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A man wearing an orange Tennessee NWR shirt releases a brownish grey bird, which takes flight.
Information icon A wood duck heads skyward after banding as Bill Ross watches. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Banded together

Duck banding by the Service and volunteers aids conservation and research

New Johnsonville, Tennessee — They gathered in a large group, more than 100.

They didn’t know it yet, but they were about to help science.

That began when Clayton Ferrell into their midst and selected one Aix sponsa ­– a wood duck.

He held her with his left hand. His right grasped a set of needle-nose pliers.

Something flashed in the sun — a small piece of aluminum, slightly curved, with a number engraved on it. Ferrell carefully clamped it on his young captive’s leg. He loosened his grip.

“Go on,” he said. “Go.”

Biologist Clayton Ferrell banding a duck. Video by Mark Davis, USFWS. Download the video.

She went. On wings flat and fast, she rose in the late-summer sky — the first of scores of ducks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) would band that day.

Ferrell smiled as he watched her go. He likes this sort of thing.

“It’s fun,” he said, reaching for a second duck. “It’s important, too.”

For almost an hour, Ferrell, a Service biologist, oversaw a banding operation that will help scientists track the migratory patterns of the wood duck. The ducks they banded on a breezy August morning will soon head to Louisiana, east Texas, Mississippi and other places where the winters are warmer than in northwest Tennessee. The bands on their legs will alert other scientist from where those ducks came and harvest rates — and that, in turn, will add to a bank of knowledge to ensure that the birds’ population thrives.

Service and TWRA employees in uniform banding ducks.
Josh Roberson (left), a technician with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, helped Service biologist Clayton Ferrell band more than 50 wood ducks. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Where the birds are

Bird banding is nothing new. John James Audubon, the renowned naturalist whose “Birds of America” stands as a masterpiece of science and art, tied wire around the legs of nesting birds and found them when he returned to their nests the next year. That was in 1803.

In 1902, the Smithsonian Institution got into the bird-banding habit. Seven years later, a professor founded the American Bird Banding Association. It helped track the movements of birds along four major flyways across America.

Now, biologists band more than 200,000 ducks and 150,000 geese annually in North America. Their findings help determine the health of different species of birds, as well as establish hunting quotas.

A biologist holds a duck in such a way to expose it’s iridescent flight feathers, which are otherwise hidden from view.
To admire a wood duck’s wing is to marvel at its iridescence. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Banding ducks provides a glimpse into how they live and where they go, said Andi Cooper, a communications specialist with Ducks Unlimited. The nonprofit, founded more than 70 years ago, is active in waterfowl and habitat conservation, as well as research.

“The biggest importance of banding is showing us where the birds are being born and harvested,” said Cooper, speaking from a regional office in Jackson, Mississippi. “It helps us understand where the birds are and where they need habitat.”

What those bands won’t tell: how much fun it is to hold a duck, to marvel at its wings, to admire its iridescent feathers. To stop breathing for a moment when another duck bursts skyward.

That’s just something you have to see.

A life in the wild

Ferrell works at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. It is a massive complex, comprising more than 51,000 acres divided among three units: Big Sandy, Busseltown and Duck River. The units are located in and around Kentucky Lake, a sprawling reservoir created in 1944 when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed a stretch of the Tennessee River.

Volunteers collect brownish/grey ducks from a tunnel made of netting.
The ducks were herded into chutes before getting bands affixed to a leg. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Ferrell works out of a metal building at the Duck River unit. His desk is a mess — proof, perhaps, that he prefers spending his days in the wind and sun instead of filing away papers. Since his intern days, said Ferrell, he’s banded maybe 30,000 ducks and geese.

The ducks, he said, are a breeze: You hold one for a moment, clip on a band and let it go.

The geese? Well, a goose has attitude. A goose has larger wings, a shorter fuse. It is easily offended. A goose can —

Josh Roberson, take it from here.

“Geese,” said Roberson, a duck-banding volunteer who works for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, “can leave scars.”

The bandings also leave memories, most of them pleasant. Every year, Ferrell coordinates about a dozen bandings throughout the summer. Especially popular: the annual kids’ event, in which children are invited to help biologists affix bands on the birds. This year, it took place on July 24. When he drove to the banding site, said Ferrell, a line of cars filled with parents and their youngsters followed.

