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DEC bands ducks to track populations

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The north country is part of the Atlantic flyway, one of four major bird migration routes in the nation. Every year, thousands of waterfowl migrate north and south with the seasons along the route. And each summer the Department of Environmental Conservation traps and bands ducks as part of an effort throughout the northeast states to track populations. Reporter Joanna Richards went out with a crew from the DEC's Brownville field office to the shore of Perch Lake near Watertown to see how the process works.

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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A few dozen birds flap, scamper and squawk quietly in a low mesh trap set on the sand by DEC staff.

Workers lure the ducks in with corn. The trap is like a series of funnels; the ducks can get in but can't find their way back out. 

Workers fan out around the trap and begin to carefully extract the birds, putting them quickly into crates. Biologist Andrew MacDuff explains what they're doing.

"If they were banded this year by us, the bands have blue paint on 'em so we'll just release 'em, we don't need to handle them again. If we find birds that have been banded by somebody else or by us in a previous year (they don't have blue paint) we'll record that information, verify the age and sex of the duck. And then we'll start to sort 'em. We'll break the mallards out, and we'll break them out by male and female and their age category. Then we'll move on to the wood ducks or the black ducks or whatever we have."

The workers move quickly – the trapping process is stressful for the birds and the idea is to get them sorted, banded, and their information recorded as quickly as possible. The workers are also careful not to leave them sitting in the sunlight for too long – that's why the traps are set overnight and the workers come out early in the morning.

MacDuff sits on a crate and plucks a duck from inside. He looks the bird over, then secures it headfirst and upside down between his legs, so he can get a close look at its underside.

"I'm gonna guess it's an adult, but we'll verify... Yup, it's got a sheath on the penis, so that makes it an adult male. 'AHY' male mallard."

“AHY” stands for “after hatching year.” The birds are categorized based on whether they hatched this season or anytime in a previous a year. 

MacDuff reports the information to a worker recording data on a clipboard.

"By markin' em we get an idea of harvest rates from hunters, 'cause hunters report when they harvest a banded bird. And, ah, you can get some survival information from it as well, and depending on where the bands are recovered you get some information on, you know, how far are the birds migrating, are New York birds being harvested in a particular state down south or mostly here at home? It's just the best way to manage a migrtory species like these ducks here."

The men bring first catches to the back of a pick-up for banding. One worker holds the duck while another uses pliers to carefully squeeze a metal band around one of its legs. The men are careful to seal them well so that nothing can catch on the corners of the bands and harm the birds.

MacDuff says in terms of catches, this year is working out to be an average one. 

"We're catching a lot of mallards, which we always do, a fair number of wood ducks. We've gotten a few black ducks and I think just a couple of teal at this point. Um, so it's kind of working out to be a normal year, if you will."

As the workers finish with the birds, they release them by throwing them out over the beach toward the water.

MacDuff says the day yielded nine fresh, unbanded mallards and six wood ducks.

"We had a lot of retraps, so it may be time for us to back off here a little bit and wait for some new birds to start moving into the area. We've been trapping pretty aggressively, so we've probably kind of tapped out the local ducks that are available."

The ducks remember a free meal even if it comes with some undignified treatment.

"Oh, they'll come back over and over again to get free corn," said MacDuff. "I mean, the handling they go through is pretty minimal so I guess it's worth it for them."

It's a good thing the ducks think it's a good deal. These local efforts, along with those of other biologists throughout the northeast, will help to ensure the birds' populations remain strong.

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