Scientists look at dwindling ducks

by Wally Northway

Published: December 15,2009

Tags: environment, hunting and fishing, wildlife

STARKVILLE — As global warming and climate change debates continue worldwide, researchers at Mississippi State University (MSU) are examining how weather influences duck migration patterns.

“In the past few years, we have observed that ducks are not migrating to southern latitudes in abundance, or are doing so generally only in the presence of severe weather,” said Rick Kaminski, a senior waterfowl ecologist at the university. Our initial thoughts were that ducks were remaining at northern latitudes as a result of warmer weather, available food and habitat, among other factors.”

To test the theory, Kaminski and Mike Schummer, a post-doctoral research and teaching associate in MSU’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center, recently began examining influences of weather variables on fall-winter duck migration.

The research team set out to identify weather variables or their combinations that best explained rates of change in abundance of mallards and other dabbling ducks at mid-latitude regions in the Mississippi Flyway.

The results soon will be published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Two other objectives of the MSU project included determination of patterns and long-term trends in a weather severity index and, using a variety of climate projections, the computer modeling of potential future duck-population distributions throughout North America.

From all this, the MSU research team has developed an immediately usable tool to predict waterfowl movement patterns. The new web-based Duck Migration Forecast includes a five-day outlook to indicate when mallards and other dabbling ducks will journey south.

Available at www.cfr.msstate.edu/kennedychair/weather.asp, the forecast is updated each Monday from November-January.

Using 10 years of survey data provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation and weather data from U.S. Historical Climatology Network Stations, MSU and Missouri collaborators found that cumulative effects of snow and temperature, as well as the duration of these events, best explain the rate of change in duck abundance.

“Our findings suggest that dabbling ducks, including northern pintail, gadwall and green-winged teal, migrate prior to freezing conditions or snow, while mallards generally migrate when freezing temperature and snow persist for several days,” Kaminski said.

Though the study is ongoing, preliminary data suggest that most winters since the late 1990s have been warmer than the 50-year average.

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