The old school line of thinking tied duck movements to a big north wind pushing a cold front south and inundating Arkansas with fresh ducks. This belief existed for decades, passed from the older generations of hunters to the new.

Waterfowlers follow forecasts religiously before and during the season in the hope a pending cold snap sends waves of mallards to the state. For the longest time, that hopeful theory seemed to consistently hold true.

Fast forward to the past handful of years and many duck hunters have been left dumbfounded with disappointment after the front has come and gone. Measurable snowfalls and frigid temperatures sweep across the upper Midwest only to leave no noticeable increase in our duck population.

Hope rises with each forecast only to be dashed as everyone wonders “Where are the ducks?”

Naturally, conspiracy theories explaining their absence soon follow: standing corn in Missouri, the flyway has shifted west to Oklahoma, heated ponds in the Midwest and so on.

Are some of these “conspiracies” actually a factor? Without question they play a fractional role in modern-day duck movements, but none are the silver bullet that explains why ducks hold outside Arkansas’ borders.

It often seems waterfowlers lose sight of the fact they are pursuing a wild animal that breeds in one place, has babies in another and winters in various locales hundreds more miles away. A duck is a truly transient critter with movement patterns zigging and zagging all over the place, one day here, another day there and sometimes completely stationary for a week or so.

So if there are more factors at play affecting modern day duck movements, what are they and what can waterfowlers do about them?

Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame member Mickey Heitmeyer is from the Missouri Bootheel and has done extensive waterfowl consulting work in Arkansas. Mike Brasher is a waterfowl scientist with Ducks Unlimited and biologist Brian Davis is a member of Mississippi State University’s Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture.

The experts agreed there are three “big” evolutionary drivers of duck migrations, especially as it comes to mallards. Heitmeyer said, “A duck’s ultimate reason to move is simply survival. The world has and is changing and ducks adapt and will continue to do so.”

The biologists pinpoint three main causes of duck movement: climate, land use and pressure. The relational aspect of these drivers and the complexities of each is what influences the fall flight we rely on each season.


No earth-shattering news here — temperatures and the severity of winters just aren’t what they used to be. However we still get enough weather to hurtle ducks our way and cold fronts still have the ability to move waterfowl.

“Ducks are going to move to improved conditions with adults making the decision and the young to follow,” Heitmeyer said.

Naturally that makes sense, but eyewitness accounts and telemetry data show — with ample food, habitat and safety — ducks are hunkering down and staying put during short-running cold snaps.

The timing of the cold fronts and how they influence duck movement is starting to show some evidence of influence.

“Earlier fronts tend to be more productive movement wise while late season cold snaps [left ducks] hunkered down,” Brasher said. “The closer to breeding season the fronts appear, the less likely ducks are to move.”

Simply put, ducks will ride out a cold front and frozen temperatures if at all possible in order to stay closer to the breeding grounds.

This was never more evident than during the major snows and bone-chilling cold Arkansas experienced in early 2021. The mallards hung on with very little movement as many ducks in the state were already headed north and were observed huddled up awaiting the thaw instead of seeking conditions that were less harsh.

Ducks made a conscious choice to face possible starvation rather than burn precious calories to retreat south in search of food.


While cold fronts don’t seem to move ducks like they used to, the subject of Photoperiod is garnering more attention.

Photoperiod, as it pertains to waterfowl, is the relative length of day and night during a 24-hour period. An elementary explanation of its impact on ducks is as the days get shorter, waterfowl move south based on instinct, not on weather. When the days become longer, they reverse course and start their push north, independent of weather.

There is no physiological reason for ducks to be in Arkansas in October, but the “Halloween Mallards” always seem to be here around that time.

Cason Short, of the Byers Hunter Club north of Brinkley, puts a lot of stock into Photoperiod as a major waterfowl mover and his grandfather and father were firm believers in the “midpoint theory.”

“It was simple,” Short said. “Find the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter equinox and we will see the highest number of wintering waterfowl that we will witness all season on our farm. We may rival that number throughout the season, but we will never surpass it.”

Hunters can pinpoint the exact day and observe duck numbers to see if the theory holds true. For the 2021-2022 season, the midpoint is Nov. 6.

“It’s long been my opinion, and telemetry data is shedding some light on this, that most birds arrive on their wintering ground and stay in some proximity to it,” Short said. “They move locally with frontal movements but it can be as much east and west and it is north and south.”

There is no physiological reason for ducks to be in Arkansas in October, but the “Halloween Mallards” always seem to be here around that time.


Regardless of weather, ducks have shown an increased capacity to hold in an area as long as food, water and shelter are abundant. They will naturally move on when those essential needs start to dwindle.

