The North American population of breeding ducks remains dangerously low, according to the latest statistics of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birdwatchers and waterfowl hunters apparently can expect populations similar to those seen last year.

Mallards and pintails, probably the two most important species as far as North American hunters are concerned, continue to be in serious trouble.

While the overall duck population is 22 percent below the 1955-1989 average, the mallard population is 27 percent below that average and the pintail population, which improved 5 percent, is still 52 percent below that average.

Spotty water conditions on the Canadian prairies coupled with continued dry conditions in the Dakotas offer little hope for a high reproduction rate this year. Pond counts in North Dakota were the lowest on record.

The breeding population of ducks in surveyed areas was 31.3 million, up 1 percent from last year's 30.9 million. That's the third-lowest count on record, after 1985 and 1989.

"The status of ducks is a warning signal for wetlands and the many fish and wildlife species that depend on them," FWS Director John Turner said in a statement. "These numbers should be of concern not only to waterfowlers and birdwatchers, but to everyone who cares about wildlife and the environment."

The 1989 fall flight index was 64 million ducks in the southern migration, well below the target of 100 million set in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

The number of ponds in prairie Canada this year increased 66 percent from last year, but remained 20 percent below the long-term average. Turner cautioned that, although there is more water in the key breeding areas of the Canadian prairies, the area has yet to recover from the drought of the '80s.

Many farmers plowed and planted dried-out prairie ponds during the dry years. Although there may be water in those ponds this year, there is no growth of weeds and brush -- in which ducks hide their nests -- around them.

Good news from the breeding surveys included a 22 percent increase in the canvasback population, which increased 12 percent in 1989 and is 7 percent above the long-term average. Last year's increase prompted the service to allow hunting of canvasbacks in the Pacific Flyway, although the central, midwest and Atlantic flyways remained off-limits.

Findings of the survey, by species, with comparison to 1989 and the average:

Mallards: 5.9 million; down 4 percent from last year and down 27 percent compared with the long-term average.

Gadwall: 1.7 million; up 23 percent and up 16 percent.

American widgeon: 2.56 million, up 3 percent, but down 15 percent long-term.

Green-winged teal: 3.03 million; up 12 percent and up 38 percent.

Blue-winged teal: 2.82 million; down 11 percent and down 41 percent.

Northern shoveler: 1.9 million; up 16 percent and down 4 percent.

Northern pintail: 2.59 million; up 5 percent and down 52 percent.

Redhead: 606,000; down 4 percent and down 16 percent.

Canvasback: 593,000; up 22 percent and up 7 percent.

Scaup: 5.28 million; no change, down 23 percent.