DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 33 – Waterfowlers Play an Important Role in Citizen-Science Programs

Hosts Dr. Mike Brasher and Chris Jennings are joined by Dr. Mark Lindberg, professor at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Institute of Arctic Biology to discuss the ways hunters play a vital role in citizen-science programs

© Michael Furtman

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 and Dr. Mike Brasher.

Mike Brasher: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited podcast. I am joined here today by my cohost Chris Jennings and today we have another exciting episode for you. I was going to be a highly educational episode. We're going to pay tribute in some way to the hunters and the active role they play in collecting data that through the years has provided the foundation for much of what we know about waterfowl population ecology and quite frankly, it continues to fuel many of the decisions around waterfowl management and conservation in North America. And so specifically we're going to be talking about waterfowl hunters as citizen scientists and the important role that we all play in that regard. To help us in this discussion, we're going to be welcoming in a special guest, Dr. Mark Lindbergh, professor of wildlife ecology at the university of Alaska Fairbank's Institute of Arctic biology. Mark, welcome into the show and I promise that'll be the last time I refer to you as Dr. Lindbergh per our earlier conversation.

Mark Lindberg: I appreciate that.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. So thanks for joining us here. We always want to start off the show when we have some special guests by giving you an opportunity to introduce yourself, your personal insights, professional interest, and kind of where you are today, and help us understand a little bit about where you come from.

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, sure. I think it's very important when talking to hunters that first establish that many of us are also hunters too, that are also biologists. And sure enough, I started hunting when I was 10. I grew up in Pennsylvania. My dad was a big time deer Hunter and he, he encouraged me and I got interested very early in life and that interest just continued to grow through my life.

Mark Lindberg: And my roots again were deer hunting, but my passion is definitely an Upland bird hunting and do a fair amount of waterfowl hunting as well. So hopefully hunters appreciate us, in talking to them that I could appreciate their perspective and have a similar one that they do. That interest in hunting and wildlife and outdoors grew into a career as well. I started with the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1984 as a technician. I was working on a project on Canada geese and that led into some graduate studies, did my master's degree on Canada geese at Cornell University in the gosh, late 1980s and that led to a PhD and in Alaska on black Brandt. From there, I started down my career path, I actually had a job at Ducks Unlimited and in 2001 we returned to Alaska and I took a position as you described as a faculty member, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I've been ever since.

Mike Brasher: I always try to do a little bit of additional research on the guests that we're going to have. I went to your webpage and you're an incredibly accomplished waterfowl ecologist. When I read your bio, your research interest, you're interested in things such as population ecology, banding analyses, harvest management, decision analysis. You're one of those smart people that always look up to. You bring a lot of quantitative skills to these discussions and it's always really valuable. It's sometimes intimidating for me to get in these conversations but I think you're going to be a fantastic part of this show. Happy to have you on this and appreciate your time because I know you're certainly a busy person.

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, I appreciate that. Yeah, you're right about traveling around for this job. Early in my career someone pointed out to me, "Hey, if you study waterfowl, they can take you to some really neat places." And I'd just like to point out, that has definitely been the case and one of the reasons I initially got interested.

Mike Brasher: Mark, you also have I believe a podcast of your own that you've started here recently. Something I believe it's called the Hunting Science Podcast. Do I have that right?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah. Thanks for the plugin. I appreciate that. Yeah, I have been very active and I guess, successful in science in the form of communicating to other scientists. But, one of the things I was frustrated with, I guess late in my career is that we weren't getting the science to hunters enough, at least in my opinion, and that was the motivation behind starting this podcast as you said, called Hunting Science and our goal is to make hunters aware of the science of hunting and there's quite a bit of it, some we'll talk about today, but there's other podcasts there that dive into other topics as well.

