General Articles


Ducks have traffic laws, too. And that’s not all the bird men discovered when they began to put bracelets on quackers

C. FRED BODSWORTH September 15 1947
General Articles


Ducks have traffic laws, too. And that’s not all the bird men discovered when they began to put bracelets on quackers

C. FRED BODSWORTH September 15 1947



BOBBY SOXERS won’t like it, but they might as well know that those identification bracelets for ankle wear are old stuff. Thousands of wild ducks and geese were wearing them when diaper pins were the only costume jewelry known to today’s bobby-sox crowd. The ducks are still wearing them, and not just to be chic chicks, either. The quacking queens of the quagmire care not a hoot for fashion; their identification bracelets are doing an important scientific job. For one thing they have revealed that migrating water fowl follow north-south trails almost as precisely marked out as the coast-to-coast lanes travelled by transcontinental airlines.

This fall somewhere in the neighborhood of

100,000 ducks and geese are taking off from the nesting muskegs and sloughs of western and northern Canada with bright aluminum bracelets shining on their legs. Every bracelet is stamped with a number and every number is represented by two small cards; one in the voluminous birdbanding files of the Department of Mines and Resources at Ottawa, the other with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Washington. Each card records the vital statistics of the bird it represents—the species, the name of the man who trapped the bird and placed the band, and the date and place at which the banding occurred. Each band, in addition to its

number, bears the request: “Notify U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.”

Every year seven or eight thousand of these bracelet-toting ducks and geese fail to duck fast enough when the hunters’ guns start popping, and the birds wind up in ovens, the bands in Washington. There, electric sorting machines go to work and come up with the what., who, when and where of every recovered band. When thousands of those whats, wheres, etc., are fitted together they give the wildlife bosses of the continent a picture of travel habits among the game birds.

This information is not sought merely to feed the idle curiosity of sentimental naturalists. It. is a dollars and cents proposition involving every Canadian and U. S. citizen, for wild-fowl shooting in North America is a multi-million-dollar industry. Last year some three million gunners poured about $6 millions in license fees into the federal, state and provincial coffers of Canada and the U. S., and no one knows how much additional business they created through the purchase of ammunition, gasoline and a score of other incidentals.

Matter of Life and Death

f IYJ KEEP this duck-shooting business from A passing into history, like the passenger pigeon, quail and shore bird hunting of an earlier day, the length of the water fowl season and bag limits are carefully gauged against the supply of birds that will be available. But the regulations, drawn up during the summer when most, of the ducks and geese are busy with family affairs in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, must be based on a knowledge of where the birds will be during the hunting months of September, October and November. They must take into account, too, the migration routes that the water fowl will follow in their continent-spanning junket between the nesting grounds of the north and their wintering areas of the south. That’s the reason for the aluminum bracelets.

In Canada and the U. S. there are more than

2.000 birdbanders, about 1,400 of them working with water fowl. Every year approximately 50,000 ducks and geese are trapped, banded and released. Adding in the survivors of previous years, if is estimated that at any given time there are roughly

100.000 North American water fowl wearing bands. About 15% of these bands turn up again later, most of them on birds shot by hunters but a few of them on ducks which are retrapped in succeeding years by banders. Most band recoveries occur within two or three years of the time of banding, but some ducks have carried bands for as long as 12 years.

The men who do the banding are naturalists and refuge keepers who do it as a hobby, without pay, under government supervision.

Many thousand ducks and geese are banded each year when they are still in the nest and unable to fly, but the majority are mature birds trapped and marked with bands at feeding spots and refuges during (heir first migration and during the winter. Two types of wire traps are used; one employs a funnel entrance through which t he water fowl get into a trap and cannot find their way out, the other relies on a trap door which is sprung by pulling a rope or string from a blind when a good number of birds have been lured inside. Birds are attracted by bait, usually grain or rice, but in recent years banders have taken a lesson from gunners and more and more live decoys are being used.

Water fowl traps are sometimes very large. The late Jack Miner designed and used a spring-door variety 75 feet long and 20 or 30 feet wide which was capable of capturing a hundred or more big Canada geese at. a time. Usually the traps are placed in areas of shallow water and a bander is assured of a soaking shower from the fluttering wings when he approaches.

