Notes From the Field: Wood Duck Recruitment

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"Notes From the Field” are contributed articles that highlight current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding 100 years after the establishment of the Bird Banding Lab. This article focuses on a collaborative project to examine how nest boxes affect population dynamics of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) across the southeast United States.

Two Wood Duck ducklings near their nest box in Delaware were fitted with web tags.

Two Wood Duck ducklings near their nest box in Delaware were fitted with web tags, which allow banders to mark birds that are too young for metal leg bands. (Credit: Tori Mezebish, Southeast Cooperative Wood Duck Recruitment Project.)

“Notes From the Field” news articles highlight the continued importance of bird banding in celebration of the centennial of the Bird Banding Lab. This article was contributed by Beau Bauer, who works with Nemours Wildlife Foundation as the project coordinator for research on population dynamics of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) across the southeast United States.

Today, banding allows scientists to track birds’ behavior, migration, lifespans, populations, diseases and levels of environmental contaminants. Information gathered through the North American Bird Banding Program helps inform management and conservation decisions of game and non-game species, such as protecting or restoring habitat, setting hunting regulations and determining plans for human development. The North American Bird Banding Program depends on a network of over 10,000 permitted bird banders working in the United States, Canada and Trust Territories. Each year these banders help us add up to 1.2 million new banding records to our century-long dataset.

How do you use bird banding and marking in your research? 

In February 2018, Nemours Wildlife Foundation hosted a workshop at their headquarters in Yemassee, South Carolina, to identify and prioritize waterfowl and wetlands research needs throughout the south Atlantic Flyway and southeastern United States. Research on the status and management of nest box programs for Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was ranked the top-priority by participants, which included approximately 30 waterfowl biologists representing state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners. Wood Ducks are an important game species in the southeastern U.S., and prior research suggests that population growth for these box-nesting birds is driven by how many females and their offspring survive to the next breeding season(s), a population measure known as recruitment. Recruitment data are lacking to assess the contribution of nest boxes and population dynamics throughout the southeastern and mid-Atlantic United States.

Marking adult birds with leg bands and ducklings with web tags are simple and effective methods to collect the capture/recapture data necessary to answer our research questions. Over 1,200 nest boxes in Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana are monitored by individual state collaborators each year throughout the breeding season (January through July). Adult females are captured and leg-banded when they are incubating nests, and at this time our bird banders also estimate when the eggs will hatch because it is most feasible for banders to capture and mark ducklings before they leave the nest, usually within 48 hours of hatching. Duckling legs change size as the birds grow, so banders cannot use metal leg bands. Instead, banders mark ducklings using small metal tags attached to the webbing of the foot known as “web tags.” Web-tagging is a robust and non-intrusive marking technique that allows banders to efficiently mark ducklings in the field with minimal stress and handling time.

Two field technicians visit Wood Duck nest boxes on Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina to web tag duckling

Two field technicians visit Wood Duck nest boxes on Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina to web tag ducklings. (Credit: Emily Miller, Southeast Cooperative Wood Duck Recruitment Project.)

Why do you think projects like yours are so important? 

Wood Duck recovery from near extinction in the early 20th century is, in part, due to the implementation of hundreds of thousands of nest boxes throughout the species’ range. Approximately 80 years of nest box programs, harvest regulations, and sustainable forestry practices have established the Wood Duck as one of the most abundant ducks in annual waterfowl harvest for many states. Although Wood Duck populations within the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways appear to be stable, if not increasing, recent research suggests recruitment from nest boxes alone does not sustain box-nesting populations without immigration of hens from other boxes and natural cavities. Furthermore, Wood Duck is one of four representative species used in the Multi-Stock Adaptive Harvest Management model for the Atlantic Flyway, emphasizing the need to better understand population dynamics of these box-nesting populations.

A graduate student researcher holds a recently-hatched Wood Duck in preparation for applying a web tag.

A graduate student researcher holds a recently-hatched Wood Duck in preparation for applying a web tag, a small marker placed on the foot webbing.(Credit: Madelyn McFarland, Southeast Cooperative Wood Duck Recruitment Project.) 

Aside from further understanding recruitment to better manage Wood Ducks and nest box programs, this project is important for laying the foundation for future coordinated, large-scale waterfowl and wetlands research throughout the southeast and mid-Atlantic U.S. The major accomplishment thus far has been the level of cooperation and coordination among multiple agencies, universities, and property owners with multiple graduate students and technicians collecting quality data while adhering to standardized methodology and reporting protocols. This is truly a monumental effort that has already generated a wealth of data, the likes of which would not be possible without the support and collaboration of multiple agencies and research partners.

What are the next steps for your project? 

It will take several years to complete this project. Current graduate students are expected to complete their field seasons in 2021. We will calculate recruitment rates when we re-capture banded and/or web-tagged adult females during subsequent years. Future modeling efforts will also depend on the long-term Bird Banding Lab dataset, particularly band encounter information collected from hunters and other members of the public via www.reportband.gov.

Future planning will involve developing the next cohort of students to continue data collection, address additional questions, and begin synthesizing the comprehensive dataset. We also hope to examine the contribution of immigrant and/or natural cavity-nesting hens to these box-nesting populations if recruitment estimates from nest boxes alone do not sustain these populations. For more project information, including study plan, data collection protocols, and reports, and a details of project contributors, contact project coordinator Beau Bauer at bbauer@nemourswildlife.org.

 

The “Notes From the Field” series highlights current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding 100 years after the establishment of the Bird Banding Lab. Want to see your project featured in a future “Notes From the Field” article? Email Jenn Malpass at jmalpass@usgs.gov for submission details. 

Nemours Wildlife Foundation advertises the southeast Wood Duck study and provides direction on how to report marked birds to the

Nemours Wildlife Foundation advertises the southeast Wood Duck study and provides direction on how to report marked birds to the BBL using www.reportband.gov. (Credit: Beau Bauer, Southeast Cooperative Wood Duck Recruitment Project.)