December 29, 2023
Brian Strickland is a passionate bowhunter from Colorado who was introduced to the waterfowling game on a duck hunt in his native Texas, taking a Christmas vacation trip back home to a stock tank where mallards and gadwalls were the hope of the day. Barely an hour into his first ever duck hunt, Strickland held a full curled mallard drake in hand, looking at not one aluminum band wrapped around the bright orange legs, but two, since the greenhead sported a regular band and a $100 reward band. Not bad for your first duck hunt, huh?
While the subject of bands might be old news for veteran waterfowlers—new hunters, including those who might have found our sport during the COVID-19 number bump of 2020, might not know much about the where, when, how, and why of the banding practice.
Obviously, bands are immensely popular among waterfowlers, who marvel at the mysteries of the migration and are thrilled upon discovery of a bird sporting jewelry. The Living Skies map WILDFOWL runs each issue is among our most popular features and "Band Tales" details an account of the harvest of banded birds each issue as well. About a year ago, a WILDFOWL story on the Jack Miner banding legacy was wildly popular with readers and caused much band-wagoning on social media and other venues in the waterfowl community.
In other words, duck and goose hunters love waterfowl bands and what they mean for conservation and management of waterfowl species.
Why is banding important?
For those not as familiar with the biological tool that scientists utilize, what is banding in the first place? Well, it’s something that has roots dating back to the third century B.C., and was practiced by others like John James Audubon in the early 1800s. More recently, modern banding efforts in the U.S. began in 1920 and to date, have resulted in more than 80 million archived banding records (for all game and non-game birds banded) and more than 5 million records of encounters according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, the USFWS notes that each year, approximately 1.2 million bands are shipped out to banders in the United States and Canada, with nearly 120,000 band encounter reports being submitted to the Bird Banding Laboratory database each year.
Since 1960 (banding records from 1914 to 1959 aren’t available in electronic format), data from the Bird Banding Laboratory indicates that up until the spring of 2023, there have been 14,590,591 ducks banded in the U.S., along with 2.3 million encounters with those bands afterwards. For geese, banding totals include 6,289,794 banded birds, along with 1.7 million encounters afterwards. Mallards account for the most U.S. duck bandings, with some 4,441,119 bands being placed on the species, along with 978,378 subsequent encounters from 1960 through early 2023. Some 2,928,580 Canada geese have been banded in the U.S. along with 1.05 million subsequent band encounters.
One question that often gets asked concerning banding efforts is why they are utilized in the first place. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the idea of managing a complex and mobile resource like ducks and geese on a continent wide scale is a difficult task in North America. To assist in that management—and in the setting of appropriate hunting regulations—the USFWS needs data on breeding ground and wintering ground distribution, migratory routes utilized, waterfowl behavior, survival rates, reproduction rates, and more.
And that’s where these shiny aluminum leg bands—shiny when they are new, that is—come into play since biologists are able to glean important information after the birds are recaptured by scientists in the future, found dead by the general public, or taken by a duck hunter like Brian Strickland. When the circle of information is finally closed on a band, and the information is reported to either the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Bird Banding Office or the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory, important biological trends are noted.
Incidentally, the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory (www.usgs.gov/labs/bird-banding-laboratory ) was created in 1920 “…after ratification of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with the United Kingdom and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The lab was moved under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when the agency was established in 1940, transferred to the National Biological Service in 1993 and moved to the USGS in 1996.”
How are banding reports used?
When banding data is obtained, the USFWS’ Division of Migratory Bird Management gets involved in both the collection and analysis of such information including where the duck or goose was banded, where it was recovered, and how old it was. The USFWS staff not only bands plenty of ducks and geese themselves each year, along with collecting and analyzing biological data, but they also work with other banders from federal, state, tribal, and private groups who must have a federally issued permit to band birds. All of the information that is gleaned from banding efforts eventually fuels management decisions for migratory birds and game birds, including ducks and geese managed in the continent’s four flyway system in place since 1950.
How many overall birds get banded each year in North America? According to the USFWS, as many as one million birds get banded annually, including game and non-game species alike. Incidentally, the oldest banded bird on record wasn’t a duck or a goose at all, but a non-game female Laysan albatross nicknamed Wisdom, a bird that is at least 70 years old at last report and living and nesting on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to the northwest of Hawaii.