Water fowl trapping in the southern states carries with it another peril. Edward A. Mcllhenny of Avery Island, La., found two eight-foot alligators in his traps one morning. Autopsies revealed that one had eaten seven ducks, the other two. The ducks had been swallowed whole, feathers and all —the “all” in this case including two bands, for two of the swallowed ducks had been banded in a previous year.

From the recovery of duck and geese bands has come a knowledge of water fowl migration that has an important bearing on hunting regulations and the location of refuge areas closed to shooting. And with the water fowl population now at its lowest point since 1934, this bracelet lore may become even more vital in the next few years. From a 1944 high of 140 millions, the continent’s wild fowl populat ion has skidded to a shaky 54 millions in 1947. To preserve this remnant and nurse it, back to its 1944 par in the race of constantly increasing hunting pressure is a job that will require every bit of knowledge about wild fowl that we possess. Thanks to banding, our understanding of the movements of North American water fowl is far more complete than that possessed for any other continent.

Band recoveries have

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Ducks have traffic laws, too. And that’s not all the bird men discovered when they began to put bracelets on quackers

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revealed that waterfowl, like aircraft, are “beam” fliers. Spring and autumn migrations are not mass, haphazard flights which move northward or southward along a continent-wide front. The various duck and geese species have their own general nesting and wintering areas with narrow well-defined migration highways between. These highways have doubtless been followed by water fowl for thousands of years, though it is only within the past decade that man has become aware of them and as yet the mapping of them is far from complete.

North America’s water fowl migration map, as ornithologists understand it today, is composed of four great traffic streams which have been called “flyways.” A flyway is more than a migration route or series of routes, it is a geographical area which includes nesting and wintering grounds. Each one is like a river system with numerous tributaries spreading out over the northern third of the continent where the birds nest and converging in narrower zones in the south where the birds spend the winter. The four flyways overlap where their edges meet, particularly in the northern nesting grounds, but each one is a self-contained population unit with little interchange of individuals.

On the east is the Atlantic flyway. Its nesting territory is a vast inverted triangle with its three points roughly at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, at northern Greenland and in the Great Lakes area. This nesting zone takes in over two thirds of Canada from the Mackenzie valley on the west to Labrador and Newfoundland on the east, but in the fall migration its individuals all funnel southward and southeastward to a point on the Atlantic coast around New York City and Chesapeake Bay. From there they spread out into wintering haunts along the seacoast between Chesapeake Bay and Florida, with a few moving farther southward into the West Indies.

To the west, the Mississippi fly way is next. Its breeding territory, also a large triangle, has its two northern corners in northern Alaska and on the eastern side of Baffin Island, while its southern apex is on the Mississippi below Chicago. In migration these birds converge at this southern point and then follow the Mississippi southward to concentrate during the winter in the coastal marshes and bayous of the Gulf States.

To Each His Own Flyway

West of the Mississippi is the Central flyway. In summer the birds of this flyway are spread out across northern Alaska, the Mackenzie valley, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the western half of Manitoba. Their migration route, a north and south lane about 600 miles wide across the plains of the U.S. midwest, is less confined than that of any of the other flyways. Most of the Central flyway wild fowl winter in southern Texas and eastern Mexico with a few reaching Panama and the northern shores of South America.

Farthest west is the Pacific flyway. Its breeding zone includes all of Alaska, the Mackenzie valley, British Columbia and a western strip of the prairies. In migration its birds fly to the Pacific and follow the coast southward to wintering grounds in California and western Mexico.

Recoveries of banded water fowl first began revealing this flyway picture more than 10 years ago, but it is only in the last five years that the flyway

boundaries have been more definitely established.

Each flyway, despite the complex overlapping, has its own population of individuals, even though many water fowl species are common to all four of the flyways. Like the caste-divided population of India, America’s ducks and geese stick rigidly to the nesting, migration and wintering pattern of the flvway group into which they are born. The Mackenzie delta and valley are used as a nesting area by birds of all the flyways. Here side by side four families of mallard ducks might intermingle freely during the summer, but when the cool nights of early September start flecking the muskegs with fingers of ice one family might head eastward toward the Atlantic, another toward the Mississippi, a third southward down the Central flvway and the fourth westward toward the Pacific route. And succeeding generations of each of those mallard families will never shift from the ancestral route their granddaddies blazed probably thousands of years ago.

