November 1, 2017
Duck-filled trap

Wet and Cold with a Boat Full of Bluebills

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By Heath M. Hagy

Everyone is excited… The outboard engine strains to keep the 20-foot extra-deep and extra-wide jon boat on plane with a load of 12 poultry crates and a handful of eager volunteers. As the traps come into view, everyone holds their breath.

Scientists for the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) have been baiting and preparing this trap site for almost two weeks—just waiting for the weather to be right and the birds to be cooperative. As the boat approaches the traps, smiles spread across the face of each volunteer. The mood of the researchers mirrors the excitement of the students, but they settle into a very serious demeanor—there is an important job to be done.

A biologist releases a duck near a lake.
Canvasback release

INHS researchers trap and band thousands of diving ducks along the Illinois River each spring. Their research is supported by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources through Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. A few cents from the purchase of ammunition, firearms, and other outdoor gear matriculate into a fund that supports wildlife research and conservation projects. Since 2012 INHS researchers have banded more than 6,000 lesser scaup, often called bluebills by hunters, and canvasback along the Illinois River.

The boat slows as it approaches the duck-filled traps. “Let’s go!” yells one of the INHS researchers. What ensues next is nothing short of controlled chaos. Ducks dive and flap to escape the dip nets of the researchers, who move them a half dozen at a time into poultry crates.

“Ducks are splashing everywhere, waves crash into researchers and the boats, and it’s impossible to stay warm and dry,” said INHS researcher Dr. Heath Hagy, who is leading the project. “Students and volunteers get drenched and absolutely love it!” The ducks are sequestered in poultry crates and driven back to the Forbes Biological Station in Havana to be processed and banded.

The remote nature and widespread distribution of lesser scaup breeding grounds make summer banding impractical.

“Many of our geese and dabbling ducks are banded during the post-breeding period prior to fall migration when they are molting,” said Hagy. “Scaup congregate in large rafts at a few of our reservoirs and lakes and can be more easily attracted to bait during spring migration.”

Researchers band more than 100,000 ducks annually to track their movements, estimate survival and monitor harvest. Lesser scaup banded by INHS scientists have been harvested by hunters as far away as Ontario and Florida, but most of the harvest occurs in the Mississippi Flyway from Wisconsin to Louisiana.

Back at the Forbes Biological Station, students and volunteers form an assembly line where each bird is measured, weighed and fitted with a nickel-based alloy leg band.

a band on a duck's leg
Each bird is fitted with a leg band

“Most ducks are banded with aluminum leg bands,” said INHS scientist Chris Hine, “but scaup spend time in salt water which can degrade aluminum.”

The information gathered by INHS scientists can yield insight into body condition and age of individual birds.

The last step of the process, perhaps the best, is described by project coordinator Josh Osborn as “the release.”

“The most efficient way to return the birds back to the wild is to move the birds back to the water’s edge, simply toss them into the air, and watch them fly away,” noted Osborn. “Since they are diving ducks, they need a little help getting airborne.”

Indeed, it’s impossible not to grin from ear to ear when releasing a scaup or canvasback via the toss method.

Each year, INHS scientists band thousands of ducks with the assistance of many students and volunteers. While duck banding is important for scientists, it also is a powerful teaching tool and an important method of engaging students and the general public in science and research.

volunteers releasing banded birds
The volunteers release the banded birds

Dr. Heath Hagy is the Director of the Forbes Biological Station of the Illinois Natural History Survey, a unit of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Hagy leads a research program focusing on wetland and waterbird ecology and management, with a focus on conservation planning and foraging ecology.

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