Wood Duck Banding Efforts Benefits Iowa Waterfowl Hunters
By Joe Wilkinson
Iowa Department of Natural Resources
We were in luck. As we pulled up to the slope on an Iowa River back channel yesterday morning, the wood ducks tried to scatter. They had traded freedom for a free meal of shelled corn, though. They now had the wire sides of the live-trap to look through…for a few minutes, anyway.
Around Iowa this month, wildlife workers from the Department of Natural Resources are trapping, banding and releasing 2,000 wood ducks. Their annual success has made Iowa the number one state or province in North America in banding-and recording information on-the reclusive woodie. By the summer's end, Iowa's 12-year total will be pushing 50,000. And that has meant flexibility in setting seasons and limits here.
For the moment, though, Dennis Proctor and Matt Bunker from the Coralville wildlife unit were more interested in attaching the tiny aluminum bands to each bird's leg and recording the numbers and information about each bird. "You can see from the tail feathers that this is an immature bird," explained Proctor. "The ends are still 'pointed'. They haven't fully developed yet. Also, the bill is starting to show some color. The white chin stripe is also indicative of a male. He's getting a green tinge on the top of his head, too." The next bird was an adult female. Proctor pointed out the full, rounded tail plumage. "The wing feather tips have a white teardrop pattern. On the males, those tips would be straight across. Also, this female's bill is brown. It doesn't have the coloration of a male."
Male-female. Young-adult. All the data goes into a report that eventually lands on a desk at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Since ducks are migratory birds, that agency sets seasons and harvest limits. A complicated formula…and a little state by state lobbying helps lead to those decisions. One fact that can't be overlooked, though, is the number of wood ducks showing up in Iowa. As the number two 'bird in the bag', come hunting season, wood duck banding data is critical. Iowa has been allowed to allot five of its duck season days to a short September season. That option stems from Iowa showing that wood duck populations are doing well; reversing a downward trend apparent in the mid-20th century. "We've been ranked number one in wood ducks banded for years," notes Proctor. "Our daily limit (all season) is two wood ducks. If the population would go down, we could lose some of those (limit) ducks. That is because of the banding data."
As each duck was banded, it was released, some bailing out with the distinctive whistle, as it put mileage between the ordeal of the trap and their next stop. Not so much trauma, though, to keep some from a return trip. One of Wednesday's eight birds was a 'recapture'. It had been banded Monday evening, but opted to push his way in for another free meal 36 hours later. From there, though, the workers removed the wire throats that restrict the birds, once in. "We'll leave them open three or four days, to get them used to feeding on the corn a little better," explains Proctor. "Today's (eight) ducks were the most we have seen at one site. We need more than that to make it worthwhile."
Dry weather is hampering some trapping efforts, across Iowa. In some cases, heat stress has caused acorns to drop early; attracting wood ducks to their favorite food. Lower stream and pond levels make for longer waddles from the security of the water to the dry-land traps. On the other hand, workers from the Lake Odessa area to the southeast have banded 600 birds, nearly one-third of the state quota.
Early season hunters will appreciate that effort, as they get into their September blinds.
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