“Kids love it,” he said.

Ferrell loves his work. That’s been constant since he was an intern at another Service refuge almost 30 years ago. He recalls those days: Living in the sticks, without the distractions of city life, the college kid focused on reading.

“I started reading everything in the file cabinets,” he said. “I did a lot of learning on my own.”

He learned how the refuge worked, its place in the larger ecosystem, and — just as important — his place in the Service. He’s been at Duck River for 27 years.

‘Job requirement’

He’s a big fan of trail cameras, those unobtrusive, all-seeing machines that hunters and other outdoorsmen use to track the movement of creatures. His computer holds a collection of images — a fat raccoon chowing down on something, a beaver’s curious selfie, a bobcat looking lethal in the half-light.

And aquatic birds. One trail-cam video depicts three Canada geese. They’re walking across a field of trampled corn, their necks arched like question marks as if to say: What’s that? Suddenly, behind them, a flock of American wigeon takes off. They go fast and low — so low, that one goose has to duck to avoid a duck. Ferrell laughs at that one every time.

For Ferrell, the videos and photos are reminders of his early days, when he was a kid rambling about in tidewater Virginia. He’d come home and his mama would fuss at him for getting his clothes dirty.

“Now, it [dirty clothes] is almost a job requirement.”

So is the ability to nab a duck.

For years, the Service has operated a duck/goose trap on the Refuge. It’s about 100 feet by 120 feet, covered by a continuous piece of netting so immense that it takes a couple of hours to set up and take down. Attached to it is a chute where the birds await banding.

Biologists lure birds into the enclosure with corn. On the night before the banding — the last of the year — Ferrell placed kernels inside the enclosure’s V-shaped notch. Any hungry duck would have to pass through it to eat.

A close up shot of a brownish grey duck in a chicken wire enclosure.
When this wood duck heads south, its banded leg will help scientists identify from where it came. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

The next day came bright, with a slight breeze from the west. Ferrell led a small caravan of pickup trucks to the trap. Even from a distance, Ferrell knew the corn had worked. The silhouetted ducks moved in tight, fretful groups.

“Not bad,” he said.

He and his helpers got busy herding the ducks to the chute. The ducks in place, Ferrell and Roberson grabbed pliers; the volunteers reached into the chute compartments, gently removing one duck after another.

Ferrell, meantime, conducted a quick biology lesson. The white wing tips of a female wood duck are teardrop-shaped; the male’s tips are straight. Male wood ducks have red-rimmed eyes; females do not.

A volunteer in a red shirt holding a bird showing off a small metal ring around its ankle.
A volunteer holds a male wood duck at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, where biologists recently banded the ducks to track their migratory movements. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

And, perhaps, female wood ducks are more foul-mouthed — er, beaked. Ferrell released a mature female. She flew away, squabbling.

“You can bet she’s cursing me,” he said.

The volunteers formed a sort of production line: pick up a duck, ID its gender, hand it over for banding. If the duck already had a band from an earlier tagging, the volunteers recorded the band number and let it go. That data will be shared with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland, the national repository for banding information across the nation.

They were finished in about 45 minutes. The last duck departed in much the same way as the first — a burst of wings, a sudden gust, the duck moving as fast as possible away from its captors.

A woman in an orange Tennessee NWR shirt holding a brownish grey duck with both of her hands.
MaryAnn Jay, a volunteer, has participated in two duck bandings. “We just love being outside,” she said, “and looking at the birds.” Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Bill and MaryAnn Jay, former Atlantans who 10 years ago gave up big-city life to go RV-ing across the country, watched that last duck leave. This year marked the second year they’ve come as camper volunteers to work on the refuge helping with a variety of jobs including helping to band ducks. They plan on making it a third time, too.

“We just love being outside,” said MaryAnn Jay, “and looking at the birds.”

So does Ferrell. Banding complete, he sat on the chute, a bottle of water sweating by his side. In the distance, cicadas struck up a morning chorus. Closer by, an egret lifted from a pond. Thunderheads built in the west.

Next year’s first duck banding will be July 1.


Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist

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