Duck Wings Still Flying
Tracing her fingers along the row of white feathers of the duck wing, the teenager’s critical thinking gears begin turning. The mental exercise is an effort to determine the waterfowl species and its age and sex.
A mission of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is to ensure the long-term sustainability of migratory bird populations. One method it uses to meet this objective is the Waterfowl Parts Collection Survey, also known as the wingbee.
"We hold a wingbee in each flyway near the end of the waterfowl seasons," said Kathy Fleming, chief of the Branch of Monitoring and Data Management in the USFWS Migratory Bird Program. "A selection of hunters send in a duck wing or goose tail from every bird they harvest throughout the season. Biologists and volunteers then review each part to determine the species, sex, and age, which provides an estimate of overall harvest as well as the relative harvest of males and females and juveniles and adults. This data is fed into population models and helps biologists evaluate and set waterfowl hunting seasons."
Because some waterfowl seasons continue as late as early March across the country, parts continue to be received after each flyway wingbee has been completed.
"We annually hold a "late" wingbee at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD, after all of the seasons have concluded to examine the remaining parts from these later seasons," Fleming stated. "However, with the travel restrictions in place from the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, we had to readjust how we did things this year."
Fleming explained that instead of sending all of the parts from each flyway to Maryland, the parts were sent to a few biologists that normally participate in the wingbees to process at their homes while they teleworked. One person was Walt Rhodes, a pilot-biologist in the Branch of Migratory Bird Surveys who normally participates in both the Atlantic and Pacific wingbees, giving him years of experience in categorizing these duck and goose parts.
"I was asked by Stephen Chandler, a wildlife biologist in Kathy’s branch who coordinates the annual wingbees, if I would be willing to process the Pacific Flyway parts," Rhodes said. "I jumped at the chance to do the several hundred envelopes because to me each one is a like a Christmas present and mystery all in one. You never know what’s in there and then you have to figure it all out once you open it."
Under Oregon’s pandemic restrictions, Rhodes’ middle-school-aged daughter, Holland, was also home due to the cancellation of the remaining school year. As good as any science lesson she would have gotten at school, Rhodes processed the duck wings with the help of Holland, teaching her the intricacies of each species just as he would for participants of an annual wingbee.
"The late parts are fun because they are a mash up of all of the species, so one envelope may hold a gadwall, followed by a goose tail, and then a green-winged teal. It challenges you to keep switching gears for each species," Rhodes explained.
"Having the school year canceled was disappointing for a lot of kids but I was able to take Holland to work with me, if you will. We sat in our chilly garage over several days and worked through the envelopes. I’d watch her pull out each wing, move her fingers over it, and see her sort through a mental filing cabinet based on the cues," Rhodes said. "It was just another example of the outdoors being the world’s largest classroom."
Walt Rhodes (r), USFWS pilot-biologist, points out features of a male gadwall wing to his daughter, Holland, while processing wings in their garage during the coronavirus pandemic.
Participants at the Pacific Flyway wingbee at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Anderson, CA, age and sex duck wings on a beautiful winter day in late February, 2020.