Tagging Along: A Duck-Banding Experience

Duck banding went loosey goosey.

As Pennsylvania Game Commission’s southeast wildlife management supervisor John Morgan approached one of 12 duck cages set up throughout Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, he counted three birds.

Duck. Duck. Goose.

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A snow goose, a mallard and a wood duck waddle into a cage… PC: Jillian Clemente

One lone snow goose who missed the migratory memo last spring was waddling around the cage amidst a mallard and a wood duck. The ducks perched in one corner and dabbled on some corn, avoiding the hissing goose. Morgan approached the large box cage and, after scooping out the ducks and securing them in a burlap sack, simply lifted up the cage and let the goose fly away to its other five remaining goose friends.

Morgan hasn’t seen this before. Since he’s now the southeast supervisor, he’s mostly doing paperwork for the 12 counties he manages. Typically, it’s Lauren Fenstermacher, Middle Creek wildlife conservation education specialist, who banded the following day. She hasn’t seen any geese while banding for ducks in her past year, either, but in the 30 years Middle Creek has been banding, one or two have probably showed up in the past.

Middle Creek bands 250 wood ducks and 250 mallards between Aug. 1 and Sept. 16 every year. The United States Federal Wildlife Service sets the standard to keep data consistent.

John and Lauren both agreed to let my dad and I tag along and spend a day in the life. For me, it was both shadowing experience and a heck of a lot of fun; for Dad, strictly the latter.

Even on the first day, Aug. 9, the day I filled up my hip waders with “fowl” water on the very first trap, I finished the morning with a smile on my face, albeit slightly sweaty and muddy.

Banding is a fairly simple process. After the scientist, muddy teenager and her father return from the trap with ducks in hand, the tackle box comes out. It’s filled with different sizes of bands; each bird gets its own special size that conforms perfectly to its leg. There are one special pair of pliers per size of band. The ends must be flush. If there’s a gap, fishing line could get caught. If it overlaps, it could rub the duck’s leg and cause an irritation.

Duckily, the birds were cooperative. After being banded, the sex, type and age were recorded, and I released them back into the pond. The only dangers to the pond were crocs, but just the ones on my feet.

Bad jokes aside, ducks are my favorite bird, so I’m thrilled that I had the chance to hold a few and see actual research being done. To say it sparked an interest in doing further research with this bird may or may not be a true statement, but we’ll see where my path ends up. Maybe it’ll lead me to a pond.

I also got the chance to report on this experience for the Reading Eagle’s Outdoor section. Read the article here on Sept. 18.