Killing banded birds isn't just a bonus for some hunters. Some take band collecting to the extreme, specifically scouting for and targeting marked ducks and geese. A well-known waterfowler from Oregon explained his band collecting history in an online article.
"€¦(an acquaintance) told me about a big banding project on the lower Columbia," he wrote. "What happened next€¦couldn't have been more ideal."
By "ideal" he meant adding to his growing band collection, targeting geese collared for a population study. The article created a stir among biologists, many of whom participate in banding programs to collect vital information. Shooting an occasional banded bird is a great part of the fowling culture.
What biologists fear is individuals so obsessed they research and hunt down specific groups of banded birds, hurting conservation efforts and possibly hunter opportunities by artificially skewing harvest rates.
"This is a problem as a lot of people look at these kind of guys/companies/advertisements as role models," wrote one biologist. "Seems like you can't kill birds unless you have lanyards of bands. How do we deal with this?"
It's a running debate among waterfowl managers, but recently came to the forefront after the article circulated through the waterfowl management community. One camp wants to keep the band-hunting trend under wraps, fearing more publicity will lead to more hunters scouting for and then specifically targeting marked birds. Some, like Nevada Waterfowl Association biologist and University of Nevada-Reno adjunct professor Chris Nicolai, think biologists are missing out on an opportunity to educate hunters of the scientific value of banded birds.
"Forty years ago, bands were a great way to collect data such as life spans and population distributions, but we get so much more out of bands than that kind of basic information now," he says. "We certainly expect a portion of banded birds will get killed and I don't have a problem with unintentional harvest, but intentionally targeting birds? That's not helping our research."
He and North Dakota Game and Fish waterfowl biologist Mike Johnson think hunters who target banded birds can skew data.
"Targeting marked birds changes all banding data," says Johnson. "We have to go by the assumption that marked birds have the same harvest rate as unmarked birds, so if hunters are killing and reporting a higher proportion of banded birds, it appears as though the overall harvest rate of that species is higher than it is. That could ultimately change future bag limits and other harvest regulations."
He and Nicolai agree it's difficult to pick out leg bands, but Johnson has heard of hunters allowing ducks and geese to land, studying them with binoculars and then shooting just the banded birds. That's one reason biologists are using fewer neck collars, a fact that concerns Nicolai.
"Neck collars allow researchers to monitor birds from a distance. It's much easier and far less expensive than recapturing leg-banded ducks and geese," he says.
It's a concept lost on the flippant fowler, who wrote, "The cost of a collar is next to nothing. Numerous volunteers are available for banding projects and many times non-profit groups cover the helicopter or boat costs."
Sometimes non-profits like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl do pay for research. So do universities. However, most banding projects are funded by state and federal agencies who work on a shoe-string budget. The bands themselves are just a few dollars; the rest of the banding process can be downright expensive. Many efforts take place on remote nesting grounds, including inaccessible areas near or above the Arctic Circle.
"By the time you consider airfare, lodging, food, fuel and other related expenses, you are looking at tens of thousands of dollars," says Nicolai.
Even those that take place in accessible areas require a small army of professionals. Many of those banding efforts do use volunteers, but the desire to kill banded birds is leading some biologists to rethink the benefits of free help. North Dakota Game and Fish migratory gamebird biologist Mike Szymanski is one of them. He says some volunteers have gone back to banding sites for the sole purpose of collecting jewelry.
"It just gets too hard to control disclosure of banding sites. There's no doubt in my mind social media has increased hunting pressure on banding sites," says Szymanski. "If a high proportion of those banded birds are harvested it might result in harvest restrictions down the road because the data would reflect a high harvest, even if that's not the case."
No one in the waterfowl management community can say for sure if the data is being affected on a large scale, but it does increase the uncertainty, Szymanski adds. It's a study that needs to be conducted. One researcher did compare harvest rates of banded and unbanded Ross's geese and found a significant difference.
Jason Caswell, a waterfowl specialist for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, used colored neck bands (yellow and blue) and white neck bands with white lettering to determine if hunters were selecting their shots based on visible bands. He also compared harvest rates of geese fitted only with a leg band. More than 26,000 birds were marked over the three-year study.
"The recovery rates were significantly higher for neck-banded birds than for leg-banded birds," says Caswell. "It may seem like hunters do pick out birds with neck collars, but when we examined the recovery rates of colored bands compared to the white bands, there was no difference."
In other words, the bands themselves may be playing a role in the higher mortality. Caswell doubts hunters who target neck-collared geese would have much of an impact on data collection, at least not with large-scale studies on birds with a high population like snow geese.
However, he and Nicolai agree shooting marked birds in smaller studies would impact the outcome. Until they have a definitive answer, many biologists would prefer hunters refrain from shooting banded birds, particularly those wearing neck collars. Targeting banded birds merely for the sake of collecting those bands may not be good for the resource.