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In The Blind

Band Tales: When Birds Wear Silver

by Bob Humphrey   |  March 8th, 2016 0

In the lexicon of waterfowling they’re referred to as jewelry–those bands of silver sometimes sported by our web-footed quarry. That name is appropriate because they denote something rare or unusual. One out of a thousand, maybe far fewer ducks and geese will carry them. They are to the waterfowler what big antlers are to the deer hunter, or long spurs to the turkey hunter: trophies, badges of distinction.

But they are far more than that, for each one has a story to tell. They tie their wearer to a particular place and time, and their recovery is even more revealing for it signifies a journey, a passage.

Banded bird stories

Shooting a banded duck or goose is exciting in and of itself. A few fortunate waterfowlers are particularly delighted when they find additional cash reward bands.

It’s been over a decade since Wildfowl first invited its readers to share their bands and the stories of their original owner’s passages. The response has been overwhelming and until recently far exceeded our capacity to acknowledge all of your contributions. Thus, we felt it appropriate to devote a special feature to some of those passages, the birds that made them and the hunters who ultimately ended them.

A Rewarding Experience

Shooting a banded duck or goose is exciting in and of itself but a few fortunate waterfowlers are particularly delighted when they find additional cash reward bands. On the last day of Washington’s duck season Ed Degroot downed a mallard drake that sported two bands, one a standard, numbered aluminum band, the other a green aluminum band indicating a $100 reward. Earlier that season Don Davidson also bagged a reward-banded mallard drake.

Ironically, it was banded near Lake Klamath, California, and shot in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Maybe the duck got lost and misread the signs. Those are but a few examples and we’ve since received dozens more reports from hunters who were rewarded with a band and enough cash to at least defray some of their ammo costs.

The purpose of the reward band project was to learn what effect, if any, the switch to phone-in/e-mail band reporting had on band reporting rates. Formerly, leg bands were inscribed with an identification number and a request that the person recovering it mail the recovery information to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1996, the standard aluminum leg bands were changed to carry a toll-free telephone number for reporting band recoveries.

And now you can log in online. Biologists know how many birds of a particular species and population are fitted with standard aluminum bands and with reward bands. By comparing the reporting rates of each, they can assess overall reporting rates for both, then compare those to previous rates to see if there’s a difference.

Neck Collars

They won’t earn you any cash but another alternate form of jewelry that increases the trophy status of geese is the neck collar. We’ve received dozens of reports on collars in an array of colors. Anthony March shot a Canada goose in Espyville, Pennsylvania with an orange collar. Derl Wuertzer shot a blue goose in Slater, Missouri with a green neck collar, while his hunting partner Alan Dooley shot a red-collared lesser snow goose in Triplett, Missouri. And Kelly Block shot a Ross’s goose with a yellow collar.

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The neck collar; although worth no cash reward, is still a worthy piece of waterfowling jewelry.

Both the colors and the number/letter codes have significance. Yellow and orange collars with three digits are from the Arctic Goose Joint Venture. Large Canada geese typically get four-digit collars of various colors, except in the Atlantic Flyway, where they’re fitted with flexible, three-digit “bib-type” collars, which were developed to reduce icing problems for geese that winter in northern areas.

Meanwhile, orange and blue collars are widely used in the Mississippi Flyway as part of an extensive effort to track the populations and movements of Canada Geese. Orange collars are used in the Canadian portion of the flyway and blue collars are used in the U.S. portion. Green collars are reserved largely, though not exclusively for trumpeter swans, and red neck collars have been used on swans, white-fronted, snow and dusky Canada geese.

Long Distance

Of course one of the main purposes for the banding program is to track the passages of migrating waterfowl, some of which are quite impressive. From the great state of Texas come several examples. Mitch Bryant downed a hen redhead in Hockley that was banded in Mirror, Alberta, and Jeffery Hobday downed a lesser snow goose in Collegeport that was banded near Churchill, Manitoba. A Ross’s goose banded on the northwest coast of Hudson Bay, Northwest Territories, made it all the way to Pottsboro before Bill Massenburg, Jr. shot it.

Another contender for our longest trip was a drake mallard that Bill Bird shot at Kaw Lake, Oklahoma. It was banded near Fort Norman, Northwest Territories, and was at least seven years old when it succumbed to a dose of cold steel. Over on the left coast, Paul Mazzilli shot a pintail in Rio Vista, California that was banded west of Fairbanks, Alaska and John Meyer shot a lesser snow goose in Gridley, California that was banded in Cape Simpson, Alaska. Meyer commented the goose “was skin and bones, no meat at all. Must have just come down from Alaska.”

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Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring in order to take advantage of booming insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

While most of our international migrants come from Canada to the U.S., we occasionally get a few from as far away as Wrangel Island, Russia, like Zack Zanolini’s first lesser snow goose, shot on California’s Little Dry Creek Wildlife Area. Trevor Woodhouse also killed a Russian lesser snow, near his Standwood, Washington home. It was his first time hunting waterfowl, his first shot and first bird. Talk about beginner’s luck.

