Mallards are the most numerous duck in New York, in terms of breeding population size and occurrence in the bag of duck hunters across the state.
DEC began surveys in 1989 to estimate the number of ducks and geese breeding in the state, and data from these surveys are combined with estimates from 11 other northeastern states to monitor overall trends in the Atlantic Flyway. Since 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has established duck hunting season frameworks for the flyway (the overall season length and bag limit for total ducks and mallards) based largely upon the Northeast mallard population estimates. Before that, duck hunting regulations for the entire U.S. were based on population estimates from central North America, including the “Prairie Pothole region”, where the vast majority of ducks nest each year. However, relatively few ducks from that area are harvested in the Atlantic Flyway, prompting biologists to begin the surveys needed to set seasons based on locally-produced birds.
Figure 1 shows the overall trend in mallard populations in the northeastern U.S. Mallards breeding in New York normally account for about 75,000–100,000 pairs of the estimated total in the region. As you can see, the population estimate has been declining since about 1997, when duck hunting seasons were extended to 60 days for the first time since the early 1970s. Those who have hunted for more than 15 years may recall that we had 30-day and 40-day duck seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of low duck populations in the prairies. That, more than anything, is what prompted the Atlantic Flyway to begin surveying ducks closer to home.
The decline in “eastern mallards” depicted in Figure 1 has caused biologists in the Atlantic Flyway to begin reviewing possible causes for the decline, including hunter harvest. If the trend continues, duck season length and bag limits for mallards may need to be reduced to prevent further decline. Although most hunters would prefer a lower daily limit over a shorter season, past experience has shown that modest bag reductions (for example, from 4/day to 3/day) have little effect because most hunters don’t achieve the limit very often.