Without fail, the week after duck season ends, the ducks show up. And as hunters, we lament the timing every year. Why can’t duck season last just a little longer?
To understand why hunting spring ducks doesn’t makes sense—and why it’s illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—we need to first look at their ecology. In spring, we always see more birds in places they don’t frequent in fall. This occurs because birds are less social this time of year. Hens and drakes pair up and spread out, looking to feed, roost, and loaf in places where they won’t be disturbed by unpaired males. Ducks become more solitary in the spring, simply because it’s safer.
“In the fall, we see big groups of ducks, but during the spring migration they become less tolerant of other pairs and unpaired males. When they arrive in the Prairie Pothole Region or other breeding areas, their lack of tolerance of others of the same species really spreads them out,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist, Tom Moorman. “That’s why it’s so important to have as much habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region as we can, because the millions of ducks need vast space for each pair to ultimately produce a brood.”
Many duck hunters want to hunt the spring because they believe ducks are much more susceptible to being fooled in March than in the fall. But the reason all those birds are showing up after your season closes is fairly simple: It’s because they’re not being hunted. If we could shoot mallards into February, that magical switch—the one that turns greenheads on and has them fluttering into the decoys with reckless abandon—would never get flipped. If hunting pressure persists, those ducks are going to seek refuge in order to survive until the Benellis go back in the gun closet.
“Ducks don’t like to get shot at and are averse to disturbance, so they are going to change their habits accordingly,” says Moorman. “It may look like there are 10 times as many ducks in the spring, but it’s because they are not getting disturbed.”
And since ducks aren’t grouped up in spring like they are in fall, it would actually be much more difficult to pattern them. From September to December, you can look up to the sky and see skeins of birds headed south. But that’s not often the case with ducks returning north. They filter back in much smaller groups and even pairs. Ducks are in a wider variety of locales in the spring than in the fall, which would make it more of a challenge to hunt birds effectively.
The spring migration can vary more than the fall flight as well. Ducks like mallards and pintails are following the ice line, and if it’s been a mild winter, they are certainly going to return north sooner. Most species heading north time their arrival with availability of open water and abundant food resources. A spring season would likely make birds much more unpredictable with ducks moving through local wetlands at different rates depending on species, weather, and habitat conditions.
“It’s probably not a great time to bring this up with COVID, but birds are social distancing in the spring,” Moorman said. “The males are defending the females to enable hens to feed and obtain fuel for migration, and then egg production. Some species like mallards get back to the prairie early as possible and (breed), while others like gadwall or blue-winged teal arrive up to a month later.
Snow Geese vs. Ducks
One of the most common gripes I hear is, “We can hunt snow geese in the spring, why not ducks?” Well, for several reasons.
First, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it illegal to hunt ducks in the spring, which means we would need an act of Congress to make spring hunting legal. Second, the spring snow goose season is not a hunting season at all. It’s a conservation order, so it has special exceptions and provisions set forth by the MBTA. The mid-continent snow goose population is estimated at 15 to 20 million birds (some biologists think that’s conservative). Snow geese are an abundant species with few signs of slowing population growth. But pintails, lesser scaup, and some other ducks have seen population declines in the recent decades. The 2019 waterfowl survey estimated pintails at 2.2 million, which falls 42 percent below the long-term average for that species.
“Yes, something bad could happen to duck populations if we hunted them in the spring,” says John Devney, senior vice president of Delta Waterfowl. “Healthy duck species like mallards, gadwall, and shovelers would be fine, but canvasbacks or scaup…[spring hunting] could cause major damage to those species.”
Spring is also a vital time to ensure that sustainable breeding populations make it back to the prairie to produce offspring for the following fall. Ducks—hens in particular—are more fragile than other wild game species that are typically hunted during their breeding season, like deer, elk, turkeys, and more.
You can shoot a cow or doe during the fall and the populations are high enough and the harvest is regulated in such a manner that it won’t negatively affect populations. The same is true for hen ducks during the fall. Shooting a Susie in October is fine. But that changes in the spring. Shooting a hen mallard in March is much more devastating to the success of the species than if you clip one on opening day. Why? Because a duck that has made it to March has survived both human and animal predators on its journey south. The probability of it pairing up with a male and returning to the duck factory to produce a brood is high. You wouldn’t want to kill a bird that has an almost 100 percent chance of laying eggs. It’s the same reason we don’t shoot hens during spring turkey season.
“If you shoot a duck in the fall, there’s a good chance it was not going to survive,” Devney says. “But if you shoot one in the spring, it was going to survive, make it back to the prairie, and breed.”
Something else to consider: Duck populations are at their lowest by the end of the fall flight. Between hunter kills and natural selection, duck numbers have become vulnerable and we need those surviving to return north and breed in order to enjoy duck season the following year.