A Duck Band’s Beginning

April 2, 2009 by  

By Chris Hustad

It was right around first light when I ventured outside of our sleeping quarters at J. Clark Salyer National Refuge Headquarters near Upham, ND last week (in early September). I noticed the picnic table was still full of grills, empty plates of goose, and some empty beer cans. Luckily, I packed it in a bit early the night before and at that moment I was glad I did. The morning was perfect; a slight cool in the air, no clouds, and not a breath of wind. I will admit I was pretty anxious that morning. We were scheduled within a half hour to participate in a duck banding project. I had seen it done on television before so I knew what was coming, but I had the jitters to see it for myself.

Gradually, one by one the gang from the West Dakota Waterfowlers chapter of Delta Waterfowl (Minot, ND) was coming out the door at “The Barn”, where we slept the night before. All the while, the parking lot in front of our place was starting to fill with arriving vehicles. There was going to be quite a crew this morning it appeared. USFWS employees, Delta Waterfowl chapter members, a Bird Flu crew from the Univeristy of Minnesota, wives, kids…all walks of life stood around the parking lot. I was beginning to wonder when this would begin, and shortly thereafter one of the refuge managers came over with a bit of concern on his face. “I’m not sure if it’s going to go off this morning,” he explains in a quiet voice. “Yesterday some raccoons messed with the nets and it didn’t go off, and lately the birds have been spooky. The closer it gets to sunup, the less of a chance at a successful netting.” I looked over my shoulder and saw what appeared to be a sun struggling to make an appearance over the marsh to the East. “Just my luck” I thought to myself with a grin.
BOOOOOOOOOOM! I could hear in the distance. What sounded like the start of 4th of July sent everyone in the parking lot scrambling to their vehicles. Within moments, around 15 vehicles pealed out of the parking lot in a single file motion. Without explanation everyone knew that it was the sound of the nets going off at the banding site. It was only a half mile or so from the headquarters, so we didn’t have far to go.

As we came down the road we could see a few people running around and jumping on the large net in the distance as ducks were piling out of the opening in the net. As we approached it appeared that things were under control and there wouldn’t be much time wasted in getting started. Todd Grant, of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, reached into the net and picked out a drake mallard.

As he reached down to demonstrate how ducks are to be handled and the banding process, he was quick to notice that this bird was already sporting some jewelry. In fact, it was double banded. After a short joke and some laughs (which I unfortunately missed while getting my camera out of it’s case), he proceeded with another duck. “Hold the duck right where the neck meets the breast, this way it won’t choke the bird. If the duck is flopping all over and pooping on you…you’re not holding it right. If it’s sitting still and pooping on you, you’re holding it right.” And they weren’t kidding on the poop either (do I detect a future episode of Dirty Jobs?).

The process was pretty efficient that morning. The ducks were taken out of the nets and separated into sex and species. There was 2 different stations where the volunteers take the ducks to get banded. As they were banded, they were inspected for various information such as whether or not it was a young or mature bird. One-by-one, everyone in the group was given a turn to band their own duck. The USFWS employees were patient and courteous, and full of knowledge on the project. There was so much to take in and the kids had an absolute blast.

After each bird was banded, it was then taken over to the group studying avian influenza (Bird Flu). There was a group of a half dozen from the U of M. that was partnered with the US Department of Health. They took swabs of the orifices of each individual duck to be sent off to be sampled. After they were swabbed, they were immediately released back to the refuge marsh. This process went pretty quickly as we emptied the net in just a couple hours.

Afterwards, the groups stuck around for awhile trading stories and then everyone said their goodbyes. Some kids were going back to school, some of us heading back to the office. You could feel the enthusiasm and the feeling of reward in the air, and the migrant flights of lesser canadas that flew over that morning reminded everyone the fall was around the corner.

Turn back the clock about 16 years ago to the fall of 1992 – the year I got my first duck band. I could go on about some exotic story of where it came from and where it had been taken, but that duck was banded at J. Clark Salyer Refuge (and the field was only 5 miles away). But since that time, I’ve been interested in seeing for myself where the bands came from and how’s it done.

Duck bands have and always will hold that mystic quality to them. A welcome surprise that tells a story of a duck’s past. From now on, duck bands that I encounter will always make me ponder the possibility it came from our net.

The day ended up with 225 ducks being caught in the net, and one coot was released. As one of the banders stated, only around 30% of the ducks get caught in the nets. And given the recent circumstances, they were happy with the results. I’m really hoping I get the chance to participate in this again, and I have a deeper respect for the future of ducks.

I want to thank the West Dakota Waterfowlers Delta Waterfowl Chapter in Minot, ND for allowing me to tag along with your group. I also want to thank the staff at J. Clark Salyer Refuge and the USFWS for their courtesy and hospitality.


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