From a 1.1 million peak in the late-1990s, the Great Lakes mallard population has declined to about 700 thousand. Meanwhile, there’s been increased genetic infusion of game farm mallards that don’t necessarily migrate as do wild-originated mallards. That could be a good thing for Great Lakes hunters, right? Or not? As part of a major study to determine why mallard populations are declining in the US, Brad Luukonen is completing his dissertation and University of Michigan. Luukonen sheds light on this perplexing mallard problem, discussing how it may effect hunting in the Great Lakes region and further down the flyway, contributing and confounding factors, and future possible management implications. Plenty good food for thought no matter where in the US your chase greenheads!

What Are Mallards Populations Falling in the Great Lakes Region?

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Tracking Mallards

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. Wow, interesting topic. You all have heard Phil Laveretsky, you’ve heard Dr. Bradley Cohen in the past, we’ve talked about a lot of different modern day hunting equations, both of those two prior guests have both mentioned today’s guest, Ben Luukonen by name. A lot of the research he’s working on right now builds on a lot of Lavretsky’s research and this new mallard, this farm duck mallard that is beginning to infiltrate wild mallard populations. Ben, how are you today?

Ben Luukonen: I’m doing great. I’m really looking forward to this discussion. I always like the opportunity to talk about ducks.

Ramsey Russell: Me too, man. I guarantee I like to talk about ducks. It’s in the afternoon, you said, hey, man, I can’t meet with you till later because I’ve got some things going on. What did you do today? You were doing field work this morning. What kind of field work are you doing?

Ben Luukonen: Well, we’re doing a couple of different things right now. We’ve got GPS transmitters that we’ve been putting on hen mallards across the Great Lakes. And so, one of the things that’s going on right now, of course, is those birds are starting to think about or already in the process of nesting. So for the birds we have transmitters on, we try to go out and visit them when they’re nesting to see things like how many eggs they have, what their nest site looks like and ultimately whether they’re successful or not. And then also at this time of year, we’re trying to catch some more mallards and put transmitters on them to increase the number of ducks that we’re monitoring, tracking across the landscape.

Learning More About the Great Lakes Mallard Population

And so, based on those surveys and the ducks counted each year, the population of mallards in the Great Lakes has declined from a high of about 1.1 million in the late 90s to approximately 700,000 here in the last few years.

Ramsey Russell: And just real quickly, introduce everybody to yourself. Where are you going to school? What are you working on, and what is your research topic?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, I’m a PhD student at Michigan State University and I’m working on this project to essentially learn more about the Great Lakes mallard population. So those are mallards that nest in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And the project came about because that population mallards has really declined over about the last two decades. So we’re trying to understand what are the factors that might be limiting that population and what can we do about it.

Ramsey Russell: When you say that the population has declined, are you talking about overall gross numbers of mallard ducks or are you talking wild mallard ducks?

Ben Luukonen: Good question.

Ramsey Russell: And I mean new world versus old world genetics. I just want to be clear on this.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. So, the reason that we know the population has declined is that the state DNRs in those 3 states conduct aerial surveys during the breeding season, in fact, the aerial surveys are getting going right now or will be pretty soon. And so, biologists fly in planes on transects across those states and count ducks and we can use those counts extrapolated over the entire area to estimate, for example, how many breeding pairs of mallards we have. And so, based on those surveys and the ducks counted each year, the population of mallards in the Great Lakes has declined from a high of about 1.1 million in the late 90s to approximately 700,000 here in the last few years.

Ramsey Russell: Wow, that’s significant. And I know when you’re flying those surveys, you look down, got a green head, got a white back, looks like a mallard, mallards are mallards, but when you get down into your research of those 700,000 are you trying to just do research on any mallard duck, regardless of their genetic origins or are you trying to focus on one or the other or both? Does that make sense? Like, in other words, when you go and put a GPS on this duck, have you done a sample to where you know, okay, this has got farm duck genetics or this has got North American genetics.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. So, you’ve had Phil Lavretsky on your podcast a few times, right?

Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah.

