DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 9 – Urban Mallard Research with Dr. Ben O’Neal (Part 1 of 2)

Host Dr. Mike Brasher discusses interesting research being done on urban mallards and the role they play in hunter harvest with Dr. Ben O’Neal

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, Dr. Mike Brasher.

Mike Brasher: Hey, greetings everyone. Thanks again for joining us today on the DU podcast, I am really excited about what we have to bring to you today. We're going to be speaking with Dr. Ben O'Neal from Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. And Ben is going to be sharing with us some updates from some really exciting research into urban mallards that they've been conducting here over the past few years, but first I want to welcome Ben to the show. Ben, thanks for joining us.

Ben O'Neal: Yeah, thanks for having me, really honored to be a part.

Mike Brasher: Well, we're excited about getting this podcast up and going, and these are the type of sort of exciting pieces of information that we hope to bring to our listeners. So to get us started here, why don't you tell us a little bit about where you are, what role you have there at Franklin College, and what your background is, and your interest.

Ben O'Neal: Great, love to. So I'm a wildlife ecology professor here at Franklin College, which is a small liberal arts college just South of Indianapolis in Central Indiana. And over the course of the last decade, I've been really fortunate to get to work with a group of energetic undergraduate students who are in our ecology and conservation track. And it's a really a perfect place for me to leverage my interest and my passion for waterfowl conservation and research to be able to kind of ignite an interest in undergraduates. And hopefully equip them to be ecologists, and conservationists in a variety of different fields, different ways, and be just really capable scientists and thinkers. And if a few of them end up becoming a full time duck biologist, I'd be pretty thrilled about that too. So, here in Central Indiana, we're kind of mid-latitude within the Mississippi Flyway. And so we have, just like every region, have our own kind of unique set of monitoring, and research, and conservation opportunities, and challenges that's unique to our geography, right? And so, we sit right on the fringe of greater Indianapolis, which is a really booming, growing, Metro area, and then we also did a significant part of this work that I'll tell you about over in Champaign-Urbana. Those partnerships started when I was doing graduate work there a little over a decade ago with the University of Illinois and Illinois History Survey, and so we've been fortunate to partner with some other researchers there as well for this project. Yeah, and so my work as a professor here at Franklin College has given me an opportunity to work alongside some of our managers with the department natural resources who have applied questions, right? That they need answered in order to be able to effectively manage the resource that the duck, and the goose, and the swan research, or management that happens here. And one of the things that our state waterfowl biologist and I had been talking about for many years was the significant number of mallards in particular, that exist within urban and suburban landscapes here in our home state, and honestly throughout the continent. And so, that just kind of sparked some curiosity and some questions that then has built into a full on research project.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. Well, I want to back up a little bit. We're going to talk about that research here in just a minute, but your background a little bit, you and I have known one another for probably 10 or 15 years now, and I do recall you were in Southern Illinois, right?

Ben O'Neal: University of Illinois, and Champaign-Urbana-

Mike Brasher: University of Illinois, okay. And so you did-

Ben O'Neal: Yep.

Mike Brasher: You did quite a bit of work on migration ecology of waterfowl in that region. You actually did some rather pioneering work on the use of weather radar to track waterfowl migrations through that region. So you have quite a quite a diversity of experience and expertise that you can kind of bring to a lot of these questions that I think are going to be of interest to to our listeners. So yeah, I just wanted to share that, let folks know that-

Ben O'Neal: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: You're not a spring chicken. You've been studying waterfowl, waterfowl ecology in that region for well over a decade.

Ben O'Neal: Well yeah, I appreciate that. Pioneering is a generous description of it, but it certainly was some really, I think intriguing opportunities to start to answer questions about large scale movements using some tools like weather radar, and portable radar, and trying to just understand some of the spatial dynamics of ducks as they move across the landscape. And how those movement patterns influence our management and our conservation, and so yeah. It's been a neat kind of a continuation of some of that work, to now start thinking about some of these questions that we'll talk about here today.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. The transitioning from those larger scale movements down to birds that at least on the surface you probably think are pretty localized. Those being the urban mallards, they're going to be the focus of this discussion, you know? So that is pretty neat sort of transition. And whenever I, you and I first talked about this a couple of weeks ago at the North American Duck Symposium, and I'll confess, whenever I first saw the title of your presentation, I thought that I was going to know the answer to what you found, you know? I figured, "Okay, well yeah, urban mallards, you're probably just going to find they're hanging around those, the cities, and maybe they'll wander outside the city limits a little bit." But then you and I got to talk, and then it was actually not that at all. I was completely surprised to learn of some of the results. So we want to share some of those results with our listeners. I know this is going to be really interesting, because as you've already introduced, the landscape across North America, across the world is becoming increasingly urbanized. And so these urban mallards, these urban ducks, are some of the most direct interactions that a lot of people have with waterfowl, and I think it's really interesting to start to learn about this. So with that, I'm going to ask you to sort of talk a little bit about how you got, you've sort of, you've already introduced a bit about how this got started, but tell us a little bit about the research. What are the objectives, and kind of how are you going about trying to answer these objectives?

