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State of the Birds Report

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          Spotlight on Waterfowl         

The Prairie Pothole Region is the most productive habitat for breeding ducks in the world. It produces 50-80% of the continent’s ducks, even though it represents only 10% of the continent’s total wetland area.

Climate change models predict wetland numbers could decline dramatically, which would result in large declines in  the fall flight of ducks. Researchers predict the number of ponds in the Prairie Pothole Region could decline by two-thirds.

The western boreal forest is the second most important waterfowl breeding area on the continent and supports 12-15 million breeding ducks. In some years, this amounts to about 40% of the continental duck population.

Bird conservation efforts in some currently protected areas will be undermined by climate change impacts. 

Image: Clark's Grebe courtesy USFWS   
Potential impacts and uncertainties associated with climate change may undermine current waterfowl conservation efforts.


Observations and Predictions

A wetland simulation model applied to 95-year weather records suggested that the most productive habitat for breeding waterfowl would shift under a drier climate from the center of the Dakotas and southeastern Saskatchewan to the wetter eastern and northern fringes of the Prairie Pothole Region where areas are currently less productive or wetlands have been drained.

With a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the next century, average temperatures in the western boreal forest region may increase by as much as 8°F. This is expected to result in drier average conditions, greater annual climatic variation, melting permafrost, altered surface hydrology, and higher rates of wildfires.

Potential Impacts

Waterfowl are highly mobile, responsive to environmental variation, and have a relatively high reproductive potential. However, if model predictions are correct, the loss of shallow wetlands–their primary breeding habitat–may contribute to population declines. If pond numbers decline by two-thirds, duck numbers in north-central United States are expected to be reduced. Losing even a fraction of these habitats would impact continental duck populations.

Canvasback courtesy USFWS

Key Steps

Wetland managers will need to make decisions for allocating restoration dollars in an uncertain climatic future. For waterfowl, the potential impacts and uncertainties associated with climate change need to be taken into consideration in conservation efforts to help ensure conservation successes. This will involve cooperation and support of Joint Ventures, Flyways Councils, Land Conservation Cooperatives, conservation organizations, and others in the recognition of climate change in management plans and waterfowl conservation strategies. Existing funding sources must be enhanced significantly for these purposes.


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