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by Steve McCadams

Since the dawn of time man has scanned the skies and wondered where and when the birds migrate. How far to they travel? How long do they live?

Deep in the marshes of the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge was the setting last week for some 25 youngsters filled with enthusiasm. Arranged by the Paris Ducks Unlimited Chapter in hopes of providing both an educational and entertaining outing, the group descended on the backwaters of Kentucky Lake.

Our clan was the guest of refuge manager John Taylor, whose staff coordinated the banding operation of some 200 woodies. Over 400 waterfowl, mostly wood ducks with an occasional summer mallard mixed in, were hemmed up in the mesh net erected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials.

We were about to take part in one of several summer banding operations conducted by USFWS where crushed corn proved too tempting to resist for the abundant flocks. The thought of tipping their taste buds with the golden grain had attracted large numbers of ducks to a walk-in type trap surrounded by shallow sloughs.

It was here the kids would partake of a valuable management operation. Their efforts today would help answer questions tomorrow and aid in the management of this valuable resource.

Before the young waterfowlers took on the role of sheepherders, they received some biology lessons about the plight of the wood duck. Biologists Robert Wheat and Clayton Ferrell gave presentations filled with interesting tidbits on the history of the region’s most popular waterfowl.

Aging and determining the sex of the birds was explained, along with the reasons aluminum legs bands are placed on the leg of ducks in the first place. A wood duck box was given away to the youngster guessing the oldest recovery of a banded woodie.

Like puppies out of the pen, these greenwings wasted no time in releasing energy and adapted quickly to the banding efforts. Ducks were moved into small holding cells and separated by vertical doors where kids were able to grab the ducklings and prepare for banding.

Some were uncertain of the task at hand as a few ducks stole the opportunity for a quick getaway. Like a pheasant flushed from the tall grass of a wind swept South Dakota prairie, these woodies knew how to the moment and ride the sky.

“Looks live we’ve had a good hatch this year,” said Taylor, when asked about the numbers of ducks thus far. “It appears the lion’s share of the ducks are juveniles”

Each band has a series of numbers and biologists log the data, which is entered into a national database by USFWS. When hunters or someone finds a banded duck they can call in the number and later receive a certificate informing them of where the bird was banded and who did it, along with the date and approximate age of the bird at the time of banding.

“We’ve captured 1,243 wood ducks this year on the refuge, some of which already sported leg bands, and our records show we’ve banded 8,575 between 1992 and 2001,” said biologist Clayton Ferrell. “We also have 180 or so wood duck boxes on the refuge and they receive some 75-80 percent usage. About 5 percent are used by hooded mergansers.”

How long do wood duck live? While the average life span is likely in the one to two year range, the oldest recovery on record was 22.6 years!

“That’s an old duck and very unusual,” said Robert Wheat. “It’s amazing the information we get from band returns. Another surprising bit of information is the longest return from a wood duck we banded right here at the refuge. It came from Washington State!”

After banding, each kid got to hold and admire his or her new-feathered friends. Seconds later the vertical toss meant a wave goodbye.

Only a brief encounter but a memory that will likely last for life.

In the years to come each youngster will pause at the sight of a wood duck darting over the treetops of a flooded swamp or farm pond and wonder; Was it a duck they help band?

The mystery of migration and movement continues in the eyes of future sportsmen. The shrill cry of the woodie from deep within the estuaries reminds us all that young ducks and young kids sometimes need to meet each other. This was a day when they did just that.


Steve McCadams
  is a professional hunting and fishing guide here in the Paris Landing area and host of The Outdoor Channel's television series  IN-PURSUIT. 



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