowl use.
It is likely that the acres of harvested corn are predominately not flooded after harvest, and mallards will dry field feed much more so in the northern United States than in the South. However, again, it is difficult to account for waterfowl use of dry corn fields.
Numerous studies have documented how severe winter weather influences the timing of waterfowl migration and species’ differing sensitivities to severe weather. Larger-bodied ducks that are capable of field feeding (mallards, black ducks) are the most hardy and will resist the urge to migrate farther south long after smaller-bodied species like shovelers and gadwalls have. Studies have documented the predictable effects warmer winters, reduced snow cover and less ice have on certain species of waterfowl.
Changes in the quality and quantity of habitats also play an important role in winter distributions at local and regional scales. Equally important in this regard is understanding how habitat conditions have changed both in and outside our home state. We often hear the tempting narrative of how improvements in habitat conditions and better wetland management north of us are the root of our local problems.
While improvements in other locations can indeed influence the manner in which ducks and geese perceive and use the landscape, declining quality of habitats within our own states will translate into changed waterfowl behaviors.
CONCLUSION: Nothing in nature is driven overwhelmingly by any one factor. Whether talking about turkey that reside on our property all year or waterfowl that migrate thousands of miles across vast landscapes, numerous factors interact at different levels of space and time to affect what wild animals will do. On the large scale, we often acknowledge that weather is among the most important drivers of duck migration, while at the local scale we may look at hunting pressure as among the most important.
In between, a host of other factors combine to influence the behavior of ducks and geese.
Information provided by Brian Davis, associate professor at Mississippi State University, and Mike Brasher, wetlands biologist with Ducks Unlimited.
MYTH: Mallards don’t arrive in Arkansas in great numbers until February, when the season is over, creating an outcry among hunters for a later season.
THE TEST: The “ducks are migrating later” notion is based on two beliefs.
One, because hunting seasons cease at the end of January, birds previously hemmed up in sanctuaries are now “free” to move about and choose habitats once hunters retreat after the season. The second belief is that, with the draining of agricultural fields and wetlands at the end of the season, ducks tend to concentrate in more limited places unless dispersed by rampant rainfall and flooding.
Basically, these two factors “convince” hunters that there are more birds in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV) in February.
Duck migrations are becoming better understood but still offer contradictions. For example, some mallards arrive in the MAV in late October and are what biologists call “Halloween Mallards.” This is interesting because those arrival times in the South are well ahead of any really adverse weather that creates challenges for mallards in northern environments. Perhaps the early migrations are born from a genetic linkage to specific regions and habitats for some ducks in autumn and winter.
Generally, as calendar days change and weather becomes colder, incremental numbers of ducks migrate south. At some point, around late January, the amount and frequency of birds coming south begin to wane. Also, the sociobiology of birds changes in this period. Larger flocks disassemble and more pairs and smaller bunches of ducks predominate.
Recent evidence suggests that when sharp cold fronts occur in February, ducks do not necessarily migrate “back south” because of it. Birds tend to remain near the freeze lines and wait to continue the northerly movements toward the breeding grounds during warmer temperatures and southerly winds. Once they begin moving back north, they rarely, if ever, retreat.
Scientific evidence shows that hunting in February could disrupt mate selection, pairing and other factors in breeding. In fact, mate loss through hunting for wintering juvenile female mallards could reduce reproductive performance in some years. In a year of controlled study, female mallards widowed from their male mates laid 1.9 fewer eggs in first nests and 3.75 fewer eggs in second nests. Hence, harvest of male mallards in February could have negative influences on recruitment in the species the following spring.
CONCLUSION: It may be something of a Mandela effect that hunters believe they are seeing more ducks in February. If it seems so, it must be so. And of course duck hunters are going to be more inclined to notice when any number of ducks is present. It might just look like a population explosion to a frustrated hunter who has to wait a whole year to uncase his gun. However, southward duck migrations are actually waning by late January, and once ducks begin to head north there are few factors, even late-winter cold snaps, that will make them turn around.
MYTH: Ducks, primarily mallards, that have historically followed the Mississippi Flyway from Canada to the Mississippi River Valley are shifting to end up in Kansas, Oklahoma and other states west of Arkansas.
THE TEST: The most comprehensive evidence from band recoveries suggests no statistical change in flyway distribution of harvested mallards. However, the band analyses used to make the estimates spanned 1980-2003.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello analyzed band recoveries from mallards banded in Arkansas from 1950-2022. The work suggests the core winter distribution has not changed (see map).
In their 2008 paper “Mallard Harvest Distributions in the Mississippi and Central Flyways” A. Green and D. Krementz make the case that the late 1990s were years of exceptionally high harvests in the lower Mississippi Flyway (MF) and that slight shifts northward since 2000 reflect a return to harvest distributions similar to those of the early 1980s.
The only other data we can look at is harvest numbers and the mid-winter survey. From 1999-2003, the Central Flyway (CF) was responsible for an average 27% of the mallard harvest observed across the MF and CF combined. We have since seen virtually no change, with the CF accounting for 27% of mallard harvest from 2010-2014 and 29% during 2016-2020.
Both flyways have seen a 40-45% decline in estimated mallard harvest since 1999-2004.
Mid-winter survey data can also provide an index of change, but care must be taken because survey methods have changed in some states over the comparable time period 1999-2000. Still, over that period, the CF accounted for an average of 45% of the mallards counted across the CF and MF during the mid-winter survey.
Over the past five years, the percentage of mallards in the CF declined to 37%, with the MF accounting for 63%, providing no evidence of there being a westward shift in the migration and winter distribution of mallards.
CONCLUSION: Band recovery analysis, harvest data and surveys suggest no statistical change in flyway distribution of harvested mallards.
Encounter Distribution of Mallards banded in Arkansas, 1950-2022
Source: Osborne Lab at University of Arkansas at Monticello