We also get a few recoveries from south of the border, like a blue-winged teal banded in Jamestown, North Dakota and recovered by Javier Lopez Ferrer in Almoloya del Rio, Mexico.

Another blue-wing, banded in High River, Alberta was collected by Don Waltrip in Laguna Madre, Mexico.

Perhaps the most exotic example we’ve received was a bull sprig shot by John Stroh

30 miles north of Sacramento, California. It was banded near Hyoko Lake in Japan. Or maybe it is the Canada geese taken by Mike Carrocci in Sunbury, Ohio and Mark Luthman in central Massachusetts. Those bands were inscribed: “Zoologisk Museum Copenhagen Denmark”and were banded in Isunngua, near Kangerlussuaq in central west Greenland.

Sometimes the banding locations are as interesting as the routes their wearers took. Names like Eskimo Point, Northwest Territories, Discovery Lake, Nunavut, and High River, Alberta evoke images of boundless, seemingly barren tundra. Trois Pistols, Quebec leaves us perhaps imaging a duel among colonial gentlemen while Smiley, Saskatchewan evokes an instant grin. And sometimes they create a bit of confusion. In 1999 Canada created a new Territory called Nunavut from parts of the Northwest Territories and Ontario. As a result, some birds banded in the same location are alternately listed as being Nunavut, Ontario or the NWT.

These are just a sampling of some of our long-distance migrants, but provide insight into how season lengths and limits are set. A late spring or a dry summer in northern Canada could profoundly affect hunting conditions in Texas or southern California. Furthermore, those high arctic nesters have to run a gauntlet of guns before they ever reach their wintering grounds.

Short Distance

At the other end of the spectrum are our short-distance migrants and residents. Resident Canada geese have become a plague in some areas. However, while their numbers soared, some of the eastern migrant Canada goose populations dropped considerably. Biologists were faced with the challenge of loosening seasons on residents while restricting hunting mortality on migrants until their populations could recover. Band returns were extremely helpful to them in this effort.

Banded geese, Banded birds

Canada geese are banded far more than any other goose species.

We could have devoted an entire “Passages” column to Rusty Martensen of Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey who, over just two seasons bagged 17 banded resident Canadas near his home. And Rick Trujillo shot a Canada goose that was banded in 1992 four miles north of Casper and recovered in 2003 five miles west of Casper. That was one old bird.

Longevity

Speaking of old birds, with all the hunters out there gunning for them, it’s amazing the lifespan of some of these birds–something we’d never know if it weren’t for band returns. Mallards seem to be particularly long-lived. Gale Johnson bagged a six-year-old and a seven-year-old mallard in Enders Lake, Nebraska. Don Quick shot a seven-year-old drake in Ashdown, Arkansas and Rick Rose shot one in Lake Meredith, Texas–his first banded duck.

Moving down the chronological scale, Matt Nard shot an eight-year-old drake in Kipling, Saskatchewan. Scott Setzer and Frank Rzicznek (Burton, OH) both collected nine-year–old drakes in Colusa, California and Grand River, Washington, respectively. The champion mallard, so far, is a 12-year-old drake shot by Brandon Mase in his hometown of Orland, Indiana. Interestingly, all of these old-age birds were males, which is probably indicative of the higher mortality rates suffered by nesting hens.

Mallards are not the only long-lived ducks though. Ben Fox shot a drake wigeon in Cameron, Louisiana. The band was so badly worn he couldn’t make out any of the numbers so he sent it into the U.S.G.S., where it was treated with acid to recover the numbers. A month later he received a certificate indicating the duck was nine years old. Then, there’s Erik Sandsmark’s canvasback, banded in 1991 in Manitoba and 12 years later in North Dakota.

Banded birds and rewards

Hunters can take part in waterfowl conservation by increasing both recovery and reporting rates.

A few wary old Canadas seem to have been able to avoid the gunners for a while too. Jeff Kreit shot an eight-year-old Canada in Fredrick, Maryland, while Doug Fortik shot another in Hot Spring Ranch, Nevada. West Virginian Clare Lyons shot a Canada that was at least 10 in Hinton, a mere eight miles from where it was banded–another resident, perhaps?

Richard Heisel’s lucky number must be “11.” He shot a banded Canada in Canton, Illinois, 11 miles from where it was banded. It was at least 11 years old and weighed 11 pounds. Jamie Wayland shot a 12-year-old goose in Standardsville, Virginia. But top honors go to Andrew Rzicznek who took a Canada in Mesquito Lake, Ohio in 2003 that was banded in 1991, and reported to have hatched in 1990 or earlier!

Other geese seem to hold their own in the longevity records as well. Tim Daniel took a nine-year-old greater white-fronted goose in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and Dale Richter shot a nine-year-old lesser snow goose in Clay Center, Nebraska. Ralph Nissen shot a 10-year-old lesser snow in Churchill, Manitoba, and Chris Burton shot a 12-year-old blue goose in Holden, Missouri.