Mike Brasher: We talk about that often, Chris and Clay and I, when we're kind of mapping out the potential for this particular podcast and there is so much really interesting information that that feeds the waterfowl management enterprise and I know a lot of our hunters and conservation supporters will be interested in that. And I think your philosophy on the Hunting Science Podcast of yours, it's sort of the similar to ours. The more that we can educate and share this information with our supporters. I think the greater appreciation and understanding of that resource they have. That's pretty cool that you've headed down that that road.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, absolutely. Mark, I'm going to have to look into that into your podcast. Just when this topic came up I thought kind of the citizen science is how waterfowl hunters kind of lead the way with this. One thing to kind of expand on, even from what Mike said is I live every day inside the waterfowl hunting community, working with the magazine, creating content online, social media. But, every time we do one of these podcasts, I manage to pick up some tidbit of information from the science side of things. Something that I didn't know, something that I know that our listeners will definitely learn from. I do appreciate you coming on and this is going to be a great topic, the citizen scientist.

Mark Lindberg: Thanks. Yeah.

Mike Brasher: So to that topic, that's, let's get right into it here. When we use the term citizen scientist, I think that term has probably come of age in the last 10 years at least. That's my sense of it. Mark, help us understand what we're actually talking about when we use that term.

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, I think you're right. That term is relatively new, but the idea of someone collecting information for us data ... Scientific data for us is rather old and that is my definition. Someone who volunteers to collect information to help us make management decisions, conservation decisions. And I guess I would add to that definition that they may not know they're doing that. It's either knowingly or unknowingly they're helping us gather information that we need to make the best decisions we possibly can.

Mike Brasher: Whenever I was thinking about this episode over the past few days and in my mind coming up with examples of citizen scientists, I think we're going to mention that waterfowl hunters, hunters in general are some of the first citizen scientists that that we've ever had. But there's also another group of citizen scientists out there that I don't know how how common or how active they are anymore, but when I was growing up, my grandfather would be one of these local weather reporters, the local weather station would reach out to these weather .... To citizens in towns around the broadcast location.

Mike Brasher: And I got a great kick out of having my granddad be the one to call in and report the weather from his little town. The fact that I have a grandfather that collected data and reported it is probably going to come as a shock and surprise to no one that knows me and the fact that I'm into data a little bit. That was sort of a neat way of looking back and personal example that I thought about. Mark, what are some other specific examples of citizen science as we might see in the conservation field?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, sure. Your point about the weather data is a good one. I hadn't even thought about that. Yeah, hunters have been doing this for quite some time, I guess maybe the most obvious way to some hunters they do this is through things like a bag check station. You stop, you show who was ever checking what you may have harvested and they might look at the age, the sex of the animal or some other characteristics. That's the citizen scientist data that you're providing to help them make management decisions about those animals.

Mark Lindberg: I know this is the case most other places, but in Alaska, every year after a season closes, we need to file hunt reports, whether we harvested an animal or not. Where'd we hunt? How many days did we hunt? How'd we get to where we hunted? Things like that. And it again, helps them agencies make management decisions for those species. And there's more modern farms starting to crop up here and there to, eBird is one app that you can get on your phone that allows you to report observations of birds from around the world. That's shared with biologists and scientists and are there other birders and hunters for that matter. There's definitely a lot of forums in which hunters citizens can contribute.

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Chris Jennings: I know hunters, maybe someone forgets their license and they have to call in. And I've actually been on the phone with people or been near them when they're filling out their license online and telling or it's an automated system and they're just pressing no, no, no, no, no. And I'm like, "Hey man, you can't do that." And they're like, "Why? I'm just trying to get through." And I'm like, "Because it's an important aspect. HIP is something that every single Hunter in the US is participating in now." And that's one great program or something for people to keep in mind when they start getting the questions about, "Did you hunt coots, rails or gallon noodles?"

Mike Brasher: That's right.

Chris Jennings: Just make sure you're following along with that. And that's a good reminder for hunters that they are participating in this science.

