Southern Illinois waterfowlers that returned home from the field day after day had plenty of company this season.
Duck and goose hunting success was down throughout the state, in Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas.
“Illinois River Valley sites were down 15-50 percent from average harvest,” said Randy Smith, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ chief waterfowl biologist. “Everyone is saying how bad it is in Illinois. It’s not just Illinois. The guys in Missouri are complaining, the guys in Arkansas are complaining. It has been virtually a flyway wide issue this year. It’s just bizarre.”
All indications pointed to a good season for hunters this year. Continental populations of most species are strong. It wasn’t an exceptional year for reproduction, but recruitment was average.
“It seems like a really odd weather year,” Smith said. “There were never really any concentrations. Ducks were spread from the Dakotas to the Gulf Coast by early November. There was nothing to group them up.
“I for one certainly did not see it coming. I try to touch base with our waterfowl sites on a regular basis. Everyone was pretty optimistic. Things looked like they should have been at least average if not better.”
Southern Illinois hunters complained that even when ducks concentrated on large bodies of water, the birds seemed content to stay put, rarely venturing out in hunting areas.
“They are only going to do what they need to do,” Smith said. “If they are getting sufficient food and cover by not going to hunting areas, they will do that. Their job is to survive, not provide entertainment for hunters. Their job is to reproduce.”
Joey Thurston, the IDNR’s site superintendent at Horseshoe Lake and Union County Refuge, and Chris McGinnis, site superintendent at Mermet Lake, said ducks seemed to be more nocturnal this year. Birds would fly to feeding areas throughout the night, but return well before sunlight.
Smith said that adaptation is quite possible.
“When you have ducks that have hung out in a certain location, bouncing around a couple of sites, they are going to learn the game and become less susceptible to harvest,” he said. “It seems like we had the same ducks at various latitudes for a long time.
“Again, I think that is kind of a behavior of stale ducks. They have learned that food resources are safer at night. There are trade-offs, the predation risk is greater at night.”
And, finally, there was simply never a concentration of Canada geese in the region. The geese have quit migrating to Southern Illinois.
“When we look at band return data, the geese that used to go to Southern Illinois, those geese do not leave southern Wisconsin or northern Illinois any more except in rare situations,” Smith said.