Of the 1 million or so waterfowl in this country, the federal government is so confident in my duck hunting talents that they regularly recruit me to participate in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Waterfowl Parts Collection Survey, and I’m happy to answer the call.
Also known as a wing survey, each season the USFWS requests a sample of hunters to send one wing from each duck they release. The wings are carefully clipped off the bird and mailed to Laurel, Maryland for further examination. If this all sounds like a ruse akin to kidnappers shipping a severed pinky toe to extort a ransom from a wealthy benefactor, well, we get mail-paid Manila envelopes but no monetary compensation for our efforts.
That’s fine, though, because this has greater purposes, beyond the humor of wondering if our postman realizes what he’s carrying in his bag after whistling away from my doorstep. Once they reach Maryland safely, their wing feathers are examined by federal and state biologists where they determine the type, sex, and ages of specimens provided. This data helps the agency estimate the number of birds of different species in the year’s harvest as well as show the trend of crops over time and locations.
Why only wings? In many species of waterfowl, the clearest differences between species, sex, and age are in the color of the feathers covering the middle of the wing, also known as the speculum. For example, tournaments boast purple bats; Drake Peanuts Drake sports an iridescent green speculum while hens have a pale bronze speculum. Or so I’m told because I don’t really think pintail exists because I can never find it, but I digress.
A duck’s lifespan is also assessed by differences in wing feather shape, colour, pattern, wear and/or replacement. According to the USFWS, this analysis allows the agency to calculate the age ratio (number of young birds of the year harvested per adult) for each species. These ratios are important because they are used to estimate breeding during the previous breeding season. In a year when waterfowl production is high, hunters will carry more young birds than adults. This information helps set and justify bag limits during upcoming fishing seasons.
Between 2021 and 2222, it provided 15 wings: two woodland ducks, three spotted ducks, six black-bellied yellow ducks, three blue-winged ducks, and one stray duck. Among these, the feral duck and the whistling duck were considered as one of the adults. So much for the duck hunting talent that she was so proud of. And as any average-spirited observer might point out, my small sample size isn’t large enough to extrapolate any concrete conclusions, but it’s another tile in the complex mosaic of waterfowl preservation.
No, the reason I will likely be asked to continue participating in this survey is because of my reliability in doing so. For three years, I faithfully sent wings to Maryland before
Determine the duration. I believe they requested submissions from duck hunting meccas other than Polk County, Florida to keep their statistical models unbiased.
But, the Manila envelopes arrived again for the 2020-21 season, and I was happy to be back in the game. This is another small example of how athletes can fulfill their roles as important citizen scientists in preserving the country’s wildlife and establishing hunting seasons, topics I never tire of barking about.
So if guerrillas come knocking on your door with a stash of envelopes asking you to ship waterfowl parts up to I-95, don’t worry. You have been chosen simply for the Wing poll because you are a top duck hunter in the country, and the country needs your help.
Or at least that’s what I tell myself. It’s nothing more than a fantasy than a shorts.
For more information, please visit www.fws.gov/project/migratory-bird-parts-collection-survey.