Duck Bands: More Than Just Bling

How simple metal bracelets continue to aid waterfowl conservation

By Veronica Davison, USFWS Sacramento Fish & Wildlife Office

With a cobalt blue, cloud-filled sky overhead, Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office biologist Vincent Griego set out on a bumpy 30-minute ride through the prairies of Saskatchewan, just outside of Saskatoon. Surrounded by green and brown fields of barley and canola, with the distinct earthy smell of wetlands and a choir of sandhill cranes overhead, Griego and three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service colleagues representing regions throughout the country made the trek to this remote location for the USFWS annual duck-banding event.

The Western Canada Cooperative Waterfowl Banding Program is a long-term, large-scale banding program. This joint effort involves the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service, state and provincial wildlife management agencies, flyway councils, First Nations, and non-governmental waterfowl advocacy and research organizations. Commencing in the early 1950s, the program is critical to successful wildlife management.

“This program is important to give our best estimates of the status of migratory waterfowl and it ensures that the ducks can be sustainable in the future,” Griego said. “It helps to establish hunting regulations, so that way these species can maintain their populations. It provides opportunities for people like me to hunt, or to take photos, or to appreciate the wild.”

The teams work throughout August, a time when the climate fluctuates between comfortably cool and nearly 100 degrees. The days are long, with biologists averaging 11 hours in the field every day to band as many birds as possible. Banding is a complex process that requires intense focus, patience, a steady hand and an advanced knowledge of waterfowl.

The trapping sites are typically the same every year, strategically selected to maximize the capture of waterfowl, with priority species being mallards and northern pintails. Working in teams, biologists set up and bait portable “swim-in” 8-by-8-foot, welded wire mesh traps that minimize injury to the birds. Each is baited with barley purchased from local farmers. The barley is placed in the water and on Styrofoam floats topped with a piece of plywood, which provides the ducks a place to rest and dry off. Traps are placed 30 feet from the shore to reduce the likelihood of coyotes, raccoons and mink capitalizing on easy prey.

To expedite the ducks’ release, 24 hours after setting and baiting the traps, biologists return to the site. The birds are transferred to a 3-by-2-foot “catch box,” which is positioned against the swim-in traps to allow the birds to enter it on their own. Each catch box can hold up to 100 birds, depending on the species. After transfers have been made, the catch box is transported to the shoreline where the ducks are banded.

A biologist then begins the process of data collection — documenting each bird’s species, age and sex on data sheets. The data are later entered into U.S. and Canadian databases for tracking. More than just ducks make their way into the traps. Coots, gulls and other non-target species are promptly released without banding.

Ducks are removed from the catch boxes one-by-one. Each is handled by a single biologist through the species identification, banding and release process. After noting the duck’s species and sex, the biologist positions the duck so its feet are facing outward, making it easier to apply the appropriate-size metal band — each with a unique, nine digit, numeric code. With the bird in one hand and an aluminum band in the other, the biologist uses pliers to carefully close the band. The application technique takes patience and precision. Apply too much pressure and the ends of the band will overlap, affixing too tightly on the duck’s leg. Apply too little pressure and the band will not close completely, leaving a gap that can get clogged with debris, causing a hazard for the bird. Both ends of the band have to be flush and align evenly.

Once banded, the ducks are released into the wind away from the upland area to reduce their risk of becoming prey. The entire process from swim-in trap retrieval to release takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Peak migration begins in late September, with ducks flying south from Canada to the United States and beyond. Throughout their journey, the U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service Bird Banding Office receive reports of banded bird encounters, which helps document their movements, longevity and sources of mortality. Reports come from many sources, including hunters. They make an important contribution to conservation each time they report an encounter with a banded duck, as the data is used to help determine appropriate hunting regulations each year.

Hunters are typically thrilled to report the bands.

“I was with my old man at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge the first time I shot a banded bird,” said 25-year-old hunter Wyatt Milne. “I remember jumping around and yelling in the pond, yelling with excitement. It’s a badge of honor — not everybody’s got one.”

Wyatt Milne with father Sean Milne

Wyatt Milne with father Sean Milne

Milne’s father introduced him to the sport of hunting when he was 5 years old. Twenty years and eight bands later, he still hunts with his father, mostly on National Wildlife Refuges in California and several other states. Milne has a deep respect for wildlife and a keen understanding of his role in the continent’s conservation efforts.

“We always try to educate non-hunters in the sense that what we’re doing is not bad, we’re not just out there killing everything that flies around,” he said. “We do this for a reason — it’s to conserve what we have.”

Last year, 30,747 ducks were banded, including mallards, northern pintails, blue-winged teal and redheads. That’s an increase over the 27,672 banded ducks in 2015. The success of the program is a testament to the United States-Canada partnership.

“Birds migrate and travel and live on a continental scale,” said Kerry Hecker, protected areas manager for Environment and Climate Change Canada—Canadian Wildlife Service. “If we weren’t managing on a continental scale, we wouldn’t be able to do anything cohesive, coherent and useful.”

The partnership is unique in its scope and the myriad levels at which the effort is coordinated.

“It’s absolutely essential for the two countries to work together, and I think we’ve managed that at a very good and grassroots level, as well as at the upper legislative, administrative and overall agreement level,” Hecker added. “The biologists who come up from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are very competent, capable and easy to get along with.”

Conservation requires the involvement of governments, organizations and individuals to ensure success. With nearly seven decades of experience through this bi-lateral partnership, the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service have jointly managed a program that engages landowners, hunters and others to better understand waterfowl and ensure their survival.

To learn more about waterfowl banding, visit the following sites:
Bird Banding
Reporting Banded Birds