Delta Waterfowl Research Asks ‘Where Are the Ducks?’

duck wearing a transmitter, tracking ducks, where are all the ducks

An ongoing puddle-duck tracking study initiated last winter intends to answer key questions of southern hunters.

BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA —A waterfowling contradiction has emerged in recent years: While three of the past five USFWS Waterfowl Population Status Reports have estimated record breeding duck populations and good production, many southern hunters have reported lackluster duck seasons.

As revealed in the Winter Issue of Delta Waterfowl magazine, The Duck Hunters Organization intends to unravel this mystery with its Lower Mississippi Dabbler Tracking project — an exciting study monitoring the movements of mallards, green-winged teal and wigeon using extremely lightweight (1/3-ounce), backpack-style GPS transmitters.

“Everyone in the South is asking, ‘Where are the ducks?’” said Dr. Chris Nicolai, a Delta Waterfowl biologist. “This research will help inform whether the ducks are truly arriving late to the southern wintering grounds or simply avoiding hunters. The impact of hunting pressure and where ducks go once the shooting starts tends to be erratic, and we don’t fully understand it. We hope to answer the question, ‘If the ducks aren’t over my decoys, then where are they?’”

ducks with transmitters being released for studyIn partnership with Dr. Douglas Osborne of the University of Arkansas, a total of 30 ducks — an even mix of the three target species — were trapped late last winter, with another 90 dabblers scheduled for radio-tagging this fall. During this multi-year research project, the radio-tagged ducks will provide Delta Waterfowl with a mountain of data, including how frequently — or infrequently — the ducks hop between rest areas and hunting areas, and what types of habitats they prefer during the hunting season. It will also reveal if a lack of food resources on the southern landscape is resulting in fewer ducks over decoys.

“These micro-movements during the hunting season are important to hunters as well as waterfowl managers,” Nicolai said. “It will help inform biologists about the best resources to put on the landscape to attract ducks and benefit ducks and duck hunters in the South.”

Another intriguing aspect of the study is its ability to track southern-wintering ducks as they return to their respective breeding grounds in the prairie pothole region. In partnership with Dr. Mitch Weegman of the University of Missouri, Delta wants to add to its understanding of each species’ breeding ranges, along with the speed, stopovers and path to core nesting areas.

“One of the big questions is what proportion of the birds are breeding each year and whether you can relate successes and failures to the body condition of the ducks,” Nicolai said. “And by further zeroing in on their core breeding areas, Delta can enhance the efficiency of what it does best: make ducks.”

How will Delta know whether the ducks nested? The innovative backpacks enable researchers to tell whether ducks are flying, swimming, sitting on a nest, and more.

“If a radio-tagged duck were to fly in your window and land on your couch, I could tell you which cushion it’s on,” said Nicolai. “The transmitters are that precise.”

For a detailed report on this fascinating research, don’t miss the Winter Issue of Delta Waterfowl magazine, arriving in mailboxes soon. Remember, the only way to receive Delta Waterfowl magazine is to join The Duck Hunters Organization.

To become a member of Delta Waterfowl today, call (888) 987-3695 or visit deltawaterfowl.org/memberships.

For more information on the study, contact Dr. Chris Nicolai, waterfowl scientist for Delta Waterfowl, at (775) 830-1632 or cnicolai@deltawaterfowl.org.