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2016-2017 Migratory Bird Season
Information and Population Status


by Ted Nichols, Principal Biologist
Waterfowl Ecology and Management Program
March 30, 2016

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife recently finalized the selection of the state's 2016-17 migratory bird hunting season regulations.

There are several significant changes from last year including the following:
  • 2016 begins the new federal regulatory process where migratory bird season dates are set much earlier in the year.

  • The brant season will be concurrent with the duck season with a bag limit of 1 bird.

  • The Special Sea Duck Area was changed to include only waters of the Atlantic Ocean; further, the season within the Special Sea Duck Area was reduced to 60 days.

  • Federal regulations allow states to use their definition of Youth Hunters for participation in Youth Waterfowl Days. Holders of a New Jersey Youth license are eligible to participate on Youth Days.

  • Each zone will have a Youth Waterfowl Day before and following the regular duck season.

  • New Jersey has a new regulation prohibiting wanton waste of most game species, including migratory birds; 2016 will be the second year for this regulation.

Each year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) develops migratory bird hunting regulations with input and consultation with the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyway Councils. The Flyway Councils are comprised of representatives from state and provincial wildlife agencies that work with the Service to cooperatively manage North America's migratory bird populations.

Beginning in 2016, the Service and Flyway Councils have developed a new schedule for migratory game bird hunting regulations. This cycle will result in season dates and bag limits being set much earlier than was possible under the previous process that had been used since the 1950s. This new process will make planning easier for migratory bird hunters.

During the annual regulatory cycle, biologists gather, analyze, and interpret biological survey data and provide this information through published status and administrative reports. To determine the appropriate frameworks for each species, biologists consider factors such as population size and trend, geographical distribution, annual breeding effort, the condition of breeding and wintering habitat, the number of hunters, and the anticipated harvest. Although survey results still govern decisions for annual hunting seasons, the new process will no longer consider the current year's survey data but rather be based on predictions derived from long term biological information and established harvest strategies.

Retriever with scaup
Dogs and scaup - perfect together!
Click to enlarge


Hunter with puddle duck harvest
Hunter with puddle duck harvest
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Duck hunting regulations are based on biological population assessments using the Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) process, which has been developed cooperatively by the Service and Flyway Councils. AHM is an objective, science-based regulation-setting process. During 2016, the AHM process suggested that a liberal duck hunting season in all flyways was consistent with the long-term welfare of North American waterfowl populations. In Atlantic Flyway states including New Jersey, liberal duck hunting season frameworks include a 60 day season with a 6-duck bag limit. New Jersey has had 60-day duck seasons since 1997.

This year, the daily bag limit in New Jersey will be 6 ducks in aggregate and may not include more than 4 mallards (including no more than 2 hens), 4 scoters (in aggregate), 4 long-tailed ducks, 4 eiders, 3 wood ducks, 2 scaup, 2 redheads, 2 pintails, 2 canvasbacks, and 1 black duck. The bag limit is 6 ducks for all other duck species. Merganser bag limits will remain at 5 birds per day with no more than 2 hooded mergansers. Merganser bag limits are in addition to regular duck bag limits.

To better serve New Jersey's sportsmen, the Division conducted a season selection preference survey of duck hunters during the winter of 2012-13. The majority of Coastal Zone hunters indicated that they preferred to hunt later into January by taking days from the first split in November. Due to the later date of Thanksgiving, and that the Federal framework runs to January 28, Coastal Zone hunters will notice the late season framework this year which allows for only a 3-day segment earlier in the fall. The 3-day split will include the Veterans Day holiday. Similarly, the first split of the North Zone will be only 7 days with the balance of days (4 days) moved to the second split. This will be the 4th year where the South Zone duck season will run later into January at the expense of days taken from the first split in October.

Additional information and detailed results can be found in the 2012-2013 Waterfowl Hunter Survey (pdf, 310kb).

Given New Jersey's zoning alignment, and 2016-17 season selections, duck hunters who are willing to travel across zone boundaries can hunt 87 different days, including 17 different Saturdays, during the 60-day season (see Table 1 [pdf, 80kb]).


Sea ducks include long-tailed ducks, scoters (black, surf, and white-winged) and eiders, and are primarily found in the ocean and back bays during fall and winter. Since the 1960s, sea ducks were largely considered under-harvested resulting in bonus bag limits and/or maximum allowable season lengths (107 days). However, sea duck populations are difficult to monitor compared to other waterfowl species, have low reproductive rates due to small clutch sizes, and delayed sexual maturation (2-4 years).

Over the past decade, this has led North American biologists to become increasingly concerned about the status and harvest pressure on sea ducks. To address this issue, the Service completed an extensive analysis in 2015 suggesting that the current harvest levels on sea ducks may not be sustainable over the long term. As a result, the Atlantic Flyway Council and Service agreed that a 25% harvest reduction was warranted in Special Sea Duck Areas of Atlantic Flyway states. The harvest reduction will include a season length reduction to 60 days and a bag limit reduction to 5 birds. Sea duck harvest opportunity remains relatively unchanged in "regular" duck zones, such as the Coastal Zone, where sea ducks count as part of the 6-duck daily bag limit.