However, the overall record holder among our “Passages” contributors is Dan Boardsen. His lesser snow goose, taken in Simpson, Saskatchewan in 2002, was banded in 1978 in the Northwest Territories, making it 24 years old. In addition to his certificate, he also received a letter from the biologist who had banded the bird, and has long since retired from the Canadian Wildlife Service. I guess this is proof positive that those mature white geese really are cagey.

Odd Ducks

Some of the band reports, and the stories that accompany them defy categorization, while others border on “Believe it or Not.” For instance, Tom Kowa shot a female Ross’s goose in January 2000, and a neck-collared male in January 2002. Both birds were shot on Pond 6 at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, and both were banded by the same individual eight years apart.

Mark Johnson shot two mallards that were banded by the same person, seven years apart. The first, a mallard drake, was shot in Hallie Township, Wisconsin, in 1996. The second, a hen, was shot in Chippewa Falls in 2003. Both birds were banded by Larry Wargowsky near or on Necedah National, which is roughly 100 miles southeast of Chippewa Falls. Thus, both birds were shot north of where they were banded.

Conservation on banded birds

Not all leg-banded birds are reported. This loss of information reduces the effectiveness of banding altogether.

In fact, we’ve received several examples of birds shot north of where they were banded. Allen Weaver, Jr. shot a Canada goose in Naicam, Saskatchewan, that was banded in Luverne, Minnesota, and Michael Shafer shot another in Outlook, Saskatchewan that was banded in Ruby Valley, Nevada. Rod Tangeman shot a Canada goose in Edmonton, Alberta, that was banded near Bountiful, Utah. The father-son team of Walt and Ken Sharpe, from Ontario each shot Canada geese in their home province. Both birds were banded in Pennsylvania, on different days and in different locations.

While this phenomenon seems a bit odd, there are several explanations. In several cases, the birds were not shot the same year they were banded. It’s quite possible they were banded on wintering or staging areas in a prior year, and just never made it back before they were shot.

Birds may also change their migration routes from year to year. Dabblers, like mallards, will pair up on their wintering grounds, and the drakes will often follow their mate back to her natal territory. This could easily lead them to a more northerly area. It might also explain how Mark Johnson shot a mallard drake in Webster, South Dakota, that was banded in Alburgh Spring, Vermont.

In the case of birds banded and shot in the same year, there is another explanation. Prior to migration, birds sometimes experience migratory restlessness or Zugenruhe, where they’ll make short trips, usually in the direction of their eventual trek. They also often congregate in staging areas before setting off on a full-fledged migration. In some instances, these staging areas may be a short distance north of their breeding grounds, which is where most banding occurs.

The Hunters

Sometimes it’s the hunters, not the birds, who make the band return so interesting. Robert Taylor shot a neck-collared Canada goose in Carlisle, Ohio three days before he had a scheduled bypass surgery–talk about dedicated.

Kelly Murphy and Mike Brannen of Jacksonville, North Carolina would agree that it’s always more fun to hunt with someone else. Both collected banded brant, Murphy’s first band, from the same flock. Brannen remarked, “This pair of birds was banded a day apart and migrated 3,000 miles together, right into our decoys.” Meanwhile, Eric Mulak and John Pike of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts both shot the same banded brant, and each received banding certificates.

Banded Bird Hunting

Recovering a banded bird is a right of passage. Some hunters will form a necklace out of bands and wear it as jewelry.

Recovering a band marks a passage, or a rite thereof for hunters as well as their quarry. Haden Zirbel of Weiner, Arkansas was only nine years old when he collected his first band, from an Alberta mallard, during youth hunt. Then there’s Briggs Long and his 14 year old son Haeger, who both shot their first banded birds on the same stock tank, in the same season. Briggs observed: “I’ve been duck hunting for 31 years and am happy to say that my son got his before I got my first banded duck.”

It took Ron Smith of Ontario 15 years of duck and goose hunting to get his first, a mallard from South Dakota. Still, bragging rights for the longest wait just might go to George Corbyn of Oklahoma City who hunted for 45 years before killing his first banded bird, on his 57th birthday, a gadwall from Fillmore Saskatchewan.

Conclusion

As you can see, the value and importance of waterfowl bands far exceeds that of mere jewelry. The hunters who harvest birds and report their bands play a vital role in the conservation of North America’s waterfowl populations. And the reports not only provide interesting insight into the lives of waterfowl, but also hopefully foster a much greater appreciation for our quarry.

If you haven’t already, perhaps one day you’ll collect some jewelry of your own. And if you have, more is always better. When you do, be sure to keep us in mind. Send us your band report information so we can use it in the Passages section of Wildfowl. And if you have a particularly interesting story or noteworthy band, we might even include it in our expanded Band Tales section. Good Luck!

If you’ve been lucky enough to pocket some silver submit your band report here.

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