Mates Never Mix

There’s no danger of a nestling being confused because he has a Pacific fly way mother and a Mississippi fly way father. That wouldn’t happen: the

birds mate while migrating north, before they mix with fowl from other flyways.

On Aug. 31, 1944, three mallards were trapped simultaneously at Neilburg, in west-central Saskatchewan, by bander A. J. Matheson. All three were migrants who had come from nesting grounds farther north. The members of this threesome were shot three months later within five days of each other, but in widely separated localities which illustrate the flyway division of duck population, even among birds of the same species. One was shot on Nov. 27 at Browning, 111.; it was therefore a Mississippi flyway bird. The second was bagged in California on Dec. 1, a Pacific fly way migrant. The third fell to a hunter at Arlington, Kan., on Dec. 2 in the Central flyway.

Numerous experiments have been conducted in which banded ducks have been caged and shipped several hundred miles out of their own flyway and then released. In every case in which any of these bands have been recovered, homing instinct had guided the ducks back into the flyway in which they were originally trapped. In one case 50 banded pintails of the Mississippi flyway were shipped from Illinois to California and released at a refuge where hundreds of pintails of the Pacific flyway were resting. But the fact that they were still among their own species did not hold them, for six of those pintails have been recovered back in the Mississippi flyway zone. In a similar experiment, 50 pintails banded on San Francisco Bay were shipped across 2,700 miles of ocean to Hawaii, and one was shot back in California a year later.

This flyway concept of water fowl distribution in America and, more particularly, the knowledge that each flyway retains its own individuals despite the population trends in neighboring flyways, has turned water fowl management into four distinct problems instead of the single continentwide proposition that it had been considered until recently. Now it is understood that ducks and geese can be abundant in one flyway and rare in another. Drought conditions on the Canadian prairies would greatly reduce the nesting success of Central and Mississippi flyway birds with little or no effect on those of the Pacific and

Atlantic flyways which nest mostly in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Labrador. Similarly, two or three bad nesting summers in Alaska would cut the Pacific flyway migration to a trickle with no influence on the wild fowl population of the rest of the continent. Theoretically, the ducks and geese could be exterminated entirely from one flyway and even though they remained abundant in the other three it would probably take scores of years at best to repopulate the flyway from which the birds were lost.

Exploiting the Flyways

This is the picture that has grown out of the travels of those thousands of aluminum bracelets. It has unfolded too recently to have yet been brought into full play in the planning of water fowl hunting laws. But with the duck population at its present low ebb, the wildlife bosses of Canada and the U. S. are warning that drastic measures must be adopted to protect water fowl before their numbers go lower. Otherwise, they say, we’ll wake up some morning and find four duck hunters for every duck.

One of the first of these measures will be the scrapping of present shooting regulations, which blanket the continent from east to west, to replace them with separate regulations for each flyway which will take into account the regional as well as the yearly variations in water fowl population. Already this idea on a reduced scale has been adopted for the protection of the greater snow goose, the blue goose and for one migratory group of the Mississippi flyway’s Canada geese.

The greater snow goose nests in quite a restricted zone of Canada’s eastern Arctic—northern Greenland, Ellesmere Island and northern Baffin Island. They migrate along the Atlantic coast and their principal stopover for two months each spring and fall is on the tidal flats at St. Joachim, 25 miles northeast of Quebec City. Here, practically all the greater snow geese in existence—about 18,000 of them—rest and feed. With private planes now carrying gunners across half a continent to the key hunting spots, hunting, if allowed at SB Joachim, would probably wipe out this remnant of greater snow geese in a single season. The strategic importance

of St. Joachim was realized in time, however, and today a local gun club, with government direction and assistance, maintains a close guard over the birds as long as they remain.

