By J. Jasper Lament, Ph.D.

Band recoveries reported by hunters are an essential source of information for waterfowl managers

Banding is a classic waterfowl research and management tool. Early banding studies provided biologists with a good understanding of the routes, timing, and speed of waterfowl migrations almost a century before technology was available to track birds with satellite transmitters. In fact, the current boundaries of the Pacific, Central, Mississippi , and Atlantic flyways were developed in the 1930s from band recovery data. Along with aerial surveys, the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program, and the Waterfowl Parts Survey, banding data remains vital to the management of migratory waterfowl populations, which number in the tens of millions.

The first person to band birds in the United States was John James Audubon, who marked songbirds with silver thread in 1803. Modern banding of North American migratory birds is managed cooperatively by wildlife agencies in the United States and Canada . In this country, banding is the responsibility of the Bird Banding Lab (BBL) of the U.S. Geological Survey-Biological Resources Division located in Laurel , Maryland . In Canada , the Bird Banding Office of the Canadian Wildlife Service manages banding. Both countries use the same bands, reporting forms, and data formats.

Waterfowl represent just a third of the bird species banded each year by the BBL. But roughly 87 percent of all reported recoveries are of waterfowl (most banded birds are not hunted species, so they have much lower band recovery rates). This reflects the important contributions of waterfowl hunters in harvesting and reporting banded birds.

Most waterfowl banding studies are conducted through cooperative ventures involving state, provincial, and federal wildlife agencies. More than 200,000 ducks, 100,000 geese, and 1,000 swans are banded each year in North America , primarily on breeding areas. Banding crews generally target a particular species but will band other waterfowl that may be caught at the same time. For example, most prairie banding crews target mallards but also band significant numbers of other dabbling ducks.

Since 1914, the mallard has been the most commonly banded species. Through 2004, more than 6.2 million mallards had been banded. The Canada goose is second on the list, with more than 2.8 million birds banded. Surprisingly, the blue-winged teal is third at 1.4 million birds banded. Large numbers of blue-winged teal are captured along with mallards on the prairies and thus are banded in higher numbers than other duck species.

The West Indian whistling duck is the least commonly banded waterfowl species. Only 39 of these birds have been banded during the last 90 years. Among northern-breeding species, the black scoter is the least often banded: only 340 have been banded to date. The remoteness of the black scoter's breeding range in northern Canada and Alaska has made it difficult for waterfowl biologists to capture and band this species.

One of the challenges facing waterfowl biologists today is a paucity of pintail banding data. This has made it difficult for waterfowl managers to calculate mortality rates or to determine derivation of harvest (where harvested birds are raised) for different segments of the pintail population. To help address this need, banding crews are now working to band pintails in several new study areas throughout North America .

Researchers use a variety of techniques to capture waterfowl for banding. Most prairie ducks are caught in baited traps. Wood ducks are often captured while inhabiting nest boxes. At some eider colonies, researchers use hunting dogs to help locate and catch nesting hens in thick vegetation. Many divers are caught in drive traps (flightless, molting birds are herded into nets). Banding crews also primarily trap geese when they are flightless, either as juveniles or as molting adults, by driving them into funnel traps. On arctic breeding areas, biologists use helicopters to herd flightless geese into funnels. Researchers capture wintering ducks using baited traps or rocket nets. Wintering sea ducks are caught using night-lighting, net-guns, and floating mist nets.

Researchers mark many arctic-nesting geese with color-coded plastic neck collars in addition to leg bands. Because neck collars are visible from afar, birds fitted with them can be observed and identified without being harvested. But recovery rates of neck-collared geese are roughly twice those of birds marked only with a metal leg band, probably because hunters are able to identify neck-collared birds in flight and selectively harvest them. Thus, neck collars may be very useful management tools, but they are also a liability for the birds that wear them.

Neck collar studies of geese are used to delineate wintering grounds of various subspecies and subpopulations of Canada geese. They also help managers differentiate between goose populations on their wintering grounds, as well as between migratory and resident populations. Waterfowl managers have applied this information to protect vulnerable goose populations and subspecies, such as the Atlantic Canada goose and the Aleutian cackling goose (formerly the Aleutian Canada goose), while still maximizing hunting opportunity for more abundant look-alike goose subspecies.

Some arctic-goose banding stations also serve as long-term research sites. Biologists studying snow geese at La P´rouse Bay, Manitoba, have banded birds at this nesting colony for more than 30 years. Researchers have marked some 100,000 geese there during this period, and 12 percent of these birds have been recovered and reported. Such long-term studies are especially valuable in detecting changes in survival among goose populations over time. In the case of La P´rouse Bay snow geese, the lifespan of these birds has increased significantly in recent decades. Hunters, who have contributed greatly to this research, have reported 97 percent of band recoveries of these geese.

In addition to their scientific applications, leg bands and neck collars are cherished by waterfowlers as tangible reminders of successful hunts, and many hunters adorn their call lanyards with these colorful markers as tokens of their skill and experience. Although bands may only be inexpensive plastic and aluminum, to both waterfowlers and biologists they are invaluable.