Douglas Osborne, Ph.D., has a lead foot. I’m chasing him down a long, south Arkansas dirt road on a clear February afternoon, and the red dust cloud he’s kicking up gets to be so thick at times that I have to hit the brakes and wait for it to clear before taking off again with a spin of the tires. There are no speed limits posted here, but if there were, I’d be afraid to compare them to my speedometer. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
Eventually, I take one of the 90-degree turns that epitomize the country roads in this part of the state and see Doug’s work truck parked in a nondescript driveway off in the distance. He must have really dropped me, because the air here has almost cleared. I pull up just as he and Chris Watt, a research technician at the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s School of Forest Resources, open the gate to one of the two hunting clubs they’ve partnered with for the research project I’m tagging along for today. You wouldn’t know it by the unusually warm weather, but duck season has just ended, and it’s time for Doug and his team to get to work. It’s time to band some birds.
As we suit up in our waders and wait for Chris to bring around the electric ATV side-by-side (the better to sneak up on the birds, he says), Doug, an assistant professor of wildlife management at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, explains just how his lab got the funding it needed for this operation in an era when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has tightened its belt and money for banding programs has all but dried up. In 2012, a buddy had invited Doug along on a duck hunt with some friends. One, a local Monticello businessman, wanted to know why he wasn’t seeing as many birds with bands—the metal rings researchers put on the legs of waterfowl to track everything from migration patterns and mortality rates to population growth and hunting pressure. He wanted to know what it would take to band right here in southeast Arkansas, to band on his property.
“And I said, Well, it just takes money,” Doug says. “So he just said, Let’s do it.” They did. Soon, other property owners joined them.
During their first full banding season in the winter of 2014-2015, Doug and his team—Chris, as well as another technician, two graduate students and some gung-ho undergraduates—set to work trapping and banding mallards. It was a good year for it. When the weather is cold, waterfowl need every calorie they can get their beaks on to keep their body temperatures up, and with 15- to 20-degree nights and highs hovering around 25, the early months of 2015 were brutally cold. The ducks were fighting to get into the trap, desperate for the bait corn inside. Doug’s team banded more than 800 mallards, regularly grabbing 70 ducks from a single trap. That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.2 million birds banded each year in Canada and the U.S by various researchers and agencies. This season, however, even after expanding the species Doug and his team are banding to include all ducks wintering in the state, they’ve banded maybe 40 or so. Total.
But despite the small numbers, it’s important work. Doug is one of the few researchers who band waterfowl in their feeding grounds, not their breeding grounds in the northern prairies. This means his bands will not only help set harvest regulations by providing survival and harvest mortality rates, but can also show how the ducks’ feeding-ground distribution shifts over time. Researchers have long known that ducks return to the same breeding grounds year after year, but because almost no banding has taken place where they feed, it isn’t known if they return to the same places on their southern migrations. Obviously, this is a question the avid hunters who fund Doug’s research want to know. If they create high-quality habitat on their land, will the ducks keep coming back?
As Chris pulls up to grab us in the ATV, Doug’s telling me he’s afraid we might not have any ducks in the traps. The weather has been so warm that the ducks aren’t willing to risk the trap—basically a giant, half-submerged crab trap they can find their way into but not out of—just for a bit of corn. Instead of trying to stay warm, they’re gorging on insects to build up their fat reserves before heading for their northern breeding grounds.
Chris comes bearing good news, though.
“It just sent a picture,” he says, holding up his phone for Doug to see. They have game cameras rigged up to watch each trap and text them the photos. “That’s right now, so we should have some ducks in there. I hope we have some big ducks.”
“Yeah, there may be,” Doug says. “There are some gadwall or mallards or something right there.”
Judging by the picture, there are close to 100 ducks gathered around the trap, but we can’t see if there are actually any inside. We find out soon enough, though. As Chris drives us over the suggestion of a ridge and into view of the pond, the whole flock takes off into the last of the blue-orange sunset. We wade out—the shimmering waters rippling away from our swishing steps in dappled waves—and Chris tosses another bucket of corn in and around the cage.
By the time we reach the next trap, the last of the light is gone and the world is black. Last night, they’d caught some green-winged teal here—pond ducks so small they can slip through the chicken-wire cage—and they’re optimistic about our chances today. Chris drives us right into the low water. In the headlights we see a flash of birds looking for an escape.
“I am going to try and get up there quick,” Chris tells Doug. He drives the ATV as far as he dares, and then we’re all out of the vehicle and rushing the trap through shin-deep water. Chris practically dives into the entrapment and has me plug the widened hole behind him with my body. Doug takes my spot, and as Chris, bent over double, snags the small birds with wide, low sweeps of his net, Doug gently stuffs them into the plastic chicken coop they rigged up with rubber flaps and floating foam. I patrol the enclosure with a borrowed flashlight, spotlighting any of the little green-wings that look like they might escape. They duck and dive, and try to squeeze through, but we don’t lose any of them.
The men float the coop over to the ATV and set to work by flashlight and headlamp. The ducks are calm now, so Chris does the actual banding, taking the first sequentially numbered metal ring from a loop and carefully bending it around the first bird’s leg. The bands he’s using are issued to researchers by the United States Geological Survey, and Doug will receive weekly reports of band encounters called in by hunters who’ve taken ducks associated with his federal banding permit. It’s all public data, though, so anyone can use the information.
But making use of the data collected tonight is still a ways down the road. It will take four to six seasons until they have enough information to be useful, Doug says, but he has seen some interesting things already, at least anecdotally. They’ve actually had bands harvested in the exact block of woods where they’d placed them. Granted, it was a 640-acre block, but there were probably a couple of thousands of acres of contiguous woods right there, he says.
“Female,” Chris calls out in the dark. Doug diligently records its species, sex and band number. Green-wing teals get size-4 bands; mallards get a size 7. It’s a “little itty-bitty thing,” Chris says as he places number 623 around her right leg. He doesn’t know why, but somewhere along the way, he’s gotten in the habit of always placing them on the right.
“They just seem so much smaller to me when they are alive,” he says to Doug, and then looks at me. “That’s kind of a weird thing to say, but if you were a duck hunter, you would understand.”
Neither Doug nor Chris seems to think it odd that they hunt the animals they seek to protect, though Doug admits he likes banding them more than hunting them. Duck hunting is not only a tradition integral to the state’s culture, he says, but it’s also one of the most effective population-management tools we have.
If there were no hunters, no camo-clad sportsmen and women calling waterfowl down into their duck holes, the birds’ populations would grow to a point where there would not be enough resources to sustain them. And then they would starve, and the cycle would start all over again, he says. In his opinion, hunters put their money where their mouths are. When the waterfowl stamp—an addition to their hunting license that shows they’ve paid to hunt ducks in the state—went up $10 this year, the first time it’s been raised in 25 years, he hardly heard anyone complain.
After a while, Doug and Chris switch jobs, not for any other reason than last night was the first green-wing teal Doug ever banded, and he likes to check new species off his list. But as he reaches down into the floating coop, the bird decides it doesn’t want to be
“This little guy is vicious. He’s going to take me down!” he says with a laugh.
“Don’t let him whoop ya,” is the only advice Chris proffers.
Eventually, the bird calms. Doug places the band and releases number 632 into the night.