The blue geese have a similar story. They nest on Baffin and Southampton Islands at the roof of Hudson Bay and then start southward in September toward wintering grounds in Louisiana and Texas along the Gulf of Mexico coast. En route a big percentage of the blue goose flocks stop off in October on shallow Hannah Bay at the southern tip of James Bay in Northern Ontario. Returning in the spring, they follow a route farther west and the principal rendezvous for resting and feeding is at Grant’s Lake, 25 miles northwest of Winnipeg. Thus, twice a year, for a period of three or four weeks each time, it is estimated that over 75% of the continent’s blue geese are concentrated at one spot. Hunters would have wiped this species out of existence in a short time and the story of the blue goose would have been a blue one indeed, had not the Canadian Government wildlife authorities become flyway conscious and established an ironclad system of protection for the birds at Hannah Bay and Grant’s Lake.

The Canada goose illustrates better the flyway theory of protection. This bird, the familiar V-flocking honker, is distributed videly throughout the continent and therefore recent protective measures adopted in Illinois were not required to safeguard the entire species, but rather one geographical group. A large flock of honkers winters each year at Horseshoe Lake in the southern tip of Illinois. In 1940 men of the U. S. fish and wildlife service conducted a census which revealed that the flock numbered 45,000. But each year the numbers decreased. A census before the hunting season of 1945 showed that the flock had been reduced to 26,000.

Because of the lake’s small size and the heavy concentration of geese on its waters it was possible for hunters each autumn to make very heavy kills, but it became clear that something more than Illinois shotguns was forcing the population down. The flock was not yet seriously endangered, but if this downward trend continued the time would come in a few years when Horseshoe Lake would have no honkers left.

Several thousand of the geese were

trapped and banded and then the government agents sat back to wait for band recovery reports to reach Washington. The reports were not long in coming; before the spring of 1946 was far advanced several dozen bands had been turned in. And every one of them came from a rather limited area west of James Bay in Northern Ontario. It was revealed that the wintering geese of Horseshoe Lake were equally clannish in summer, nesting together in this small zone.

Canada’s Department of Mines and Resources sent a couple of ornithologists to James Bay to see if there were any clues that would explain the steady reduction of the Horseshoe Lake honkers. There were clues—scores of red cardboard shell cases littering the ground everywhere the ornithologists went in the goose-nesting area. It was learned that Indians there relied on the geese for an important part of their food supply.

The outcome has been that the take by the Indians has been regulated and when other food arrangements can be made it will be halted entirely. At the southern end of the migration, Horseshoe Lake with all of the Illinois county in which it is located has been closed to goose hunters until the honkers are V-ing down the flyway again in their usual numbers.

Besides revealing the fly way picture, the duck bracelets have added some surprising chapters to our store of water fowl lore.

There is the business of age, for instance. Most band recoveries from ducks come within two or three years of the time of banding, which means also that the birds are two or three years old.

But occasionally a duckland equivalent of Methuselah turns up somewhere to confound both hunters and ornithologists with undisputable proof of a hoary old age.

Old Men of the Marshes

On Oct. 1, 1943, Stewart Gladstone, an old-time hunter of Prince Albert, Sask., shot a banded mallard at Waterhen Lake near Kinistino. The band was so weathered and worn that it Was paper-thin in spots and only a couple of its numbers were discernible. Gladstone turned the band over to G. S. Davis, a leading Prince Albert sportsman, who in turn sent it to Major Ed Russenholt, assistant manager of Ducks Unlimited. Russenholt sent the band along to Ottawa where chemicals and microscope revealed the number to be 35-516840. The original banding record showed that this band had been placed on a mallard by E. E. Allgier at the Lake Andes Refuge, South Dakota, in January, 1936. This wise old mallard had avoided hunters, prairie fires, coyotes and a host of other enemies for eight years.

There are numerous other records in which ducks have been able to preserve their feathered hides for well beyond the span of this eight-year mallard. In the fall of 1940 the birdbanding chiefs at Washington did a lot of startled blinking when they received a band taken from a mallard that had been shot at Madison Lake, Minn., a few weeks before. This duck had been banded at Portage des Sioux, Mo., on March 3, 1928; it was over 12 years old. According to the hunter’s report its body contained numerous healed-over shotgun pellets—none in a vulnerable spot—the souvenirs of at least a dozen gunning seasons through which it had come.

A pintail (not a Methuselah, this one’s a lady) was banded at Ladner, B.C., in November, 1932, by G. C. Reifel, and was shot near Cloverdale,

B.C., Jan. 15, 1943, 11 years later.

