Each year across North America, more than a million birds are fitted with small bands to help monitor their populations. Information provided by hunters is key for gauging the status of an iconic Alaska bird, emperor goose, known as nacaullek or ligliqpak. Reporting bird bands helps ensure populations of these and other birds remain healthy and abundant for years to come.
Bird Bands and the Public Help Researchers Better Understand Alaskan Bird Populations
REACHING A DIVERSE AUDIENCE
Finding a bird with a metal leg band might be confusing or cause concern for someone unfamiliar with the USGS bird banding program. That is why researchers have gone to great lengths to share the message that it is important to report bird band information when one is harvested or observed.
Although some hunters value bird bands as trophies and proudly display them as a sign of their hunting skill, others have the misconception that it is illegal to hunt banded birds or have one in their possession. In Alaska, the USGS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have gotten more creative when trying to reach sport hunters and those who rely on wildlife for subsistence.
Starting in 2018, USGS and the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge began increasing outreach efforts about bird bands and how rural hunters can help managers better understand changes in bird populations. Students from the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program shared their perspectives about improving the band reporting process. They also suggested new ways of messaging to tribal communities that it’s not illegal to shoot or possess a banded bird. One student suggested giving out example bands so people would be more familiar with them. USGS and the students also collaborated with a nonprofit tribal consortium and residents of Utqiagvik in northern Alaska to translate messages in native languages, such as Yup’ik and Inupiaq, on hundreds of keychains distributed in Alaska villages.
A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
If you are a hunter, birder, or outdoor enthusiast, the U.S. Geological Survey is asking for help tracking the bird populations in Alaska. The USGS manages a nationwide bird banding program and every year thousands of birds are marked with small, numbered leg bands. If you see, find, or harvest a banded bird, please report the band number online at "report band (dot) gov." The information provided will help inform how bird populations may be changing. This message is sponsored by the USGS Alaska Science Center.
Another effort USGS is using to inform Alaskans about bird bands is by releasing a public service announcement during the nightly news on Alaska Public Media radio starting in Spring 2022. The announcement lets people know the value of reporting bands and requests those who see, find, or harvest a banded bird to report the band number online at reportband.gov.
“Radio is popular in Alaska and reaches many different communities,” says John Pearce, research manager at the USGS Alaska Science Center. “People listen to the nightly news to learn about what is going on in the state and their community. Other federal agencies use these radio announcements to alert the public about wildlife topics, so we wanted to try this at USGS.”
The key to any successful public outreach is to use different strategies to reach different audiences. Recent conversations with Alaskan residents have highlighted that people want more information about why birds are banded and how band reports are used before they felt comfortable reporting band observations to the USGS.
Researchers across the country continue to directly engage with hunters and bird watchers about the importance of their observations. Not only does this help meet the Department of Interior’s priorities to increase equity and environmental justice, but it also enhances relationships with Tribal Nations.
ALASKAN SUBSISTENCE CULTURE
Both sport and subsistence hunters have great potential to contribute to the successful management of the birds they hunt, like the emperor goose. However, a “one-size-fits-all" approach to reaching them seldom works. Yet, knowing how and when people hunt or observe a bird is valuable. Although spring subsistence hunters tend to harvest fewer birds compared to recreational hunters in the fall, learning more about birds found during the subsistence period helps managers monitor bird populations year-round.
Subsistence hunting has been a crucial activity of Alaska Native Peoples for millennia and remains important today for tens of thousands of Alaskans. An estimated 36.9 million pounds of wild foods are harvested annually by rural subsistence users across the state!
"Subsistence hunting is a strong part of Alaska culture,” notes John Pearce. “Alaskans are very connected to their land. People notice changes in animal populations, such as shifts in their size and location. People also have noticed the bands and have good questions about why we use them and if it’s legal to hunt a banded bird.”
MAKING AN EXAMPLE OF THE EMPEROR GOOSE
Reporting birds is especially important for those species that are hunted infrequently or in relatively small numbers. One of these species is the emperor goose (Anser canagicus), a species found in coastal and tundra areas across Alaska. At least 80% of the world’s population nest, migrate, and winter within Alaska. Emperor geese are an important food source and cultural resource for Alaska Native Peoples where they are referred to as nacaullek, leghlleq, ligliqpak, mitilgruaq, or neqlleq.
Sharp declines in emperor geese in the 1980s led to a suspension of all hunting to allow the population to recover. The population has rebounded slowly over the last few decades, with limited hunts resuming in 2017. Along with satellite tracking data, the information provided by hunters about banded birds has been essential for gauging the status of emperor goose populations and ensuring that people can continue to hunt this unique Alaska bird for years to come.
So regardless of whether you call them nacaullek, ligliqpak, or emperor goose, bird bands and the public have helped bring this Alaska bird back from the brink.
USGS BIRD BANDING LABORATORY
What should you do if you come across a bird with a band while bird watching or hunting? Let us know! If you discover a banded bird, regardless of the time of year, it is incredibly helpful that you report it at reportband.gov.
The USGS Bird Banding Laboratory was established in 1920 to support the collection, curation, archiving, and dissemination of information from banded birds across the continent. The lab receives at least 80,000 reports of marked birds each year. When someone reports a banded bird, they receive a certificate of appreciation from the USGS with details about the specific bird they found, including the bird’s age, sex, species, and when and where it was banded. Most reports received are provided by hunters who recover leg bands from ducks and geese harvested during the fall and winter. However, in Alaska, people may also find banded birds in the spring during subsistence hunts when residents collect ducks, geese, and other birds for food or other cultural uses.
“Over the last 100 years, scientists and public observers have learned a great deal about where birds have migrated across North America and how bird populations have changed,” says Antonio Celis-Murillo, USGS biologist and manager of the lab at the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center. “Having these banding and recovery records provides us better insights into what’s happening to the birds while also helping managers make better decisions to protect them.”
Continued efforts by USGS, its partners, and hunters of all kinds are essential for increasing the reporting of banded birds. This will ultimately improve the information used to manage the different species Alaskans rely on for food, cultural, and other traditional uses.