When you narrow banding numbers down to waterfowl species, the numbers shrink a bit but are still impressive. According to Ducks Unlimited and John M. Colucey, Ph.D., an average of approximately 350,000 aluminum leg bands—which vary in size and sport an eight-digit or nine-digit number—are put on waterfowl each year, with about 85,000 bands actually being recovered and reported. Do note that there are other figures out there for the actual duck and goose band numbers cited above, but that gives you a good ballpark idea.
While banding numbers themselves haven’t really fluctuated all that much over the years, that doesn’t mean they are completely static either. Conditions on the nesting and wintering grounds can affect catch-rates in baited traps and such, and the COVID-19 pandemic and recent outbreak of highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) have also affected numbers somewhat in recent years. Still, in 2022, the USFWS noted that it ran five banding stations in prairie and boreal areas of west-central Canada, along with three stations in Montana and the Dakotas and one in Maine.
U.S. and Canadian federal biologists aren’t the only ones who band, however, since a number of other state agencies and groups do the same. One of those is the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Parks, which notes that it periodically works with the USFWS in the winter months to band waterfowl, including roughly 13,000 mallards since 1949 in a state where famed outdoor writer Nash Buckingham’s hunted greenheads with his famous Bo Whoop side-by-side Fox shotgun at the equally famous Beaver Dam Lake duck hunting club.
As far as I can tell, the legendary Buckingham never collected a banded duck or goose during his lengthy waterfowling career, although millions of other hunters have done so. But it might also be worth noting that not all bands that are put on waterfowl are eventually recovered, and not all recovered bands end up being properly reported. That’s one reason for the reward band concept noted at the beginning of this column. With some reward bands being silver and some green, they have offered cooperating hunters varying dollar amounts over the years, including reported reward figures of $10, $25, $50, $100, $150, and perhaps even $400 at times.
According to the USFWS, reward bands are an important tool these days, since “One very important use of banding data is calculating harvest rates. We need to make sure that the harvest of migratory game birds is sustainable, so that bird populations remain healthy, and that the hunting tradition can be continued by future generations. If everyone who harvested a banded bird reported it, the harvest rate would simply be the number of banded birds recovered, divided by the total number banded. However, not everyone reports their band, so we use reward bands to estimate a band reporting rate, which is the likelihood that someone who shoots a banded bird will report it.”
The evolution of band reporting
To help facilitate better reporting rates, the method of doing so has changed over time. In the early years, people had to write a note to the Bird Banding Laboratory, sending it to a simple address imprinted on the band or included in a hunting regulations booklet. In the mid-1990s, a toll-free phone number was added to the band. And since the summer of 2017, band information is now reportable only online at either www.reportband.gov or by e-mail at email@example.com.
One reason that only about 1/3 of bands recovered actually get reported has been the incorrect idea that persisted for years that the band had to be surrendered upon harvest of a duck or goose sporting the band. The only time that was ever true was if the numbers were worn down to the point of being unreadable, meaning that the band could be sent in to biologists for chemical etching before being returned to the fortunate hunter.
Not only does the hunter get to keep the band, but he or she will also receive a certificate of appreciation including information about the duck’s sex, age, species, where it was banded, and where the band was recovered.
Answering the question about where most bands are recovered is difficult, although it’s worth noting that mallards, Canada geese, and blue-winged teal have been among the most banded species over time according to various reports. That means that your odds of getting a band go up if you hunt places that are hotspots for those waterfowl species.
Band collection is also more likely when you hunt near a spot where banding occurs, like a local National Wildlife Refuge. One of the bands that I’ve personally recovered came from a wood duck drake banded on a nearby wildlife refuge less than a year earlier. On the flipside, another band I’ve recovered on hunts down through the years was from a mallard that was banded in the northwestern part of Canada, a long way from where I live and typically hunt.
The future of bird banding
What the future holds for duck and goose banding is up for speculation as technology changes. Certainly, other things like neck bands and even nasal transmitters aid biologists in their data collection, as does modern satellite communication abilities.
But for the foreseeable future, it seems like the old school practice of wrapping a waterfowl leg with a metal band will continue across the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific Flyways, and hunters will be thrilled at seeing a sliver of silver as the Lab exits the water, shakes excess H2O from its coat, and delivers the bird to hand.
Then they’ll hopefully do their part, report the band promptly, get a certificate, and go to sleep at night content that they’ve done another good thing to help keep the birds flying down the flyways for years to come. It may be only a small part to play as a duck blind citizen scientist, but every little bit—and every aluminum leg band—certainly helps, right?