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Youngsters from across the area got up close and personal earlier this summer when invited to participate in the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge’s summer wood duck banding program.

Each year Greenwings----Ducks Unlimited members age 16 and under---and a few of their parents got mud on their boots and got a real field trip when biologists with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service took them on a duck round up at the refuge here on Kentucky Lake.

This summer the refuge had a quota of over 300 woodies to band, a process consisting of catching and trapping several ducks in a mesh type net baited with corn. The ducks are then herded into a funnel type setup where vertical doors separate them so banders can handle them individually.

From the legs of the ducks shine an aluminum bracelet bearing a series of numbers and contact information. Once banded the duck is a messenger, taking information with it wherever it goes.

And how far do they go? That’s a question asked by people since the dawn of time. When did they get there and when do they leave?

The migration of birds has always been an intriguing mystery of science and biology. Biologists with the USFWS receive information on band returns through the U. S. Geological Survey. Hunters or anyone finding a banded bird report the date it was taken, location as to state, county and distance from the nearest town.

The hunter or whoever reports the band receives a certificate in the mail telling the recipient where it was banded, who banded the bird and when it was done. Hunters have long sought the jingle of bands on their duck and goose call laynards, a sign of many mornings in the marshes.

When banding the biologists establish a data base of the banding location, date and sex of the bird. They also note whether it was an adult or young of the year.

The information helps monitor distribution and perhaps changes in the hatch from year to year, which can fluctuate when things like flooding occur and destroy nests.

“Presently our quota is 334 with that number also broken down into an age and sex quota of 73 adult females, 45 adult males, 135 immature females and 81 immature males,” said TNWR biologist Clayton Ferrell. “The immature quotas are usually easy to meet but both adult quotas are difficult to meet. The adult male is actually the hardest to meet for us and is a problem for many other banding stations. We have met both immature quotas this year but have only banded 56 adult females and 17 adult males.”

“Our banding totals fluctuate a lot from year to year but overall have been declining. Prior to the start of early goose seasons banding could continue until the day before the start of the early wood duck/teal seasons. Now we have to stop 10 days prior to the start of the early goose season so we are losing around three weeks of banding time.”


Woodies pair off over the course of the winter. We have had a few nests begin in late January to early February. Depends on the weather how early they get started. Usually peak nesting starts in March and April.

As to band returns from birds banded here? We have had one way out in Washington State to the west and Nova Scotia to the northeast. Other than Tennessee the highest harvest concentration is Mississippi and Louisiana. Alabama, eastern Arkansas and eastern Texas also show a good harvest. Most of our wood ducks move out around mid - December but the past couple of winters it has been several weeks earlier. A few seem to hang around all winter long unless the winter is really severe.


“Yes. Usage is about 75 to 85 percent. We still have a wood duck nesting box program. We have been averaging a peek of around 175 - 185 boxes for the past decade. The floods of 2010 and 2011 put a big dent into our box program as nearly 100% of the boxes went under each year right during the peak of nesting,” said Ferrell when asked to comment on the manmade structures.

“We completely lost 75-100 boxes both years. The Friends of TNWR provided funds to purchase material for 100 boxes for the first year and Ducks Unlimited did the same the following year. A Boy Scout group, volunteers and our own summer students built the boxes. It took until the end of 2014 to restore the box numbers in the field to their previous level.”

“We have fully removed all of the boxes from the cypress trees that needed a boat to access them. They required a considerable amount of time to maintain and we had a very narrow window to check them in which the water levels were high enough. Some years they were never checked for various reasons due to accessibility issues. All boxes are now accessible on foot. We have shifted many boxes above the flood line.”


“Several studies in recent years have come out saying that wood duck nest boxes don't make a difference in

wood duck populations at the national level. I believe there was one that looked at several refuges up north that stated there were plenty of natural cavities available thus boxes weren't really needed. Box programs have clearly been declining on many NWR's and WMA's as staffing shortfalls take their toll. Add these studies to the mix and there is less incentive to run such programs. Refuge biologist Robert Wheat and I feel that box programs do make a difference at the local level so we plan to continue ours at the present level as long as we can. We do probably have an abundance of natural cavities on the refuge and up and down KY Lake, but predation is still going to be higher in natural cavities vs a properly run nest box program.

Privately run wood duck box programs can often do more harm than good because box placement is poorly chosen for brood survival or predator guards are inadequate. Boxes on posts with a conical guard by far provide the best protection from predators and then they have to be placed properly to avoid access from adjacent trees.

Nest box programs are very rewarding in that one can easily see by the use that they are receiving that they are making a difference. It would take a lot of time and money to build up a large scale program as well as commitment from numerous people to see it through each year,” he said.



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