“If we find a duck with one of those, we say it’s wearing jewelry,” said a visitor, gesturing to the shining metal bands on the table. The bands in question were part of a USGS Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) outreach display at the 2018 Suisun Marsh Field Day in Suisun, CA.
Andrea Mott and Brady Fettig, biological science technicians based out of the Dixon Field Station, taught families about ongoing efforts to learn more about waterfowl populations, movements, and habitat use within Suisun Marsh and the greater Pacific Flyway.
Attaching small metal bands to the ankles of waterfowl is only one part of the project, but an important one. Each band includes a unique identifier that is entered into a database, along with the sex, approximate age, and physical condition of the animal, and its location during its first capture. When hunters, citizens, and scientists report the locations of band sightings, WERC scientists use this information to estimate how far waterfowl travel during migration.
USGS WERC researchers Josh Ackerman and Mike Casazza’s teams are combining this simple yet effective method with more complex technologies, like solar-powered GPS tags for adult ducks and radio transmitters light enough to fit comfortably on a duckling. Visitors at the WERC outreach booth got to handle examples of both, and see how a transmitter might fit on a duckling, with a beanie-bag toy for scale.
A GPS tag collects data on an adult duck’s movements until the animal reaches the end of its life, and the tag can be recovered. The lightweight radio transmitters placed on ducklings fall off after several weeks. To find them, members of the waterfowl team travel out to the marsh equipped with a radio antenna that ‘pings’ when their target is near. The fate of the radio transmitter often provides clues as to the duckling’s fate — was it consumed by one of the marsh’s many predators? Did it survive to see another season?
All of this hard work is supporting science-based conservation and management of waterfowl populations and habitat in California’s Central Valley. With the latest data on waterfowl numbers, private landowners, state agencies, and non-profit organizations — including the California Waterfowl Association, host of the annual Suisun Marsh Field Day — can make more informed decisions to preserve Suisun’s landscapes and wildlife for the future.
To learn more about WERC studies on waterfowl ecology within California, visit the central webpage here.