North Dakota’s Winter Waterfowl Survey Shows Fewer Canada Geese

February 16, 2017 by  

For a biologist, getting out in the field and collecting data is an important and usually enjoyable part of the job. While I don’t spend as much time in the field as a specific wildlife or fisheries biologist, I do have a variety of assignments that come up unexpectedly, like checking for zebra mussels and fish kills, as well as standard population surveys.

One of the more interesting surveys is a count of waterfowl hanging around North Dakota in the middle of winter. When I try to explain my role in that midwinter waterfowl survey to friends, one of the first questions is, “why?”

Winter Geese

the last 10 years, North Dakota has averaged about 90,000 Canada geese and 25,000 mallards during the winter survey. This year’s numbers were well below that. (Photo courtesy NDGF)

The short answer is the survey is not just a North Dakota tally, but a nationwide count that tracks all species of geese to better understand their migration and wintering habitat, food and population dynamics.

In the southern end of the Red River Valley in early January, that’s not a very significant number when compared with birds staging on North Dakota’s portion of the Missouri River System, but in some years, the number of geese still hanging out in the east in January might surprise many readers.

Andy Dinges, North Dakota Game and Fish Department waterfowl biologist, recently said on the Game and Fish weekly webcast, Outdoors Online, that the initial numbers for the survey in 2017, conducted the first week in January, was roughly about 25,000 Canada geese and 3,000 mallards in the state.

While that may seem like a lot given the snow and cold of December, it was actually just a small percentage of the 223,000 Canada geese observed in the state in early January of 2016.

That doesn’t mean the populations of Canada geese that migrate through or stage in North Dakota in the fall took a major fall. It’s just that many of those same birds that were counted during the mild North Dakota winter last year were likely counted in South Dakota or Kansas or Texas this year during the standardized survey week. More birds linger in northern states in mild winters; in severe winters, more birds are counted in southern states.

The survey takes place at the same time in all states, so birds aren’t counted more than once.

It’s not simply just ducks and geese, Dinges pointed out, “Some species for instance, like tundra swans, they nest really high in the arctic, so the costs and the logistics of doing those surveys annually are really difficult. It is really the only time we get to index some of these populations such as tundra swans here in the winter. And we will tie all that information into our harvest plans.”

While North Dakota doesn’t typically have any tundra swans counted in the winter survey, those birds that migrate through the state in spring and fall are counted on their wintering grounds on the East Coast.

Snow geese fall under the same scenario. While a stray white bird might show up amongst the thousands of Canada geese observed in North Dakota in early January, they are counted wherever they are at in more southern states, during the same survey period.

In the last 10 years, North Dakota has averaged about 90,000 Canada geese and 25,000 mallards during the winter survey, so this year’s numbers were well below that.

“So those numbers, just like our winters, fluctuate pretty drastically,” Dinges related.

The low count in the last 10 years was 9,700 Canada geese, while the high count during that time was last year’s 223,000.


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