Dabbling Duck Flight Speeds: High Tech Update For the 21st Century

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In a recent study, U.S. Geological Survey biologists used technologically advanced GSM-GPS transmitters to calculate migratory and non-migratory flight speeds of six species of dabbling ducks. The highly improved flight speed estimates are the first in nearly a century and provide the science for resource managers to better estimate food and habitat requirements for dabbling ducks.

A gadwall duck with GPS transmitter in flight

A gadwall duck with GPS transmitter in flight.

(Public domain.)

Flight speeds can be used to estimate energy expenditure and the food resources required to fuel a duck’s movement. Energy needs likely vary by species and habitats as populations travel different distances and at different speeds. In this study, high accuracy flight speeds were determined by attaching small, high resolution, solar powered GSM-GPS transmitters to ducks in Suisun Marsh on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, California, in both the Grizzly Island State Wildlife Area and private duck hunting clubs. Species tracked included ducks that migrate long distances to breed in Canada and Alaska (Northern pintail, Anas Acuta; American wigeon, Mareca Americana; Northern Shoveler, Spatula clypeata), as well as those that primarily migrate shorter distances within the US or Mexico (Cinnamon teal, Spatula cyanoptera; mallard, Anas platyrhynchos; and gadwall, Mareca strepera).

The USGS biologists found that median migratory speeds were faster for the larger mallard (82.5 km h-1), northern pintail (79.0 km h-1), and gadwall (70.6 km h-1), than for smaller bodied northern shoveler (65.7 km h-1), cinnamon teal (63.5 km h-1), and American wigeon (52 km h-1). Migratory flights were faster than non-migratory flights for all species, potentially indicating the need to balance different time and energy requirements for migratory versus non-migratory flights.

The researchers also quantified how data collected at different time intervals (30 min, 1hr, 2hr, 3hr, 6hr) would affect estimates of flight speed. Estimated speeds were slower as the time interval between data collection lengthened, likely because longer intervals span both flight time and time during which the duck is on the ground ‘loafing,’ walking, or swimming. Therefore, data acquired at different intervals provide a means to evaluate and estimate behaviors that influence flight speeds.



  • The updated, accurate flight speed estimates for six dabbling duck species can be used to parameterize and validate energetics models to estimate and better manage food and habitat requirements.
  • Speed variation among time intervals illustrates heightened accuracy at shorter intervals, and tradeoffs between short interval data and long-term, broad-scale studies when longer interval data may be easier to collect.
  • The results inform management decisions of amount and distribution of optimal habitat and improve conservation management of waterfowl and their habitats.


This research spotlight refers to:

Fiona McDuie, Michael L. Casazza, David Keiter, Cory T. Overton, Mark P. Herzog, Cliff L. Feldheim and Joshua T. Ackerman. 2019. Moving at the speed of flight: dabbling duck movement rates and the relationship with electronic tracking interval. Wildlife Research Open Access - https://doi.org/10.1071/WR19028

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