Ben O'Neal: Yeah, so it really, like you said, started with some simple observations that a lot of naturalists and hunters are keenly aware of, which is that different times a year you find really significant numbers of ducks and geese in these developed landscapes. And so trying to, as a collaborator along with state and federal biologists, we're always trying to think about how do we comprehensively think about the waterfowl resource in our region at different times of year? And more and more in areas like Central Indiana, that broader resource includes these urban birds. And so naturally, we start to wonder, "Okay, are these birds, first of all, how abundant are they? Can we start to quantify those abundances? And second of all, if they are abundant at meaningful levels, what are they doing? Are they really staying in the same spot?" And you'll hear a lot of folks kind of comment on that anecdotally, you'll hear references to city birds and how they behave. But then there's also curiosities of individuals wondering, "Are these birds doing more vigorous things on the landscape?" And so we set out just to try to address those questions using a fairly simplistic approach, and that was intentional. Both from a budget standpoint, but also from the ability to translate the research in a way that invited my students as undergraduates to participate in the development of the methods, and the interpretation of the data, and then the communication of the data to the public in a way that was intuitive and accessible. And so we used a pretty basic traditional leg banding approach to look at where birds move, and when they're harvested, and things like that. And so, our aim was to determine do they move outside of the city limits? Do they contribute to harvest? And if so, what kind of habitats are they being encountered in by hunters?

Mike Brasher: Okay. So, we have this picture here, we have these urban mallards that a lot of folks interact with, and we're just trying to answer the fundamental question of, how many are there? Where are they going? Are they available for harvest? And what are the other interesting questions that, or interesting behaviors of these birds? And so, with that as the background, you guys, you started this, so when? About three or four years ago, is that right?

Ben O'Neal: Yep, that's right. Yep. And we started in two areas that East Central Illinois, and the Champaign-Urbana complex, and here in the Nine-County region of Indianapolis, and in the surrounding suburban counties here in Central Indiana.

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Mike Brasher: Okay, so tell us a little bit about the methods that you employ. You've referenced banding, but let's get into the details, how did you catch these birds? Where did you catch them? What time of the year did you catch them?

Ben O'Neal: Yeah, great question. So we were working in the post breeding, post hatch period in June and July, primarily here in our latitude. And yeah, we're working in these suburban communities, so we're in backyards that have residential ponds, we're in golf courses, we're in wastewater treatment plants, we're sometimes in stream corridors that move through towns, and a variety of other, a lot of corporate ponds that exist on a lot of the commercial and retail complexes within these areas. And so we literally, we would canvas these entire counties, and we would find meaningful, kind of congregations of birds. We'd engage with land owners to get formal permission, and then we would spend anywhere from one to two weeks baiting birds. These are adults, and hatch-year juvenile birds, getting them comfortable with an area, and then we would kind of gradually start to build out what we call a walk in trap, which is a pretty simple cage style trap with funnels in it.

Mike Brasher: Yep.

Ben O'Neal: And we get them acclimated to that, and then when the time is right, we bait the trap carefully, put the funnels in place, and then leave it set for just a short period of time to try to catch as many birds, and then not leave them in there to stress them for any extended period of time. And then we go retrieve them, and we document the sex, and the age, the condition in some cases, some morphometrics, and then we fit them with a leg band and we let them go.

Mike Brasher: Yeah.

Ben O'Neal: That's when the data collection process starts from there.

Mike Brasher: So were these birds flightless at this time, or was it a mix of both?

Ben O'Neal: It's a mix of both, yep.

Mike Brasher: When you're catching them, okay.