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, definitely. The harvest information program is a very obvious one. About 1,000,000 waterfowl hunters a year are reporting their harvest from the previous year. That's 1,000,000 data points provided by citizen scientists and that information goes into decisions about future harvest regulations. So it's important not only to provide that information, but do it in a reliable manner.

Mike Brasher: I would imagine as some people are listening to this, they're expecting us to get into the details of what the harvest information program is and how the data's used. Because there's a tremendous misunderstanding of how that data is used. A lot of people think that it's estimating a harvest for the current year, but that's not true at all. I don't want to veer off into that, otherwise, we'll have to be pulled out of the out of the ditch here on this particular podcast. But, we will get back to that at some point in the future. What are some other examples, Mark, of citizen science ... Data collection responsibilities that waterfowl hunters have?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, so some hunters, not all participate in what is called, not attractively the Parks Collection Survey, maybe a better name, the Wings Survey that's been going on for about 40 years. And here hunters send in their wings of harvested waterfowl and biologists gather every year at what's called the Wing B. And at that Wing B, they look at those wings and from the patterns of feathers and colors, they can tell the age and the sex of the birds. And by knowing the age and sex, they can determine things like production rates for that year. If there's more young birds in the Wing B's than adult birds, that looks like a good production year, whereas reverse might indicate that it wasn't a very good production year. So that's a neat way to do it, and it's really fun to look at those wings. One of my first jobs was to work bag check stations, looking at wings of birds that hunters had harvested. And it's pretty fascinating that you can determine that much information just from the color patterns and the wings.

Mark Lindberg: The other one that people might be a little more familiar with is reporting the bands of leg-banded birds, they may harvest. Those have been around for awhile and know that the metal leg bands on waterfowl used to have just something simple that said, "Advise Washington DC." And and not many people knew what to do with those bands. In fact, about 35% of the people recorded those bands when that information existed, but in more recent decades we've moved to a phone reporting system with 800 numbers and also now we're using websites that allow hunters to report information on the birds they harvested, banded birds they've harvested. And that results in about 100,000 reports per year and about 75% of the hunters that get a band now report that information. We've increased the volume of data.

Chris Jennings: I'm just curious, when the submitting process went online, did you guys see like a slight jump in the percentage of birds reported? I mean, just the convenience of it especially in this day and age. Even when you're hunting, you're not without your phone. Did you see any increase in that go up just because it makes it so easy?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, it was almost immediate increase. In fact, shortly after they implemented the 1-800 number that doesn't exist anymore, but when they implemented, I so happen to be at Bird Banding Lab in Washington, DC and they had a bank of phones there that people were answering. While I was there during the hunting season, people were calling in from their blind, "Hey, I just shot this pintail with this number." And it was an immediate input of information and then they got immediate feedback on that bird as well. Expenses of having people answer those phones were probably the most important reason why they decided to just go to a more passive approach of having people enter it on the website.

Mark Lindberg: But nonetheless, it's still a system that encourages people to hunt, or report should say. And again, reporting rates back in the day ... This goes back to 1920s by the way, when we just had advised Washington, DC, about 35% of the people actually reporting, and now about 75% do. That's been a huge improvement in the information we get from those. And it's consistent, I guess with sort of my philosophy, is we should empower hunters with knowledge that make them better citizens scientists. I think that case study is a good example of where we see those improvements in the information. Just another statistic that I like to throw out, but since 1960 hunters have reported almost 4,000,000 bands.

Chris Jennings: Wow, that's impressive. Now you mentioned that 20 ... In that dataset, it's assumed that 25% of the people who shoot a banded bird do not report it. Is that right?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, and that's determined through things like reward band studies. I don't know if anybody has been fortunate enough to shoot a bird that has a monetary value on its band. But, the idea there is that occasionally we put those type of bands out and the assumption is that at some dollar value, whatever that is, everyone that shoots a bird with that dollar value, will report it. And from there we can estimate how many reporting when there is no dollar value. That's how we've determined how reporting rates, which they're called have changed through time. But yeah, there's still some 25% of the people that choose not to report those bands based on the information we have.

