Duck Banding Facts

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duck bands
Duck bands on a hunter’s duck call lanyard are considered special mementoes of duck hunts gone by.

For waterfowling enthusiasts, duck bands are among the most cherished mementos of the duck hunt. Fewer than one out of a thousand ducks carry them, so they are rare treasures indeed. They are to the waterfowler what big antlers are to the deer hunter or long beards to the turkey hunter: trophies, badges of distinction. Killing a banded bird is a special thrill, and wearing a lanyard of bands around your neck is a symbol of status.

The value of duck bands far exceeds that of mere jewelry, however. Duck hunters who harvest banded birds and report band information play a vital role in the conservation of North America’s waterfowl populations. The information gathered from duck bands provides interesting insights into the lives of waterfowl and is vital to the management of ducks and geese.

A Brief History of Duck Banding

One of the first people to band ducks was Hans Mortensen, a Danish school teacher who began placing aluminum rings on the legs of European teal, Pintails and other birds in 1899. He inscribed the bands with his name and address in the hope they would be returned to him if found. His system of banding became the model for our current efforts.

Another duck-banding pioneer was Canadian Jack Miner. This self-taught biologist established the first sanctuary for the conservation of migrating ducks and Canada geese near Kingsville, Ontario in 1904. In August 1909, he banded his first duck, a Mallard, with a hand-stamped aluminum duck band to see if he could find out how far it flew during migration. This duck band, like all subsequent duck bands from the Miner Sanctuary, was inscribed with a verse of Bible scripture. To Miner’s delight, the duck band was recovered five months later in Anderson, South Carolina—the first complete duck-banding record ever.

duck bands
Duck hunters keep duck bands as a momento of their duck hunts.

By the time of Miner’s death in 1944, more than 50,000 ducks and 40,000 geese had been banded at his sanctuary, and duck and goose bands had been returned from 33 states and provinces covering an area of four million square miles. The copious data thus obtained was instrumental in the establishment of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a landmark law to protect birds migrating between the U.S. and Canada.

The Miner family still bands ducks and geese each year. In 2009, they banded 600 mallards and 124 geese. In 2010, hunters from 20 states, Ontario and Ecuador reported harvesting waterfowl marked with the highly collectible Miner duck bands.

Many more people were involved with the early development of bird banding in North America, but none was as influential as Frederick Lincoln with the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey. In 1920, he was assigned the daunting task of organizing the nation’s bird-banding program, and that he did. During the next quarter century, Lincoln developed numbering schemes and record-keeping procedures. He recruited duck banders, established standards, fostered international cooperation and promoted banding as a tool in scientific research and management. In 1935, using data from waterfowl banding, Lincoln also developed the flyways concept, which first defined the boundaries of the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. Through Lincoln’s efforts, the banding of ducks and other birds became a continental program that today remains a cornerstone of avian research, management and conservation.

Modern Banding Efforts

Today, the banding of ducks and other migratory birds in North America is managed cooperatively by wildlife agencies in the United States and Canada. In this country, banding is the responsibility of the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, in Laurel, Maryland. In Canada, the Bird Banding Office of the Canadian Wildlife Service manages banding. Both countries use the same duck bands, reporting forms and data formats.

duck banding
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist bands on a wood duck. This agency bands ducks in cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service, state and provincial wildlife management agencies, the flyway councils, and nongovernmental waterfowl advocacy organizations such as Ducks Unlimited.

Because banding birds requires capturing the birds and handling them before the banding takes place, bird banding in the U.S. is controlled under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and requires a federal banding permit. Some states require a state permit as well. Only official federal bands may be legally placed on birds that are released to the wild within the U.S.

Tens of thousands of waterfowl are marked each year with leg bands. This effort includes banding programs from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.

Most ducks are banded from late summer through early fall just before they migrate south from northern nesting grounds. This program is a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, state and provincial wildlife management agencies, the flyway councils, and nongovernmental waterfowl advocacy and research organizations such as Ducks Unlimited.

On the prairies, baited traps are used to capture dabbling ducks such as Mallards and Teal. Diving ducks are herded into nets called drive traps when they are molting and unable to fly. Hunting dogs help researchers find and catch eiders on their nests in thick vegetation.

Some ducks also are banded in early spring or winter. Wood Ducks, for example, are often captured while using nest boxes. Wintering sea ducks are caught using night lighting, net guns and floating mist nets. Mallards, Pintails, Gadwalls and other species often are captured on wintering grounds using baited traps or rocket nets.

standard duck bands
Standard duck bands used in the U.S. are aluminum rings with unique identifyinig numbers.

Each captured duck is fitted with a uniquely numbered band placed securely on the leg. Duck bands provided by the Bird Banding Laboratory are made of aluminum and inscribed CALL 1-800-327 BAND and WRITE BIRD BAND LAUREL MD 20708 USA followed by a unique 8 or 9 digit number. Older bird bands, which still turn up occasionally, had the legend AVISE BIRD BAND WASH DC.

Double Duck Bands

Duck hunters sometimes bag ducks with double bands: a regular aluminum band on one leg and a colored band on the other. A second duck band can either be a reward duck band or a special marker used by researchers.

Reward duck bands are inscribed with a dollar amount the person who reports the duck band will receive, usually $25 to $100. They are used for a variety of studies on duck band reporting rates that help agencies determine appropriate harvest levels and evaluate duck band reporting methods.

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