The improved habitat in some bordering states to the north and west has caused some ducks to “short stop” Arkansas, but also keep in mind the state is probably benefiting from a loss of rice field habitat in Louisiana. Not only are they farming less rice there, during the winter many fields are converted to crawfish ponds where ducks are not welcome.

The biggest land use factor hurting Arkansas is the timing of the fall harvest and the efficiency of farm equipment in use today. Throw in the growing numbers of farmers who work their ground up just after the fall harvest, and ducks just aren’t finding the volume of food that they used to. Not only is food like waste grain lacking, fields are so well manicured now, with zero grades, that the protein-rich invertebrates mallards love are harder to find.


Duck energy days are defined as the given amount of time a number of waterfowl can be sustained in a given area. Because of factors previously mentioned, Arkansas’ duck energy days are down significantly. Less grain is left behind by today’s agriculture equipment and rice is cut so early much of it rots, sprouts after cropping or is wiped out by early migrating geese.

Many subscribe to the theory that if you aren’t feeding ducks, you aren’t killing them. Public rest areas and private landowners focused on waterfowling over farming are dedicating more and more ground and resources to providing food for the ducks, whether it be unharvested crops or well-managed, strategic food plots of millet and the like.

But these efforts can backfire. At at least one historic club last season it was evident that, if the weather is mild and ducks aren’t burning calories staying warm, they get awfully lazy and rarely move off the food plots.

The science side concurs.

“We’ve gotten so good at habitat management, all a duck has to do is stick his bill in the water to eat,” Davis said. “So why come out during the daylight and risk getting shot?”

With the loss of habitat from the agriculture side, ducks aren’t foraging and seeking food like they used to, which leads to hunters seeing fewer ducks afield.


Since 2010, Arkansas duck stamps sales have increased 34% (residents are up 16%, out-of-state hunters are up 63%), which is a staggering number given the mediocrity of the last decade’s duck hunting. That means more hunters calling, shooting and riding boats and vehicles in every puddle of water where a duck is trying to get some peace and quiet.

“We are pushing ducks pretty hard,” Davis said.

Davis said that harvesting ducks via hunting in and of itself doesn’t damage the duck population (hence the liberal limits we’ve enjoyed for more than 25 seasons), but hunting pressure is impacting their behavior.

One of the hot topics among hunters is how ducks have become nocturnal. Skies and fields are empty by day but, come sundown, waves of ducks leave safe refuges under the cover of darkness to feed. At sunrise, they retreat back to those spots to loaf throughout the day.

The overlap is apparent. If the weather is mild, allowing a duck to significantly cut back on food needed to stay warm, waterfowl have adapted to time their feeding when no humans are out and about, much less shooting at them.

Hunters driving to duck camp the past few seasons may have noticed ducks congregating in a spot where they had not been seen before. That’s the influence of pressure as ducks seek someplace where they can have some peace and quiet. As hunters we have made those places of refuge few and far between.

Once ducks have found safe areas, they will weigh the risk of riding out a cold front versus moving and running the risk of being shot.

“Learned behaviors are influencing what we as hunters are seeing,” Heitmeyer says, “because the ducks that venture out during shooting hours or move from safety during a freeze are being eliminated from the herd while the ‘smart’ ones avoid putting themselves in danger.”

In layman’s terms, segments of the duck population are getting really smart and passing on learned safety behaviors while the dumb ones are being thinned out via the shotgun. A seismic shift is on the horizon that could transform duck hunting for quite some time if hunter behaviors don’t change.


Hopefully, hunters and waterfowl enthusiasts will notice some of these trends are controllable by humans. We, in a way, are our own worst enemy, and probably more so than flooded corn up north and whatever other excuses we like to make for thin duck numbers.

Think where duck hunting might be if all the time and energy wasted on conspiracy theories were channeled towards being more educated about the resource (ducks), more habitat-focused and more inclined to work towards controlling the controllables.

We may not instantly experience a banner season like 1999-2000, but the possibility for seasons like that would be more feasible. But will hunters have pushed ducks so hard beforehand that a banner breeding season won’t matter?

To be clear, pressure is more than just shooting a gun at ducks on the wing. Hunters who like keeping ducks and geese in their hunting area should consider being more circumspect about riding around their property — whether by boat or ATV/UTV — and kicking up ducks.

It is advisable to scout from a distance using binoculars rather than haphazardly roaming the places wild ducks go. Take longer paths back to the truck or lodge if that means fewer ducks disturbed.

The hunting community has to make adjustments to how it interacts with waterfowl now, before policy or law dictate change. There is a sizable population of waterfowlers that hasn’t experienced the 30-day duck seasons of the late 1980s and early 1990s, or the two-mallard limits of the past.

If we as hunting population don’t start to value the resource other than when it’s at the end of our gun barrel, waterfowling as we know it will continue to fade.