Population ecology of the mallard. II. Breeding habitat conditions, size of the breeding populations, and production indices

Resource Publication No. 115

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This report, the second in a series on a comprehensive analysis of mallard population data, provides information on mallard breeding habitat, the size and distribution of breeding populations, and indices to production. The information in this report is primarily the result of large-scale aerial surveys conducted during May and July, 1955-73. The history of the conflict in resource utilization between agriculturalists and wildlife conservation interests in the primary waterfowl breeding grounds is reviewed. The numbers of ponds present during the breeding season and the midsummer period and the effects of precipitation and temperature on the number of ponds present are analyzed in detail. No significant cycles in precipitation were detected and it appears that precipitation is primarily influenced by substantial seasonal and random components. Annual estimates (1955-73) of the number of mallards in surveyed and unsurveyed breeding areas provided estimates of the size and geographic distribution of breeding mallards in North America. The estimated size of the mallard breeding population in North America has ranged from a high of 14.4 million in 1958 to a low of 7.1 million in 1965. Generally, the mallard breeding population began to decline after the 1958 peak until 1962, and remained below 10 million birds until 1970. The decline and subsequent low level of the mallard population between 1959 and 1969 .generally coincided with a period of poor habitat conditions on the major breeding grounds. The density of mallards was highest in the Prairie-Parkland Area with an average of nearly 19.2 birds per square mile. The proportion of the continental mallard breeding population in the Prairie-Parkland Area ranged from 30% in 1962 to a high of 600/0 in 1956. The geographic distribution of breeding mallards throughout North America was significantly related to the number of May ponds in the Prairie-Parkland Area. Estimates of midsummer habitat conditions and indices to production from the July Production Survey were studied in detail. Several indices relating to production showed marked declines from west to east in the Prairie-Parkland Area, these are: (1) density of breeding mallards (per square mile and per May pond), (2) brood density (per square mile and per July pond), (3) average brood size (all species combined), and (4) brood survival from class II to class III. An index to late nesting and renesting efforts was highest during years when midsummer water conditions were good. Production rates of many ducks breeding in North America appear to be regulated by both density-dependent and density-independent factors. Spacing of birds in the Prairie-Parkland Area appeared to be a key factor in the density-dependent regulation of the population. The spacing mechanism, in conjunction with habitat conditions, influenced some birds to overfly the primary breeding grounds into less favorable habitats to the north and northwest where the production rate may be suppressed. The production rate of waterfowl in the Prairie Parkland Area seems to be independent of density (after emigration has taken place) because the production index appears to be a linear function of the number of breeding birds in the area. Similarly, the production rate of waterfowl in northern Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba appeared to be independent of density. Production indices in these northern areas appear to be a linear function of the size of the breeding population. Thus, the density and distribution of breeding ducks is probably regulated through a spacing mechanism that is at least partially dependent on measurable environmental factors. The result is a density-dependent process operating to ultimately effect the production and production rate of breeding ducks on a continent-wide basis. Continental production, and therefore the size of the fall population, is probably partially regulated by the number of birds that are distributed north and northwest into environments less favorable for successful reproduction. Thus, spacing of the birds in the Prairie-Parkland Area and the movement of a fraction of the birds out of the prime breeding areas may be key factors in the density-dependent regulation of the total mallard population.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Federal Government Series
Population ecology of the mallard. II. Breeding habitat conditions, size of the breeding populations, and production indices
Series title:
Resource Publication
Series number:
No. 115
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
iv, 73 p.