I was able to be a part of an American Black Duck (ABDU) banding session with some Department of Environmental Conservation employees on Friday February 3rd. Myself, and 3 friends from school: Katie, Patty, and Sara joined others on the quest for ABDUs!
We met at our local National Wildlife Refuge: Montezuma. I guess I'm pretty lucky to say I HAVE a local National Wildlife Refuge. It's PRIME waterfowl birding territory, there's a really cool wildlife drive you can take, and many other neat learning experiences for people like me :)
So we met the team at the NWR, and got the rundown of why they were targeting ABDUs specifically, how they were catching them, and what we would be doing once we got to the trap sites.
The leader of the day was Frank Morlock, a Region 8 Wildlife Technician. Although the NWR is federally owned, there is a state owned portion of the land, and that's where Frank works. I met Frank this past fall when my Wildlife Management class took a field trip out to the state land of Montezuma to do some wood duck banding with Frank and his team.
|Photo credit: Katie Boye|
We all piled in a van and headed for Cayuga Lake, the largest Finger Lake we have. This is significant because in a TYPICAL winter season, most of the lake is frozen over, but not all the way. This is usually the only lake that has open water on it, which concentrates the waterfowl. Because we've had very few inches of snow and very mild temperatures, the DEC team has not had a very successful trapping season. For the past 2 years they've been able to boast being the MOST successful ABDU banders in NY as well as in this migration flyway down the East Coast. At this time last year they had banded ~150 ABDUs, and this year only about 40. There's alot more food available and open coast for the birds to disperse to.
Anyway, we arrived at the first site and there were a few ducks in the trap. FYI- the trap is a LIVE trap that the birds can get into, but not out of. I'll explain below.
The wire cage is actually the trap, and the wooden cage is the holding cage where the birds wait while we process them.
Here is the trap. It's an incredibly simple design, yet very successful. Below is an edited version to help you see how the ducks enter the cage.
The top two arrows funnel the birds in. Many animals follow edges, it seems to be a behavioral thing. So, the birds follow the edge in the opening, which funnels them in, and then if they walk the perimeter of the common area (the center square), the opening leads them away from the opening. It's brilliant! Then, on the sides of the common area, there are other funnels to the left and the right, as shown by the straight arrows. Same concept here. The ducks get stuck in there, and hang out until the team comes to check on them, which is only a few hours. The animals are not left for long periods of time.
The holding tank.
Frank and Scott explaining the differences between Mallards and ABDUs. They look very similar, hang out together, and apparently are even hybridizing.
Isn't this a BEAUTIFUL animal? Sometimes the most common animals, a duck, are gorgeous. I know I'm guilty of not taking the time to appreciate their gorgeous plumage!
|Photo credit: Sara York|
Here I am with this gorgeous male Mallard! Just after this picture, I set him free. What a feeling to let a wild animal fly free from your hands!
Here are a female and male Black Duck. The female is on the left: olive colored bill, often a dark 'saddle' on the top. The male, on the right: bright yellow bill.
Katie and a female ABDU!
Photo credit: Katie Boye
Sara and I with female ABDUs!
Many of the birds were recaptures, so we were able to handle them, but not all of us could go through the process of banding. Below are pictures of Patty banding an ABDU.
Band kit: Federal bands usually come on strings of 100. The pliers on the left are specially made to fit these bands that are for ducks or birds of similar size. The band can go no smaller than that hole, so the animal doesn't get hurt.
Bird bands are closely monitored federally or by state. I have had experience tagging small mammals when I took the Winter Ecology course, and THOSE tags are not monitored. Birds can and will migrate all over the world, and are typically long-lived. The chances of someone banding in Tenessee and catching one of our NY birds is high, where as someone would NEVER catch a NY meadow vole. They don't migrate, and rarely live longer than a year. The numbers on the band signify when (what year/season) the bird was banded and where. So when that biologist in TN gets one of "our" ABDUs, they can look up the number and see where the bird has travelled from. Wow!
The way to safely hold the bird while banding is to flip it upside-down, and gently but firmly clamp it between your legs. Birds tend to enter a trance-like state when flipped over. And the tight grip helps to make them feel secure, like they won't fall. Patty then picked out the leg she was going to band (doesn't matter which), and fit the pliers and band around the leg.
All done, Patty and the male ABDU with his new shiny bling!
Finally, I'll explain why ABDUs were being targeted and not other species. ABDUs seem to be in decline and the true reason is unknown. Some possible reasons include: loss of habitat (same old tragic story), and more interestingly: the hybridization of ABDUs and Mallards.
American Black Duck wing
Mallard wing - as you can see they look VERY similar. The Mallard though, has bright white bars surrounding that blue speculum. Easy to confuse, but this is a sure-fire way to correctly ID the ducks.
Young male Mallards or if they're not in the breeding plumage may also look very similar to ABDUs, as well as female Mallards. BUT, the reason they're hybridizing is not because they can't tell eachother apart, because they can. It may just be that in dire situations if there aren't suitable mates of the same species nearby, breeding with a different species is better than not at all. It seems the main purpose of all wild animals are to just perpetuate their species and dreams. Some creatures just breed and then die!
I've ALWAYS learned that sometimes different species can breed, but do not create viable offspring.
Example: Donkey + Horse= Mule. The mule is sterile, therefore a new species can not be created.
BUT ABDUs and Mallards seem to have been a "recent" evolutionary split on the phylogenetic tree, so they are able to interbreed AND create viable offspring. I didn't believe it at first. Other examples are coydogs (coyote + domestic dog), wolf-dogs (gray/red wolf + domestic dog), and any other combination you can make out of coyote, wolf, and dog. Geologically speaking, they were "recently" the same animal. Kind of.
I'm probably not explaining this as thoroughly as I should...but this is the level of my understanding right now! Like I said, up until 6pm yesterday I thought different species COULD NOT interbreed and create viable offspring. Who knew?!