Mike Brasher: Are those reporting rates calculated every year?

Mark Lindberg: No, it's not done every year. It's done occasionally as needed, is how I would say it. I don't think anything's been done for a few years now.

Mike Brasher: But certainly when there's a change in reporting method, that's when it becomes really important?

Mark Lindberg: Oh, definitely. Yeah. And I think we're just starting to go down this path, if you will, of empowering hunters with this type of knowledge. I'm kind of curious if we get the word out via podcasts or other ways. I wonder if reporting rates will increase. People again ... My guess is that some of that 25% of the people that don't report just don't understand the value of that information and that if we can tell them-

Mike Brasher: They don't understand how it ... Right.

Mark Lindberg: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it just leads to better decisions. It's more reliable information, the more information we have, the more reliable it is. Not reporting that information creates uncertainty in the decisions we make, and again, I think I'm of the opinion that if hunters understood that, more report their bands, because I think almost everyone wants us to have reliable information.

Mike Brasher: I want to go back just a little bit. You mentioned something about the 1-800 bands. I know those bands are no longer used, but if someone recovers a bird that has 1-800 band on it, is that number still functional?

Mark Lindberg: Well, have the number I believe just gets you to a recording that tells you to report via the website. I'm pretty sure that's where it goes now. No, so it's not functional in the sense you can't report your information via that route, but it tells you how to do it.

Mike Brasher: But, you can still report those 1-800 bands online?

Mark Lindberg: Yeah, you can still do that online for sure. Have you shot one?

Mike Brasher: It's been awhile. I think I did. I think I shot one of the early ones. That would've been back when the number was functional.

Chris Jennings: I shot a band one time in Indiana when I was younger and got excited. Picked it up. I was like, "Yeah. My first band." I was probably 16, 17 years old and looked at the band and it had a some guy's name, I won't mention his name just in case he's still around, but it had his name carved in it very loosely with a phone number and I called it and I'm sure he was a some knucklehead in Brazil, Indiana that was banding birds probably illegally without a permit. That was the only duck band I've ever killed.

Mike Brasher: We'll have to get into our banding stories.

Chris Jennings: Absolutely.

Mike Brasher: The birds we've shot with banded birds. I have a couple of interesting stories on that. I hope we've shared our listeners their role in collecting this information. I think we're going to have you back and talk a little bit more about how some of this data is used and speak a little bit more deliberately about the importance of reporting the data reliably and collecting that data reliably. And we want folks to realize that they play a critical role, they have for decades and they will continue to play a critical role in the data that is collected and used to manage our waterfowl harvest on an annual basis.

Mike Brasher: And we want to share this information with people. We want them to understand how that information is used. We want them to understand the importance of it and we appreciate you coming on and helping us tell this story. And so yeah, I think, Chris, any final words here?

Chris Jennings: Everyone out there listening, report your band's.

Mike Brasher: Report your band's absolutely.

Chris Jennings: It's important.

Mike Brasher: Mark, any final words on this particular episode?

Mark Lindberg: Just this thought I guess. The way I try to present this to hunters, if you are the decision maker, if the hunter was the person setting the harvest regulations, what information would you like to have to do that? And I think everyone would say the most and the most reliable information I can get and I think if you view it from that perspective then that really motivates you to want to provide this information in a reliable manner. Hopefully people will think that way about it. It's not like we're trying to use this information against you, it's everyone involved wants to make the best decisions possible and that's only possible with lots of data.

Mike Brasher: That's right. Mark, we again, thank you for your time. Thank you for joining us all the way from Fairbanks and thank my cohost Chris Jennings for joining us here. Want also thank at this time our producer Clay Baird, who's going to make us all sound great, and thanks to each of you, each of our listeners for a very important part of this entire enterprise. Thank you for your contribution to the science. Thank you for your commitment to wetlands and waterfowl conservation, and we'll catch you on the next episode.

Chris Jennings: Report your band.

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.