DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 18 – Dr. Brasher Discusses Research Performed on Paired Drake Mallards Versus Unpaired Drake Mallards

Hosts Chris Jennings and Dr. Mike Brasher discuss Brasher’s Master’s Degree research project that focused on learning what unpaired males did during the breeding period

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited podcast, the only podcast about all things waterfowl, from hunting insights to science based discussions about ducks, geese and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America. We bring the resource to you. The DU podcast with your host Chris Jennings.

Chris Jennings: Guest again today is Mike Brasher, Ducks Unlimited's waterfowl scientist. And we were actually just talking off air, and Mike brought up some of the things that he did for his master's research. And I'm just like, man, we've got to record this. This is fascinating information. So Mike, tell us a little bit about your research that you did, kind of your background, was your pH D, is that correct?

Mike Brasher: No, this was my masters.

Chris Jennings: Masters. Okay. So what was your masters research on?

Mike Brasher: Well. So for starters, I have to give a plug for my university. Mississippi State University where I got my bachelor's and my masters, and I went on to Ohio State to get my PhD but with respect to my master's project, it was 1998 and 1999 it was actually a really unique opportunity to learn something about a segment of waterfowl ecology that we hadn't studied very much before. Most studies of breeding waterfowl ecology focused on the females. Females are the most limiting sex in most ... let's just say duck populations. Probably most waterfowl populations too, but certainly in ducks in North America. Most populations exhibit a male bias sex ratios, more males than there are females. And the females are the ones that are also responsible for cranking out all the ducklings. Without the females, you don't have the little ducklings. And so rightly so, most studies of ecology had focused on the females: nesting success, nesting rate, re-nesting rate, etc. But invariably what happened in these studies when you had marked a female with a little radio transmitter or something, there's all these questions in the back of your mind, but what are the males doing?

Chris Jennings: What's that male doing?

Mike Brasher: Because they pair up seasonally. They pair in the fall and winter. The males follow the females back to the breeding ground and the male has certain roles there that we understand. But what we didn't understand very well was what the male started doing and exactly how the timing of some of their activities as the female got into their incubation. I mean we had a good idea. We knew from observations, but what we were able to do in my study is actually radio mark the males to really study them intensively to go out and collect visual observations on these males.

Chris Jennings: Was there a specific species you were doing?

Mike Brasher: Mallards.

Chris Jennings: Mallards, okay.

Mike Brasher: Yes, yes. And what we really wanted to know ... this is sort of the unique twist to it ... was we wanted to know what the paired males were doing relative to the unpaired or vice versa. You've got these two segments of males. More males than females in the populations so some of those males go through the breeding season unpaired. There are a lot of details here that I won't get into, but basically what those paired males and unpaired males are doing is relevant because of the criteria that are used to estimate population size. During these aerial surveys, they will count pairs and then they have to make an assumption about the pair status of a lone male that they see out there. Is that paired or is it unpaired? Because if it's paired you have to account for the female when you're estimating population size. So what my study was able to do is by radio marking those males and following them around and collecting visual observations, I was able to compare the behaviors and social groupings of paired males to unpaired males. And that linked back to an evaluation of the breeding pair criteria used in the May BBOP survey.

Chris Jennings: Oh, cool.

Mike Brasher: And we found that in some cases we are assuming some of the birds that we see are paired when in fact they're unpaired. And I guess to put a fine point on this, what the survey methods assume is that when they see a lone male out on a wetland, and they assume that it has a female somewhere nesting. So all those lone males, they multiply it by two, and then they add those up that gets your total population size. What we found from my research is that in fact some of those unpaired males that we knew were unpaired as a result of repeated observations, never saw them with a female, they too were by themselves alone onto wetlands and they would thus have been counted as paired males and would have been factored in the breeding populations survey that way. So it was kind of interesting and we did some back of the envelope calculations.

Chris Jennings: You are visually watching these.

Mike Brasher: We were, that's right. We went out about every day and tried to put an eye on these birds and we recorded, if they were by itself, if it was with another male or two males or in groups of five or greater. And that's sort of the other thing, the other part of the survey criteria, is that when they see birds in groups, I believe it's five or greater, they assume those are unpaired males. So we also found-

Chris Jennings: Bachelor groups?

Mike Brasher: That's right. That's right. Exactly. So we were evaluating some of those assumptions by virtue of radial marking some.

Chris Jennings: Where were you doing this?

Mike Brasher: First year was in Southwestern Manitoba and the second year was in south, the Eastern Saskatchewan.

Chris Jennings: Wow. Mike, that's fantastic information. Really, that's something that we don't get to hear a lot and especially, listeners out there, Ducks Unlimited supporters, duck hunters. A lot of times we don't get to hear about this cool research that a lot of our scientists do and I really appreciate it. I just want to throw in, you did all this great ... if you want to we'll do the next podcast about my journalism degree from Indiana State. That'll be great.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, I'd love to hear that. I'll make sure to bring my pillow.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DU podcast. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the show and visit www.ducks.org/dupodcast for resources based on today's topics, as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.