Although ducks were once maligned by numerous producers because of crop damage to barley and wheat swaths, they are more widely accepted today. That is a result of reduced crop damage due to the prevalence of canola and peas, the advent of straight combining and crop damage prevention and compensation efforts.
Many duck populations have had high populations in the past five years because of increased precipitation and pond numbers on the Prairies, combined with habitat conservation and management efforts.
One species, however — the pintail — has declined by about 80 percent in numbers over the past 60 years.
Pintail ducks prefer to breed in the more treeless areas of the Prairies and Arctic rather than in heavily treed areas. They are adapted to nesting on the relatively barren expanses of prairie.
While most duck species prefer to nest in tall grasses or shrubs found around sloughs and in roadside ditches, the pintail feels at home nesting in the short sparse cover on pastures. Instead of hiding its nest in tall cover to avoid its eggs being eaten by predators like most ducks, the pintail relies on dispersing its nests over a wide area and nesting far from water as a way of avoiding predators finding its nests.
Unfortunately, the tendency of pintails to nest in sparse cover has resulted in a declining population.
When the pintails arrive in spring looking for a place to nest, they view cropland as a similar-looking habitat to grazed prairie. And now that cropland has replaced two-thirds to three-quarters of the prairie in many areas, many pintails end up nesting in cropland.
A recent study estimated that virtually half of all the pintails in prairie Canada nest in cropland rather than grassland.
This wouldn’t be a big problem if pintails nested later in the summer like some other duck species, but most pintails nest early — in late April and early May. This means they have often started nesting before seeding time. Then producers commence seeding or tillage operations, and the pintail nests are disturbed and eggs broken.
If you see a single duck fly up in front of your seeder in spring, chances are that it is a pintail hen who has started to nest.
Female pintails are difficult to identify from other ducks. Unlike the males, female ducks are plain brown in colour, so that they are better camouflaged against skunks, foxes and crows spotting them and eating their eggs.
Only 10 percent of duck nests of various species hatch on the Canadian Prairies. Predators find and eat the eggs from the other 90 percent. Although this may seem low, enough nests hatch to allow most duck populations to flourish when there is lots of precipitation and abundant ponds.
Pintails are not so lucky, however. With half of the pintails nesting in cropland, studies have found that in addition to predation, there is accidental nest loss due to seeding operations.
Because of this, only one out of 20 pintail nests in cropland end up hatching. Biologists believe that this is what is responsible for the long-term decline in the pintail population.
There is no ready solution to this problem. Programs like fall-seeded crops and conversion of marginal cropland to permanent cover are helpful. If future perennial crops such as intermediate wheatgrass have widespread adoption, that could provide a reprieve for the pintail.
Until such time, however, the pintail will continue to be far less common than it was 50 or 60 years ago.
Dave Duncan is a retired biologist from Leduc County in Alberta.