Monday, February 27, 2012

Mallard and American Black Duck banding, round 2

I am currently the President of, and a member of, my college's chapter of The Wildlife Society. As a Wildlife Society (plus other interested students) event today, we moved our 'Wildlife Wednesday' to today, Monday.

Earlier this month, I joined some local members of our Department of Environment Conservation and USFWS employees to learn how to and why they're targeting American Black Ducks to band. To read about that experience, please check out: ABDU Banding - Cayuga Lake. Today was more of the same, I just did not get enough the first time!

*Quick note: I will refer to the ducks by their alpha code from here on out, which is how their species are ID'd on data sheets used by our state and federal agencies. ABDU= American Black Duck, MALL= Mallards, MALX= American Black Duck Mallard Hybrid (although the below link lists it as something different...). For a complete list of these codes, check out this list: Alpha Codes.

We loaded up a school vehicle with I think 9 students, 1 professor, and 2 staff members of our department... and headed to the east, destination Cayuga Lake. Cayuga is our largest Finger Lake at just shy of 40 miles long, and at it's deepest: 435 feet deep. Because of this, the lake typically doesn't freeze all the way across, unlike most of the smaller Finger Lakes. This winter is not the case, as it's been much to mild for ANYTHING to freeze, let alone the largest Finger Lake. But, in a typical winter, the lake partially freezes, and the birds condense to the sections of the lake with open water, so it is easier to set a trap and have the birds come in for food and get caught. This team of biologists have led the past 2 years (among banding stations within NY) with number of ABDUs caught and banded, and then NYS has led the way out of all the other states in the flyway, who are involved in this banding operation. This year is not the case, as you can see the lake is wide open water, as far as the eye can see.

So, why are the biologists banding ABDUs and MALLs?

Well there seems to be a decline in population of ABDUs...and there are some theories as to why. The usual encroachment/loss of habitat always seems to negatively effect wildlife, but something else and a bit more interesting seems be going on. The ABDUs, MALLs, and another species, Mottled Duck, are hybridizing. I've always been under the impression that different species, which these all are, can not interbreed AND create viable offspring. These are one example of an exception. As it was explained to me, these species must be recent splits from a common ancestor during evolution. To see a comparison of plumage, size, range, etc...I checked out pages 82-83 in my The Sibley's Guide to Birds  (David Allen Sibley, 2000) for some comparison. To a novice, the differences seem miniscule...but not really. Some of the more expert birders with us said that we should eventually be able to distinguish the species through a pair of binoculars. Hmm...we'll see. The feathers in the picture, by the way, are feathers I found on the ground on the shoreline of the beach! I might try to figure out who they came from.

When we arrived at the boat launch, the team already had checked the traps along the lake and collected what ducks they could. These crates shown are not traps, just 'holding tanks' if you will. Below I have a picture of a trap.

A holding crate full of MALLs, males and females.

Scott, of the USFWS, explaining this trap. Name of the trap is the Montezuma Confusion Trap. Developed in part by someone who worked at/for the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Upstate NY, and it's confusing because of the engineering of it. Explanation below:

This is a front view of the trap. The hole in the middle, where the bottom arrow points, is the entrance. The birds see the corn, and follow the edge of the trap until they reach the opening. Once they're inside, crunching on some delicious corn, they eventually can make their way into the side wings (where the top arrows are pointing). Once inside, due to the shape of the trap, it is difficult for them to figure their way out. Confusion!

Back at the holding traps, Frank (DEC Wildlife Tech at North Montezuma Wildlife Management Area) takes out a male and female MALL. The way he's holding the birds in this and subsequent photos is the way the birds are handled. Their physiology allows for their wings to be pinned back, and they are held tight. This helps to calm the bird, and minimize chance for injury.

John, Scott, and Frank all holding ducks. From left to right: John has a female ABDU, Scott has a male ABDU, and Frank has a female and male MALL.

One of the easiest ways to distinguish male/female ABDUs from eachother is bill color. The females have this dark green, often saddled coloration. The male has a nice bright yellow bill.

These two above photos are of a hybridized MALL and ABDU, expressing more MALL than the other. There were other features we looked at, like coloration of the wing feathers, especially the speculum (the pretty blue band on the wing), but I left my notes on their truck, and don't think I can recall all of that from memory. Isn't the plumage gorgeous?

Male MALL wing...the blue feathers are referred to as a speculum. Don't Google duck speculum without being prepared, I wasn't.

Petra with a female MALL and Brad with a male MALL! Both are club members, and active in the club!

Judi and Leslie both holding male MALLs. Leslie, thanks for sharing your picture!
Melissa and Adam each with a male MALL. Thanks for the pic Adam! I love those orange feet.

FLCC Conservation Dept Technician Ryan Staychock and I showing off some handsome male MALLs!

I'll end this blog post, although I could go on and on about all that we learned, with myself banding a duck. I've done it before on a Wood Duck last fall, and I've banded little birds, I think a Black-capped Chickadee. So even though I had a bit of experience under my belt, I was still nervous about all eyes on me and of course handling the bird safely.

Photo credit: Judi McDougall
It was kind like being at the supermarket or seafood restaurant, I got to pick my own picking your lobster. Except, I didn't eat this bird. So I rooted around in the cage until I was able to pin one down.

Photo credits: Judi McDougall

Next I did a once over of the bird to make sure he was in good general health. No obvious wounds, loss of major feathers, or anything else that would affect this bird's health.

Photo credit: Judi McDougall
I then aged the bird. There's alot to it, and I'm by NO means an expert at micro-aging based on plumage. But, with help of the experts, I was able to age this bird as a Second Year, born sometime last year. The feathers of a juvenile vs. adult duck have different qualities about them, which enables those of us who can differentiate, the age.

Photo credit: Judi McDougall
I said a quick apology in advance for what was about to come...

Photo credit: Judi McDougall
And then flipped him over and got him into banding position.

Photo credit: Judi McDougall
This really is a great way to hold the bird while banding. They are held tight, which comforts them, and they're unable to flap around which could damage their wings.

Photo credit: Judi McDougall
Photo credit: Judi McDougall

Finally I fit a band into the special pliers, and squeezed it around the ducks leg. The pliers only close so far, so there was no risk of pinching his leg. After closing it, I spun the band and squeezed all the way around to make sure it was tight, and that there were no sharp edges on the band. Then I read to the recorder the species, sex, age, and band number, which was recorded on a data sheet. 

Banded and neither of us worse for the wear. I wish I wasn't covering the band, but you'll have to take my word for it, he was blinged-out.

And thus concludes another fantastic day in the field, learning, hanging with great people, and handling some amazing creatures. Lucky girl I am!


  1. Great stuff. Now just tell me where all those banded ducks are and I will make sure to collect their jewelry and report it. :)

    I only have one band from a goose banded in Mass. I say 4 banded mallards at the local pond the other day as they were flapping their legs. Great stuff and very helpful to the biologists.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks PTO! If you ever DO find some bird bling, blog about it! I'd love to see the other end of the banding effort.

      By the way, how's your Sharing the Passion thing going? I've looked for others, but haven't seen any.


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