Why Aren’t The Ducks Here Yet?

Mixed ducks in flight, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, Jan 2008 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 December 2021

Fifteen years ago Pittsburgh birders waited for migrating waterfowl to start arriving in late October and watched as numbers peaked in November and dropped when our lakes froze in December. We remember that schedule and have been visiting wetlands since late October but waterfowl are still scarce. Low variety, low numbers.

Why aren’t the ducks here yet?

In a word, it’s not cold enough.

Except for the few species that are hardwired for more dependable long-distance migrations, such as blue-winged teal, waterfowl are adapted to migrate only as far as is necessary for them to find food, open water, and places to rest. For some species, it may take several consecutive days of freezing temperatures and snow cover to push them southward. 

— Ducks Unlimited: Are Waterfowl Migrations Changing?

Ducks save energy and avoid danger by staying put when conditions allow. They also shortcut their trip north in the spring by not traveling too far from their breeding grounds.

There was no reason for ducks to fly south in October, which was the world’s fourth warmest on record. November was also warm with no highs below freezing in Erie, PA and only four days completely below freezing in typically cold Bismarck, North Dakota. As of Monday December 6 the Great Lakes were completely ice free.

NOAA CoastWatch Great Lakes Ice Analysis. NO ICE as of 6 Dec 2021

So we’ll just have to wait for a week of real winter before we’ll see good flocks of migrating ducks.

Follow the weather up north to get a prediction of waterfowl arrival. Did it freeze in Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Ontario? Did the Great Lakes start to freeze? What about Lake Erie? (click the link to see Great Lakes ice conditions.)

When the ducks get here they might not leave until spring if our lakes stay open.

Mixed ducks in Ohio, March 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. Yesterday’s high was below freezing but we’re not having a run of cold weather. Friday’s high will be 52oF, Saturday’s 64oF.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, map from NOAA; click on the captions to see the originals)

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