MONTICELLO, Ark. – Millions of birds winter in Arkansas every year.
Before hunters hit the duck blinds this weekend, a Monticello-based researcher is asking them to keep an eye out for something extra.
Dr. Doug Osborne and his students at the University of Arkansas at Monticello catch mallards on private land at the end of duck season and attach silver bands to their legs.
Before setting them free, the group also takes biological information from their blood and feathers.
“Arkansas has a large population of wintering mallards here,” Osborne said. “We’re banding them in the winter to look at return rates to the same wintering area, harvest rates and survival rates that actually make it through the hunting season.”
To retrieve this information, Dr. Osborne needs hunters’ help.
In the past two winters of research, the team has banded about 1,000 mallards.
If hunters kill one of them, Dr. Osborne asks them to report the number to the U.S. Geological Survey.
He said about 60 to 80 percent of hunters take the time.
“Hunters now are getting more active and they’re more interested in the ecology of these animals,” Osborne said. “They’re becoming more interested in where these things are coming from so hunters are getting good at reporting their bands.”
The data is sent to Dr. Osborne and a bird banding lab in Maryland, which compiles all of the data from the USGS and adds it to a national public database.
The data is ultimately used to set bag limits for waterfowl hunters to make sure there are still ducks left to hunt.
“We’re trying to sustain a healthy population for future generations to continue the tradition of hunting,” Osborne said.
This approach to waterfowl banding is fairly new.
Dr. Osborne said banding programs typically focus on breeding grounds, not wintering grounds.
“It’s essential information, it’s relatively new information to push science forward,” said Osborne.
Through his two years of research, Dr. Osborne has made two discoveries.
In the first, he found, so far, hunting does not deplete the duck population.
“That’s the important thing,” Osborne said. “The band return data is one of the most important pieces of information that helps them make every single year to remake those harvest recommendations so as long as our numbers are staying steady with our harvest returns, then they know hunting is not having a huge impact on reducing the population. It’s staying pretty stable.”
The second discovery found traces of mercury in all of the blood samples from the banded ducks, but Dr. Osborne said it is not enough to be worried about.
“We were happy to see the mercury levels were low with all the industry we have locally,” Osborne said. “We were happy to see the mercury levels were way below EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] standards they put on consumption warnings on fish.”
Dr. Osborne plans to continue monitoring mercury across different types of wetlands because some places may contain higher levels.
February 2016 will mark Dr. Osborne’s third year of this study, which will now expand to all duck species wintering in the state, not just mallards.
To make more discoveries, Dr. Osborne is aiming to band 2,000 to 3,000 ducks each year.
“We’re slowly getting returns in now so it’ll take about 3,000 bands a year being put on the landscape before we can start digging into the data a lot on the banding program,” Osborne said.
It currently costs about $20,000 a year to fund the program.
To continue his research, Dr. Osborne said the community stepped up when federal dollars dried up.
“I’ve seen a need for a banding program because the federal government banding program has shrunken, they’re banding less birds,” Osborne said. “I’ve seen a need for it in talking to a lot of the hunters around here. There was concerns about shifting duck populations.”
As aforementioned, hunting has not depleted the population, however the number of ducks wintering in Arkansas has slightly declined.
Dr. Osborne wants to know why and see where the birds are migrating to instead.
He hypothesizes warmer landscapes and goose populations creating more competition for food are moving more ducks out of Arkansas.
“The food that they get on the landscape in the winter here is a direct link to their success in their breeding ground,” Osborne said. “We can eventually monitor all of this long term by using the banding program.”
The 2015-2016 duck season in Arkansas runs from Nov. 21-29 and Dec. 10-23, and Dec. 26, 2015-Jan. 31, 2016.
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Click here to access the database/report a banded bird kill.