Another patriarch was a black duck banded at Battle Creek, Mich., in September, 1933. It was retrapped at the same banding station on Nov. 23, 1938, and the original band, badly worn by this time, was replaced by a new one. With a glistening new bracelet on his leg, the duck once more took to the fly ways. By 1943, with 10 years of shotgun dodging behind him, his sight, hearing and flight speed were no doubt beginning to fail. On Oct. 4 that year, in a marsh 10 miles southwest of Kalamazoo, Mich, this foxy old quacker ducked a second too late. A charge of sizzling No. 4 shot sent the feathers spinning from his breast and ended the career of one of duckdom’s grand old men. Three times his name (or number) went down in banding records, and every time it was in the State of Michigan, but this black duck in the intervals between probably saw much more of the North American continent than the majority of men ever see.

Ducks Hang Together

Sometimes the duck bands tell a heart-warming story of twin trails across the sky. E. W. Ehmann was trapping and banding pintails at Lake Merritt, Calif., on Sept. 30, 1945, when he captured two birds together, both of which were wearing very old bands. The records revealed that both had been originally banded at Lake Merritt, one on Jan. 16, 1933, the other on Jan. 20 of the same year. The band numbers were recorded and they were again released. For almost 13 years this pintail Damon and Pythias had evidently been flying the Pacific coast skyways together. Perhaps they still are.

A. J. Matheson banded two bluewinged teal at Neilburg, Sask., one on Aug. 25, 1943, the other on Sept. 4. Líder that month both were shot on the same day by the same gunner, Roger Cole, at the same place, Philadelphia, Miss.—2,000 miles from Neilburg.

Another twin trail: Two mallards,

banded at Lower Souris National Wildlife Refuge, Upham, N.D., on Sept. 17 and 23, 1942, were shot three years later at DeWitt, Ark., 1,000 miles southeast, within three days of each other—Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, 1945—by hunters of the same gun club.

Banding has shown, too, that autumn water fowl migrat ions are not always in the direction of the sunny south—to complicate the record many ducks fly north when their summer nesting duties end. Ducks banded in southern Alberta in June have been trapped by other banders 600 miles north in September of the same year. Similarly, dozens of ducks banded as nestlings on the southern prairies in summer have been shot the same fall by trappers and Indians of the Arctic, 1,000 miles or more north. The reason is that the duck food of prairie lakes and sloughs -—chiefly minute aquatic animal life— grows scarce toward late summer, while in cooler waters farther north it is reaching its peak of abundance inAugust and September. The quest for food sends thousands of ducks winging northward in late July and August; they come south again, fat and wellfed, in October.

And ducks, when they’re in the travelling mood, have a reputation for getting places in a hurry—and then some. Take the mallard that was banded near St. Charles, Ark., and was shot the next day near Cameron Parish, Lii. This speedster had made an overnight hop of 300 miles with water bugs and lily roots the only fuel driving his feathered pistons.

There are numerous other such speed records. Two mallards were banded near Martin, South Dakota, one on October 17, 1938, the other on the following day. Two days after banding, both were shot at points in Oklahoma—one 550 miles from Martin, S.D., the other 510 miles. Another mallard did a two-day flight of 650 miles—it was banded at Thief Lake, Minn., and was recaptured by another bander two days afterward at Meredosia, 111. And not all of these speed flights are oneand two-day affairs. A mallard banded at Green Bay, Wis., must have averaged 200 miles daily for five successive days, for it was shot after that interval at Georgetown, South Carolina.

The Long-Distance Champ

But the little blue-winged teal is the chap who has captured most of the ribbons in both speed and long-distance classes. He nests as far north as the Arctic Circle and in winter he may not stop short of Chile or Brazil. One was banded near L’Islet, Que., on Sept. 5 and was shot at Georgetown, British Guiana, on Oct. 2. He had averaged 110 miles per day for 27 days. Another, banded at Necedah, Wis., reached Chitre, Panama, still fat and going strong although he had averaged 70 miles a day for 60 days. And he might have travelled a previous 1,000 miles before he had reached Necedah.

Another bluewing was presented with his bracelet at Orland Park, 111., and ended a 2,200-mile flight 29 days afterward when an Indian near Port au Prince, Haiti, lined him in the sights of a 12-gauge.