To simplify sea duck regulations in New Jersey, the Fish and Game Council changed the definition of the Special Sea Duck Area to the Atlantic Ocean. This change will allow more season date setting flexibility because the ocean (Special Sea Duck Area) is more clearly separate from the "regular duck" Coastal Zone. Further, the "bay waters 1 mile from shore" clause used since 1987 was confusing and seldom used by duck hunters. At inlets and bay (e.g. Raritan and Delaware Bays) mouths, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) Demarcation Lines shown on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Nautical Charts and further described in 33 CFR Part 80 will be used as the boundary between the Special Sea Duck Area and Coastal Zone waters.

In light of this upcoming shorter season in the Special Sea Duck Area, the Division conducted a hunter survey whose objective was to determine dates when New Jersey hunters would prefer to hold hunting seasons for sea ducks in the Atlantic Ocean. On January 26, a survey link was sent to nearly 1,000 hunters with e-mail addresses who indicated in HIP screening questions that they hunted sea ducks in New Jersey during 2013 or 2014. The survey was active through February 22. Hunters were given 4 choices for season date selections. 18% of hunters responded during the survey and a strong majority (47%) of those who pursued sea ducks in the ocean selected a season date coinciding with early November to mid-January.

Special Sea Duck Hunting Area Season Date Preference Survey Results
Preference All Hunters Ocean Hunters
Oct. 22 - Dec. 30 16% 22%
Nov. 5 - Jan. 13 35% 47%
Same as Coastal Zone ducks 25% 23%
No preference 25% 9%


The "regular" Canada goose season is based on the status of Atlantic Population (AP) Canada geese which nest on the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec. The AP is New Jersey's primary migrant Canada goose population. A total of 161,300 breeding pairs were estimated from surveys during June, 2015. 49% of the indicated pairs were observed as single birds, suggesting an average nesting effort. The breeding population has been stable for the past 10 years so the "regular" Canada goose season will remain the same as last year with a 50-day season and 3-bird bag limit in the North and South Zones.
Upon reviewing contemporary leg band recovery data from migrant population (AP and North Atlantic Population) Canada geese in New Jersey, it was determined that the Coastal Zone qualified as an Atlantic Flyway Resident Population Canada Goose Zone. Resident Population Zones have been used in Atlantic Flyway states since 2002 and include portions of the Flyway which hold relatively few migrant geese during fall and winter. As such, Resident Population Zones can have more liberal goose hunting seasons than zones which winter significant numbers of migrant Canada geese.

The "regular" Canada goose season in New Jersey's North and South Zones is based on the status of Atlantic Population (AP) Canada geese which nest on the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec. The AP is New Jersey's primary migrant Canada goose population. The breeding population has been stable for the past 10 years so the "regular" Canada goose season will remain the same as the past 4 years with a 50 day season and 3-bird bag limit in the North and South Zones.

As a result of this analysis, the Canada goose season in New Jersey's Coastal Zone was extended and the bag limit increased beginning last year. This change will be implemented through the 2017-18 season and is considered experimental by the Atlantic Flyway Council and US Fish and Wildlife Service. After the 3-year period, an evaluation will be conducted to determine if the Coastal Zone season remains within the criteria for Resident Population Zones. Leg band recovery data from both New Jersey's North and South Zones suggest that these zones hold significant numbers of AP geese during fall and winter and greatly exceed the criteria for Resident Population Zones.

Hunters with Canada goose harvest
Winter goose hunting has its rewards
Click to enlarge

Resident Population (RP) Canada geese are overabundant throughout most of the United States and cause significant damage problems. As a result, additional hunting methods including the use of electronic calls, unplugged shotguns, extended hunting hours, and liberal bag limits are allowed during September hunting seasons. September seasons target RP geese since Atlantic Population or migrant geese do not arrive in New Jersey until October.

Hunters need to remember that these special regulations only apply to the September Canada goose season (September 1-30, 2016). Hunters that choose to use unplugged guns during the September Canada goose season are reminded to reinstall magazine plugs before pursuing other game species.

Atlantic brant at coast
Atlantic brant at coast
Click to enlarge
Since Atlantic brant breed in remote wilderness of the Canadian Arctic, their status is measured during the Mid-Winter Waterfowl survey done in January on their Atlantic Flyway coastal wintering grounds. Other factors including young production during recent years and food supply (sea lettuce and eelgrass) are also considered when determining hunting regulations.

Biologists in Atlantic Flyway states conduct productivity surveys each November by examining brant flocks with spotting scopes and discerning plumage differences between young and adult birds. Productivity surveys measure the proportion of young in the fall flight and can be used in population modeling. Young production for brant has been poor for the past 4 consecutive years with less than 10% young birds observed within fall flocks each year. Over the long term (40 years of data), Atlantic brant average 18% young in fall flock observations and until recently, there were never even 2 consecutive years with poor young production (less than 10% young).