Ben O'Neal: Yep. A mix of both, and really right during that June, July window, you'll see the males and the females engaging in that molt-

Mike Brasher: Okay.

Ben O'Neal: Throughout that period.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, so it's an entirely-

Ben O'Neal: And so we would, yeah-

Mike Brasher: So you encountered an entirely different situation from what we normally, at least in entirely different levels of climatization of these birds from what we see in normal wild birds, right? You wouldn't be able to do that, use that kind of approach with flighted birds in the wild, would you?

Ben O'Neal: Well that's a good question. Corn is a powerful attractant, and so if you put bait out, yeah, I mean in fact this style of trap is used to band migrant scaup on the Mississippi River. Not a walk in trap, but-

Mike Brasher: Right-

Ben O'Neal: A swim in trap-

Mike Brasher: That's right.

Ben O'Neal: That's functionally the same thing, right?

Mike Brasher: Yeah.

Ben O'Neal: And so, it's putting out an energy rich food source, letting them find it, get habituated to it, and then having them enter a one way trap. So it's really not unlike the methods used elsewhere, so I think to your question, the capture methodology was not predicated on them being habituated to human contact.

Mike Brasher: Yeah.

Ben O'Neal: So the majority of these birds still have some level of aversion to human interaction, so they would flush off of sites. Certainly there are some situations where birds are, they're behaving like the park ducks that are familiar with white bread, but the vast majority, 95% of these birds or more, behave just as kind of wildly and skittishly as you would expect any wild duck to.

Mike Brasher: Interesting, okay. And so you shared a-

Ben O'Neal: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: You shared a few notes with me before we got on the podcast here. So I'm going to, I'll reference some of this. So over those three years, you captured and banded over 2,200 mallards.

Ben O'Neal: Yep.

Mike Brasher: It looks like 86 locations from nine counties across Illinois and Indiana. And as you've alluded to, these were heavily urbanized locations, not out in a cornfield or out in-

Ben O'Neal: Correct.

Mike Brasher: Out in some semi-wild location, in backyards-

Ben O'Neal: Yeah-

Mike Brasher: And commercial areas.

Ben O'Neal: You got it.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, so-

Ben O'Neal: Yeah, and interestingly, so all of our trap sites were actually within annexed city limits. So in terms of the legal jurisdiction of cities, towns, and villages, all of our trap sites fell within those city limit boundaries.

Mike Brasher: So these are not going to be birds that would have migrated down. It would not have migrated into-

Ben O'Neal: Correct.

Mike Brasher: Into the city. These are pure urban birds.

Ben O'Neal: Yep.

Mike Brasher: Okay.

Ben O'Neal: And we constrained our trapping to try to make sure that we didn't confound the sample with long distance migrant birds. So by doing it right there during the brood rearing period in the central part of the summer, we were able to say with confidence that these were local birds, yeah.

Mike Brasher: Okay. Okay, well we've sort of set the stage here with, we have these 2,200 birds that have been banded, and then we're going to use those band recoveries to determine where they've been harvested, how far, and in which directions have they distributed? So, let's get into the results, it's just a little bit. What we're going to do here, is we're going to introduce some of these results, then I think we're going to have to kind of bring this episode to a close. And then we will, so sort of as a teaser, we'll get into some more of the details on the next episode. So just tell us a little bit about the rate at which these were recovered. Let's not discuss the distribution of those recoveries yet-

Ben O'Neal: Okay.

Mike Brasher: Let's just talk about the rates of recoveries, and then we'll conclude with this particular episode.

Ben O'Neal: Great. Yeah, so one of the cool things about banding studies is that anticipation, once you've deployed the bands of not knowing exactly what's going to unfold. And one of the things that made me really excited about this work, is that when I talked to really knowledgeable waterfowl biologists in the Midwest, I would ask them, "So here's what we're doing, what do you think we're going to find?" "What percentage of these birds are going to get harvested? Is it 1%, 5%, 10%, 25%, 50%?" And there was a lot of, when they were honest, they said, "That's a great question. We don't know how frequently these urban birds get harvested, and how much they contribute to our statewide harvest in these different regions." And so we were really, we had a genuine, a sincere curiosity that first year, and then all of the subsequent years of what was going to unfold. And so as they started, we get a weekly band report from the USGS bird banding lab, and week by week as the different hunting seasons would open and start to get into kind of the heart of their seasons, we'd start to get this steady trickle, and then a pretty consistent flow of hunter harvested birds from our sample. And the short of it is that, yeah, over the course of the four years that followed, a really meaningful number of these birds were getting encountered by hunters. To this point in time, we've had a 183 hunter harvested birds, and those numbers are going to continue to increase, particularly as a lot of Midwestern duck seasons getting ready to open here in the next month or two.

