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Just ducky: Researchers tag communities’ waterfowl for study

DEC personnel inspect and tag a duck in

DEC personnel inspect and tag a duck in Amityville on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

When it comes to trapping ducks, corn fills the bill.

Just up the banks of a lake in Amityville, state Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technicians last week set up a large funnel trap using corn as bait. Then they quietly waited.

The workers are spending the summer banding mallards, black ducks and wood ducks, the three most common species of ducks on Long Island, to be able to track their movements and study their lives.

When they capture the birds, the DEC workers record data about age, sex and species, cinch an aluminum band with a unique number on one leg and send them waddling back toward the water.

“We’re looking to collect information on them that will help us in the future make management decisions, determine migration routes, harvest susceptibility, breeding,” said Kelly Hamilton, a wildlife biologist for the DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife.

This is the second year the DEC has made summer banding of ducks a priority, largely because it has more staff available, Hamilton said. They banded 150 birds last year, only a fraction of their goal.

This year they’re aiming for 218 mallards, 13 black ducks and 12 wood ducks. “It’s a high goal,” Hamilton said. “But we know what was successful last year and we’re trying to maximize our efforts.”

The DEC is going to about a dozen sites around Long Island communities until the program wraps up in September.

Agency officials choose sites based on variety of location, permission from local governments and access, as well as the presence of a dozen or more ducks, Hamilton said. They also try to pick spots that are a little secluded, with minimum intrusion from the public, she said, so as to not further stress out the ducks.

“On Long Island we have a lot of feeding that goes on, which we don’t advocate,” Hamilton said, noting that it can lead to the spread of disease as well as the ducks becoming habituated to humans and altering their normal behavior.

Hamilton said there are questions about whether the mallard population might be in decline so the data being collected may help direct preservation efforts.

“We suspect that there’s a lot of hybridization with black ducks, which could be causing a decline in the true mallard population,” she said.

It’s important to collect the data now, before hunting season starts in November and ducks disperse, Hamilton said. Additionally, the birds are molting and unable to fly in the summer, making them easier to snag. The molting also makes it easier to determine the age and sex of the birds based on the nature of the plumage.

“Each bird is kind of like a puzzle to us,” Hamilton said.

In Amityville, only one mallard was tagged, but the trio of DEC workers were content with the site visit. The team also went to a spot in Lindenhurst that day and tagged three more mallards.

“We just try to get what we can on any given day,” said wildlife technician Caitlin Hnis. “But we’re happy as long as we get at least one.”

Mallard facts

  • The most abundant species in North America
  • Native to New York State
  • Congregate in large groups
  • The most vocal of all ducks
  • Will nest anywhere with fresh or brackish water
  • Are seasonally monogamous, choosing a new mate every year.
  • Average clutch size is nine eggs

Source: Kelly Hamilton, biologist for the state DEC’s wildlife bureau

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