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Chena River experiences overpopulation of ducks during winter season

Published: Apr. 14, 2021 at 4:15 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The Chena River is currently experiencing an overpopulation of ducks in the winter.

According to Mark Lindberg, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Chena River over the last 15 years has had its winter duck population explode in size. Lindberg explained, “Twenty years ago, there were very few ducks who spent the winter on the Chena River based on counts that were done in and around Christmas - part of what’s called the Christmas Bird Count. There were probably 25 to 50 mallards, the species that is most common there wintering. About 15 years ago, I want to say now, an individual with the best intent started feeding them and now there’s upwards of... I think some of the counts have been close to 600 mallards who spend the winter of the Chena River.”

According to Lindberg, there are two factors that account for the large number of ducks sticking around rather than migrating for the winter. The first is groups of residents feeding the ducks which encourages them to stay. The second is warm water introduced to the Chena from the Fairbanks Power Plant which creates a environment for the ducks to live while being fed.

“Long before there was a warm water influence from the power plant and long before people were feeding them, they were migrating and persisted for thousands of years with that strategy, and were very successful - mallards were doing very well thank you very much. There’re some estimates of as many as 25 million mallards in North America. So feeding them... I think the argument is made is that they’re saving the ducks. That’s the name of the organization that does it, and I don’t think that’s accurate because they’re able to save themselves by migrating from here in the winter as they did long before they were fed,” commented Lindberg.

The question now is if the overpopulation is a potential problem for the ducks or their ecosystem. Lindberg said, “I think that’s up the individual to decide that. I don’t advocate for feeding wildlife when it isn’t necessary, but others do - and the question is really, who are we helping most by feeding the ducks? For me, the answer as a biologist is the people who feed them benefit the most. The ducks would be just as happy migrating, as they did in the past, as spending the winter here being fed.”

While there is no immediate danger to the ducks, having a large population in close proximity could cause problems down the line.

“Anytime you concentrate wildlife in high densities in unnatural setting, which I think that situation on the Chena meets all those conditions, there’s risk associated with it. Of concern, particularly to biologists is the risk of disease transmission and spread, and I can tell you our work on the Avian Influenza lines up and shows that those ducks are infected with Avian Influenza through the winter, and it’s moving among them in that group. That doesn’t kill them by any means, but it does exist in the population. Other diseases could lead to the death of an entire group because they’re so concentrated. There’s other conditions that might exist. That combined with unnaturally high water temperatures could lead to high levels of bacteria and the associated concern with that,” remarked Lindberg.

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