Mike Brasher: Okay. So 103 hunter harvest-

Ben O'Neal: 183.

Mike Brasher: A hundred yeah, a hundred I'm sorry, 183 hunter harvested returns. So looking at our numbers here, that's, we'll get in, we're going to kind of throw some numbers at some folks here. At 8.2% recovery rate, that's over the-

Ben O'Neal: Correct.

Mike Brasher: Entire three years of the study, right? That's what we referred to as direct-

Ben O'Neal: Correct.

Mike Brasher: And indirect. So let's talk a little bit about that, I think this will be interesting. Sometimes we talk about direct recoveries and indirect recovery, so tell us just a little bit about the most basic, what are we talking about when we say that?

Ben O'Neal: Yep. Yeah, a direct recovery is just a bird that's harvested within the same annual cycle of the same season, so in our case, there are birds that we band in June or July, and then get harvested sometime October through January in that same year. And then indirect recoveries are birds that are harvested in subsequent years after at least one annual cycle has elapsed. And so, for the purposes of some studies, you just merge all that together, you just want to know what birds were harvested period. The reason that we sometimes split out that direct recovery is that, some of our population and harvest modeling occurs at the continental level. Specifically targets the direct recovery rate for a variety of kind of analytical reasons, and so we do sometimes look at those separately. But for this, the purpose of this study, right now we're looking at a little bit more than an 8% recovery rate of those 2,200 bands as you said.

Mike Brasher: Okay. So we have an 8.2% recovery rate, and what does that translate to in terms of a harvest rate?

Ben O'Neal: Yeah, so we know that somewhere around 73% of mallard bands get reported. That's a-

Mike Brasher: Yeah, so let me stop you right here. So that means that 73% of the birds, of the bands that are, of the birds with a band that are shot and recovered by the hunter or reported. So in other words, there's like 27% of those banded birds-

Ben O'Neal: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: That are recovered by the hunter, but that are not reported, right? So we have to correct for that to get from recovery rate-

Ben O'Neal: You got it.

Mike Brasher: To harvest rate. So, and we have ways to-

Ben O'Neal: Correct.

Mike Brasher: We have ways to calculate that reporting rate, but that's why it's really important for hunters to report their bands, is we use this information-

Ben O'Neal: Absolutely-

Mike Brasher: Is really vital for estimating with greater confidence these harvest rates, which are used in the analytical models that you referenced. So we go from an 8.2% recovery rate to an 11.2% harvest rate for these birds. And I think that-

Ben O'Neal: Yeah.

Mike Brasher: That's quite comparable to harvest rates for wild mallard populations, is it not?

Ben O'Neal: You're right, yeah. And that, in and of itself, we were kind of pleased to see, not necessarily to see any particular result, but we were intrigued I guess, by that result. That these birds that are thought of by a fair number of biologists and hunters as pretty sedentary birds, are actually active and moving about the landscape in ways that result in comparable harvest. Like you said, between mallards from the Prairie Pothole Region to these birds that are hatched under someone's bush in their backyard.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, that's fascinating itself, because here in the, with the new position I have with with DU, I get some of those calls about a bird that's, a hen mallard that's nesting in someone's flower pot. And I kind of make some assumptions about-

Ben O'Neal: That's right.

Mike Brasher: "Well, that's just sort of a strange bird, they do weird things whenever they're in the urban environment." And that may be true, but now your research is telling us that, "Hey, these birds are actually going out there, and they're available for harvest. And they're available for harvest pretty much at a rate that we, the same rate we see for truly wild populations of mallards. Which is is fascinating, you know?

Ben O'Neal: That's right. I agree.

Mike Brasher: So, okay Ben. Well, I tell you what, let's stop right there. We're going to kind of leave people waiting for the next episode here. We're going to get into some more of the information about where these birds went. We're going to talk a little bit in the next episode also about what's next for your research and we'll continue on from there. So Ben, thanks a ton for joining us, a fantastic conversation. We'll continue it on the next episode.

Ben O'Neal: Sounds good. Thank you.

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.