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Ducks have learned to avoid heavily hunted areas

by Bryan Hendricks | March 1, 2020 at 2:45 a.m.

On the last day of duck season, I left the farm I hunted and saw many ducks about a mile away in a field beside the highway.

Between the field and the highway was a ditch full of water. The field was mostly dry. The farm, in comparison, has excellent waterfowl habitat, but ducks scarcely visited it this year. It wasn't the first time I had seen large numbers of ducks in places that aren't hunted, but it seems to be a more frequent sight.

Apparently, waterfowl observers for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have noticed it, too. Every week during duck season, the Game and Fish Commission issues a waterfowl report that we publish on Thursdays. The bulk of the report contains the water levels and habitat conditions for every waterfowl intensive wildlife management area in the state. There's also a preamble that summarizes observer reports, such as the estimated number of ducks counted, the most plentiful species and areas of highest concentration.

Deep into the digest were a few paragraphs like these from the Jan. 15 and Jan. 22 Arkansas Waterfowl Reports:

"Similar to observations throughout this wintering periods, ducks were concentrated on established waterfowl sanctuaries and habitats that appeared not to be purposefully managed or actively hunted. A region where this seemed more evident was south of Marked Tree, past Interstate 40, and east to the Mississippi River within the Lower St. Francis survey zone. Observers flying transects within this survey zone noted several fields full of ducks. There were large fields (not the typical 40-acre square, but greater than 100 acres) near the Mississippi River that had a low end or swale running through the middle that had water and ducks. Most of these had no pits, blinds or evidence of hunting activity present. Similar to previous surveys, ducks were using moist-soil habitat or fields that did not get planted this spring that had moist-soil vegetation present, again without evidence of duck hunting activity."

There were ducks in Arkansas in January, but they concentrated on ground where they were not hunted. They seem to have adapted to hunting pressure by avoiding it.

A friend who is a commercial duck hunting guide makes most of his money guiding in Saskatchewan these days. He told me last week that the number of Arkansas hunters booking trips to hunt in Canada is skyrocketing. That's because Canada is the premier place to hunt now. The hunting starts early, featuring gullible, young-of-the-year ducks that are easy to call into decoys and that fly in big flocks. It's a meat haul.

In my duck season summary on Sept. 8, 2019, I noted that hunters killed 450,840 mallards in Canada in the 2018-19 seasons, including 168,068 in Saskatchewan.

"Cumulatively," I wrote, "those ducks were culled before they had a chance to fly to Arkansas, and that number will increase as Canada becomes increasingly popular as a destination for guided duck hunts. At some point it will reach a number that matters."

While the number of mallards might yet be inconsequential, the influence of intense early hunting already matters a lot. First, subtract a half-million ducks from the migration that will never reach Arkansas and will therefore not imprint to Arkansas. A significant portion of the survivors are negatively conditioned to duck calls, spinning wing decoys, decoy spreads and the outlines of pit blinds and elevated blinds.

Duck hunting has become increasingly popular throughout the rest of the Mississippi Flyway, as well. Ducks associate certain environments with negative reinforcement down the entire length of that gauntlet. By the time they reach Arkansas, they have learned to seek areas that have no evidence of hunting. Those unhunted, unmanaged areas are de facto refuges.

In summary, we had ducks in Arkansas all season, but ducks seem to have adapted to an evolving hunting landscape throughout the flyway. To restore hunting in managed areas, hunters will probably have to adapt, as well. The savviest and most successful hunters leave their fields and woods early and let them rest most of the day.

Sports on 03/01/2020

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