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home : columns : columns June 28, 2016

10/22/2013 4:37:00 PM
Good numbers of canvasbacks seen in Saskatchewan

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

Occasionally people who knew me well as their doggy or piggy doctor, ask "how's retirement going?" or "is retirement as good as you expected?" My answer is usually, it's pretty good and about what I expected. That's especially true when considering the occasional hunting trip I've been able to take with more freedom and no job worries.
Extra special are the half dozen duck hunting trips to Saskatchewan, Canada, with good friend Gary Olson of Windom. We've certainly had some dandies; mallards coming into a pond where we had broken open the ice and tossed in some decoys. Then a neat bluebill hunt last year when the "bills" swung once over the decoys then straight in with their landing gear down.
But it remained for this year to be the best ever for us along with Jim Hansen, Gary's old college era buddy from Montana. Jim's our modern equivalent of a Crow Indian scout. He begins making phone calls weeks before we embark and then arrives a few days early to really pinpoint the ducks.
This year we wanted to concentrate on canvasbacks considering our one afternoon and the following morning success on them in a new area last year. Well, we found them again, staging for their fall flight, glutting on sago pondweed tubers and getting fat for their long flight south.
We have found a few tipoffs to where the "cans" are or will be soon. First is their need for sago tubers. Large beds of that precious pondweed can be found in certain lakes with the proper depth and water clarity. It can vary a bit from year to year depending on rainfall and water depth but it usually repeats itself on certain traditional lakes.
A second tip we receive from the wildlife themselves. Migrating tundra swans also love to use their long necks to feed on sago. Find those big white swans and you'll probably find "cans." One good shoot we had this year held an estimated 300 swans the day before.
Minnesota once had such lakes in the past. They included Christina near Fergus Falls, Johanna near Brooten, Swan Lake near Nicollet and, of course, Heron Lake in our own backyard. But then came carp, silt covered the sago beds, eutrophication commenced, and gone were the canvasbacks.
Now, if you want anything more than an occasional "can" over your decoys you have to travel to the southern third of the Canadian provinces to meet them as they prepare for a mostly quick migration through the USA to the coastal areas and Mexico.
Where from?
Canvasbacks nest in the north country. Some in the prairie potholes but most in what is called the parklands of Canada. They love the huge deltas of some of the famous and beautifully named rivers, the Saskatchewan, the Athebasca, the MaKenzie and on up into the Yukon Territory and Alaska.
Some of the big silver- backed ducks that responded to our decoys had most likely never seen camo-clad hunters with big black dogs on the shoreline before. At least they responded that way as they dropped into our couple dozen all canvasback decoys. The shooting was pretty much 30 to 45 yards and allowed us a modest level of selectivity for drakes despite the low sun in our face for all four days.
The only down side to the hunt was the picking and cleaning. They have to be one of the toughest species to pick feathers from, especially the young and their pin feathers.
We had hoped one of the many Hutterite colonies in the area would custom pick them for us. But no, they had been frightened out of it by the bird flu scare of a few years ago. They feared it might get into their domestic flocks. That virus was never found in even one migratory duck and so another unjustified scare was perpetrated on the public, this time an entire continent.
Why good 'can' numbers?
"Can" numbers have been down for perhaps 50 years, so much so that USA hunting seasons for them has been closed on numerous occasions. How then did they become the most numerous duck we saw this fall, recognizing, of course, that we focused on areas they loved?
Perhaps they have just adapted to conditions they faced. In the '50s nest success was great. According to the book, Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, 1,715 nests averaged a success rate of 47%. One study in Manitoba even found a colossal 77% success rate. Other studies found success rates of 45%, 32% and 57%.
But then, by 1973 and 1974 that dropped to a meager 2.7% of 111 nests studied near Minnedosa, Manitoba. The reason, dry weather, receding shoreline and a northern invasion of raccoons. The first recorded juvenile raccoon was seen on the delta marsh in 1949. By 1973 a researcher reported that 60% of all can nests were being destroyed by raccoons. Combine that with the ravens, magpies, skunks, mink, fox and coyotes that also liked eggs and nesting hen meat and the cans had only one choice. Move out or die out.
Fortunately for all of us, watchers and hunters, the canvasback duck adapted by gradually moving more northward for their nesting. Staying above the predator line is of supreme importance to this wonderful duck. Maybe some colder, more snowy winters will stop that northward migration of nest preying critters. It certainly has worked on the opossums that invaded Minnesota then disappeared after a couple nasty winters.
Bad winters have a few advantages.

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