Most Canadian-born ducks and geese are satisfied with U. S. soil as a winter home, but many of them range farther afield in their quest for food, or maybe just for adventure. The past two years of wild fowl banding have produced the following records:

A pintail, banded at Athabaska Delta, Northern Alta., was shot at Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Another pintail, banded at Big Grass Marsh, Man., was bagged by a hunter on Port au Prince Bay, Haiti.

A coot (whitebill to you, if you’re a hunter), banded at Yorkton, Sask., ventured too close to a gunner’s blind and bit the dust of Pedro, Jamaica.

Another coot that was banded at Libau, Man., reached Nassau, Bahamas, before a gunner nailed him.

The transoceanic ribbon belongs to the pintail, a restless wanderer who may leave his native America thousands of miles behind during a winter’s roaming. Quite frequently a few of these ducks reach the Hawaiian Islands in winter after an oversea flight of at least 2,500 miles. These sea distances are covered with very few or possibly no rest stops on the ocean’s surface, and also without food, for the open sea provides none of the pond insects and roots which make up the pintail’s bill of fare. The pintail is a pond duck that is none too much at home on the unprotected ocean and probably he comes down at sea only when exhaustion forces him to.

Early in November, 1942, a small flock of almost exhausted pintails landed at Palmyra Island in midPacific, 3,700 miles southwest of San Francisco. One of them was a drake wearing a band that had been placed on its leg at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah, 4,500 miles from Palmyra, on Aug. 15 of the same year. In 1939 a pintail, not banded, was found exhausted in the surf of Jarvis Island, 500 miles beyond Palmyra.

Whenever ornithologists wind up a long series of experiments on bird migration with statements that “birds

do this and don’t do that,” you can be pretty sure that soon afterward an errant member of the feathered tribe will do exactly what he isn’t supposed to do.

Scores of experiments and thousands of banding records have “proved” that ducks won’t leave their ancestral fiyway. Probably the green-winged leal that Gordon H. True trapped at Tulare Lake, Calif., in September, 1940, was quacking “Oh yeah, I’ll show you!” when True released him with band number 40-520418 on his leg. Anyway, band 40-520418 arrived at Washington one July day in 1943. The teal had been shot a month previously at Henley Harbor on the Strait of Belle Isle in Labrador, 4,000 miles from the Pacific flyway in which he belonged.

A pintail banded at Cambridge, Md., on the Atlantic coast, likewise ignored the fly way rule. Two and a half years later he was shot at Cordelia, Calif. Another pintail, this one banded in California, lost no time in leaving his chums of the Pacific flyway 1,600 miles behind, for 42 days later he was shot at Havana, 111. And a greater scaup duck, the hunter’s familiar bluebill, did a similar flyway hop when, after having been banded at Ithica, N.Y., he got himself shot a couple of years later at Port Simpson near Prince Rupert in British Columbia.

But the scientists who spent years studying birdbanding records to discover the fly way principle of water fowl distribution aren’t even blushing. For one thing, over 50% of these ducks which get out of their own flyway are birds which have recovered from botulism, a not uncommon water fowl disease. Maybe the disease knocks out of kilter the built-in compass or whatever else the wild fowl have to keep them flying on the beam. And anyway for every one of these wandering ducks that would seem to knock the flyway rule haywire, there are thousands of others that have proved it true.

Down the four great flyways they are winging their way now—canvasbacks and redheads from Canada’s prairies, the little green-winged teal and widgeon from Alaska, broad V’s of geese from the distant Arctic. And with them glinting in the sun go 100,000 duck bracelets, to solve the yet unsolved mysteries of water fowl migration and to play a vital role in preserving a million-dollar industry of today as a million-dollar industry for tomorrow. if

A Matter of Paper

Continuing world shortages have greatly affected deliveries of the type of paper this publication normally uses.

The mills are doing their best, but are unable to supply us with enough paper of uniformly high grade.

We, too, are doing our best.

Should your copy of Maclean’s contain paper not as good as usual, it is because that is the only way in which the publishers can maintain full service to the largest possible number of readers.

And if for the same reason your copy is late in reaching you, we ask your indulgence.