Understanding Waterfowl: Waterfowl Bands and Other Markers

Bagging a banded duck or goose is always cause for celebration, but these coveted trophies also play a vital role in waterfowl management

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Photo © Bruce Wold

By John M. Coluccy, Ph.D.

My waterfowling career had a storybook beginning-the first Canada goose I ever shot on Wisconsin's famed Horicon Marsh was wearing a leg band, and that band still adorns my lanyard today. Being young I didn't understand all the hullabaloo that my father and his friends made over the occasion. Later in life, I learned that only a small number of waterfowl are banded and that an even smaller number of those birds are harvested. Thus shooting a banded bird is a rare and special event indeed.

When most hunters think about waterfowl markers, shiny metal leg bands immediately come to mind. People have been banding birds for centuries in Europe, and the first large-scale North American banding program was established in 1922.

Most of today's leg bands are made of aluminum and vary in size according to waterfowl species. Each band is inscribed with a unique eight- or nine-digit number, and the last number of the prefix indicates the band size. On average about 350,000 waterfowl are leg banded each year, and around 85,000 are recovered and reported.

One of the earliest objectives of waterfowl banding research was to assist in discovering the migration routes followed by ducks and geese. By plotting banding sites on northern breeding areas as well as the points where hunters harvested banded birds derived from those locations, biologists were able to delineate the four major waterfowl flyways that span North America. Band recoveries can also show biologists how the waterfowl harvest is distributed throughout states, flyways, or the continent. Moreover, band recovery data can be used to estimate age-, sex-, and species-specific survival; harvest rates and derivation; crippling losses; recovery rates; and band reporting rates. All this information helps waterfowl managers set hunting seasons and bag limits each year to support healthy waterfowl populations.

Neck bands are a type of auxiliary marker often used in conjunction with leg bands on geese and swans. These bands are made of plastic or flexible vinyl and encrypted with unique alphanumeric codes. Different color combinations represent various regions in which birds are marked. For example, in Missouri we were issued white neck bands with black codes for use in our giant Canada goose research. Neck bands can be easily read from long distances with spotting scopes or binoculars, allowing each marker to be observed many times across broad geographic areas during a bird's lifetime. Neck bands have been used extensively to delineate goose and swan populations, study the birds' movements and distribution, and estimate survival and population size. These markers have played a key role in determining when Arctic-nesting Canada geese arrive on staging and wintering areas. This information has helped protect vulnerable migrant Canada goose populations while maximizing harvest opportunity on overabundant resident populations.

Auxiliary Markers Researchers often use auxiliary markers in addition to standard metal leg bands. These markers allow individual birds to be identified not only in hand but also from a distance. Auxiliary markers can be placed on a bird's bill, feet, legs, neck, and back, and can even be implanted internally (in the case of some transmitters). The next time you harvest a duck or goose, take a moment to thoroughly examine the bird inside and out. You might just find that it's carrying an auxiliary marker.

Some research suggests that neck bands may adversely influence the survival of marked waterfowl because hunters are able to identify and selectively harvest birds that are wearing them. In addition, under certain weather conditions ice can collect on neck bands, with potentially deadly consequences for waterfowl. As a result, colored leg bands have gained favor among biologists in recent years. Like neck bands, these markers are made of plastic, come in a variety of color combinations, and are inscribed with unique codes. Colored leg bands are larger than metal bands, so they too can be read from long distances.

Nasal saddles and discs are auxiliary markers frequently used on ducks. Nasal saddles fit over the bill and are attached with a metal rod through the nares (nostrils). These markers are often inscribed with unique codes and come in various color combinations. Nasal discs, small plastic markers of various colors and shapes, are similarly attached on either side of the bill. These markers have been extremely useful in studying local movements, fidelity to nesting and wintering areas, survival, and behavior. Despite their somewhat cumbersome appearance, nasal saddles and discs do not seem to adversely affect the survival of birds wearing them.

Web tags are small markers etched with letters and numbers. Originally developed for use on fish, web tags were adopted by waterfowl biologists to mark ducklings and goslings that were too small to be leg banded. These markers are usually attached to the interior of the web at hatching, but can also be attached to embryos in the egg. Web tags are the only auxiliary marker that can be used without an accompanying federal leg band. Biologists also mark young waterfowl with what are known as plasticine leg bands. These markers are similar to normal leg bands but are oval and filled with clay. As a duckling grows, the clay wears away and the band remains on the fully developed leg. Web tags and plasticine leg bands have helped biologists better understand survival of young waterfowl in a variety of habitats.

Finally, waterfowl biologists use radio transmitters to track individual birds over long distances. These markers have been extremely useful in determining survival, home range, habitat use, and nest-site selection. Continued advances in satellite telemetry have made it possible to track waterfowl across the globe and have been crucial in identifying previously unknown breeding, molting, and wintering locations of several sea duck species. Recent electronic innovations such as data loggers, passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, and geolocators have dramatically expanded the range of information that researchers can gather about waterfowl.

As you can see, waterfowl markers provide a wealth of information that improves our understanding and management of these fascinating birds. If you happen to be one of the lucky few who harvests or observes a marked bird, please take the time to report it online at reportband.gov or by phone at 1-800-327-BAND. In return you will receive a certificate with information about where and when the bird was marked, who marked it, and its age and sex. In addition, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to the understanding and management of North America's waterfowl resources.

Dr. John Coluccy is director of conservation planning in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.