Despite the recent poor productivity, the number of brant in the Mid-Winter Survey jumped from the 2013-15 mean of 119,000 birds to 157,900 birds in 2016. Nearly all of the observed increase was in New Jersey with increases in brant abundance particularly evident in Cape May and Atlantic counties. Field evidence suggests that sea lettuce, the preferred food of brant, has recovered since its observed decline following hurricane Sandy in October 2012. However, this increase seems biologically unrealistic given the recent trend in poor young production.

Since brant are difficult to count in the winter survey, unexplainable changes in survey results are sometimes attributed to changes in observers; however the same 2 observers conducted the survey in 2016 and have done this survey in New Jersey since 2000. Each of these observers has more than 24 years of experience. The low numbers observed during the past several years may have been due to brant being out of the primary survey areas in New Jersey and New York or perhaps the survey contains other significant unexplainable annual variability.

Given these uncertainties, the Division, and Fish and Game Council opted to select a brant hunting regulation of 60 days with a 1-bird bag which is more restrictive than the 60-day and 2-bird bag (60/2) allowed by federal regulations. This selection is expected to result in a one-third reduction in harvest from a 60/2 regulation and provide a conservation benefit to brant.

Over the next year, the Division will be working with the University of Delaware and state and federal partners in both the US and Canada toward a predictive population model for Atlantic brant. It is hopeful that completion of this model will result in a more informed decision when setting hunting regulations in the future.


Greater and lesser snow geese as well as Ross's geese are collectively referred to as "light" geese. Light goose populations remain high and biologists are concerned about the impacts light geese have on fragile Arctic nesting habitats. Serious damage to Arctic wetlands has already been documented in several key light goose breeding colonies. This damage impacts the light geese themselves, as well as other wildlife dependent on the Arctic ecosystem.

Serious damage to agriculture also occurs in migration and wintering areas. Due to this overabundance, the Service is expected to again implement a Conservation Order (CO). A CO is a special management action, authorized by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that is needed to control certain wildlife populations when traditional management programs are unsuccessful in preventing overabundance of that population. The CO allows an extended time period outside of traditional hunting seasons as well as additional methods for taking light geese without bag limits. The intent of the CO is to reduce and/or stabilize North American light goose populations that are above population objectives.

In the Atlantic Flyway, greater snow geese are the most abundant light goose population. The 2015 spring estimate was 818,000 birds which is 63% above the population objective of 500,000 birds. During the past 10 years however, this population has shown a stable trend suggesting that liberal and special regulations implemented in both Quebec and the US, have stemmed the aggressive population growth that was occurring during the 1990s.

Due to the current large population size, the hunting season length for light geese will be the maximum allowed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (107 days) with liberal bag limits of 25 light geese per day with no possession limit. In addition, a CO implemented in the spring will allow hunters to pursue light geese for the duration of the migration and wintering period. During the CO, special regulations will be allowed including the use of electronic calls, shotguns capable of holding up to 7 shells, extended shooting hours, and no bag limits.


Since 1997, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed states to hold Youth Waterfowl Hunting Days on non-school days when youths have an opportunity to participate. Youth Days are held when waterfowl seasons are closed to the general hunting public. The objective of Youth Days is to introduce young hunters to the concepts of ethical use and stewardship of waterfowl, encourage youngsters and adults to experience the outdoors together, and to contribute to the long-term conservation of the migratory bird resource. Youth Days are a unique educational opportunity, above and beyond the regular season, which helps ensure high-quality learning experiences for youth interested in hunting.

This year New Jersey will hold 2 Youth Waterfowl Hunting Days in each zone. Each zone will have a youth day prior to the opening of the first split of the duck season (October or November) as well as an "end-loaded" Youth Day in February. Mentors willing to travel across zones could potentially take youths on 5 different hunting days.

Beginning in 2016, the Service is allowing states to use their regulations to define who qualifies as a youth; previously, the nationwide requirement was 15 which met the standard for requiring a federal duck stamp. In New Jersey, Youth Licenses are valid until December 31 of the year when the youth turns 16. To participate in the youth day, New Jersey youth hunters must possess a Youth Firearms License or be less than 16 years of age on the season date and qualified to hunt without a license under the farmer license exemption. This new regulation will allow additional opportunity for New Jersey youth hunters.


All hunters pursuing migratory birds including ducks, geese, brant, coot, woodcock, rails, snipe or gallinules, are reminded to obtain a Harvest Information Program (HIP) certification. The process is the same as last year. Migratory bird hunters can get their HIP certification one of three ways: online by visiting the Division's license sales web site, at any license agent, or by calling the toll-free NJ telephone sales line at 888-277-2015.

The 2016-17 New Jersey migratory bird hunting season dates follow. Due to the earlier timing of annual regulation process, the NJ Migratory Bird Regulations publication will be discontinued this year. Migratory bird regulations will be included in the 2016 Hunting and Trapping Digest, available online and at Division offices and license agents in August.

2016-2017 Migratory Bird Seasons Summary (pdf, 20kb)

Harvest Information Program (HIP) Certification Information

American woodcock
American Woodcock
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Waterfowl and Migratory Birds in New Jersey

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Department of Environmental Protection
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Last Updated: March 30, 2016