Ben Luukonen: Your listeners are probably somewhat familiar with this whole mallard hybridization issue that we’ve just been learning about in the last 5 or so years. So, yeah, when we are catching ducks to put transmitters on, we’re really interested to know, is this a pure wild mallard or is this maybe a hybrid between a game farm mallard and a wild mallard? And most of the time, just by looking at the duck, you don’t know right, you kind of alluded to that. When we do these aerial surveys, we don’t know if we’re looking at a pure wild mallard or a game farm mallard. So we’ve partnered with Phil, and we take a blood sample from all the birds we put transmitters on and send those samples to Phil, and he’s able to tell us whether we have a pure wild mallard or we have a hybrid. And it turns out that we have, at least to me, surprising number of hybrids here in the Great Lakes region.

Ramsey Russell: I want to say somebody told me and it may have been Dr. Lavretsky, I want to say somebody told me one time that 8 out of 10 mallards harvested by hunters in Michigan had farm duck or old world genetic traits. They were basically some domestic variation of bird. That blew my mind that 80% of mallards harvested Michigan were likely farm duck origins. Is that what you’re seeing?

Ben Luukonen: Our sample might be a little bit different in that. So rather than sampling birds that are harvested, we’re sampling birds that we’re catching mostly during the traditional summer banding period. So birds that we catch from July through September, primarily and overall across the whole region, we’ve seen almost a 50/50 split. About 50% are pure wild birds, and about 50% are gain farm mallard hybrids.

Ramsey Russell: The Great Lakes mallard population has gone from 1.1 million to 700,000, of those 700,000, half of them are farm duck genetic origin. That’s basically what you’re saying?

Ben Luukonen: Yes.

Ramsey Russell: Wow.

Ben Luukonen: If you look at birds – I guess I should back up a second. So we’re intentionally catching mallards in both urban and rural areas, anecdotally, there’s been an increase in the number of mallards that managers and just the general public are observing in cities. So we’re purposely catching about half of our birds at traditional rural mallard sites and these urban sites. And if you look at birds that we just catch at the rural sites, so birds are using what we think of as traditional mallard habitat, about 70% of those birds are wild. So we think that most of the population is probably still using those rural sites. And so, it might not be quite as bad as what the overall sample indicates, because we find more hybrids at the urban sites in the cities.

Ramsey Russell: I see. How important is the Great Lakes historically to mallard production in the United States? Because I know that Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan some of those areas have traditionally produced waterfowl, but when I think of the core mallard production, I’m thinking of the Canadian Prairies, the Dakotas. So how important, historically is production in the Great Lakes region? And I’m thinking of the Mississippi hunter. You are all in my flyways. I mean, are a lot of my birds historically coming from you all’s area?

Why Do Great Lakes Mallards Matter?

For example, anywhere from half to 80% of the mallards shot in the northern Great Lakes are estimated to have been hatched or from the Great Lakes.

Ben Luukonen: In the past, yes. But if we’re going to compare Great Lakes population to the rest of the mid continent population or birds that are nesting primarily in the prairies, those birds for that population that uses the prairie pothole region is much larger than the Great Lakes population. But the Great Lakes population is really regionally important. For example, anywhere from half to 80% of the mallards shot in the northern Great Lakes are estimated to have been hatched or from the Great Lakes. So, mallards in the Great Lakes are really important for hunters in kind of the northern Mississippi Flyway.

Ramsey Russell: Very interesting stuff. I’m going to back up just a little bit, Ben, who are you as a duck hunter? Because in talking to you, I feel like I’m talking to, what I call a hook and bullet biologist, somebody that’s obviously cut their teeth on actually duck hunting and is now getting into management. What are your origins? Where are you from? How did you get into duck hunting?

A Hook & Bullet Biologist

And so, I pretty much knew from an early age that I wanted to, not only continue to hunt these animals, but I wanted to kind of give back and make sure that we can conserve their populations and always have the ability to sustainably harvest them.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, I agree with that. I would definitely describe myself as a hook and bullet biologist in training. I grew up in southern Michigan and had some really good hunting mentors in my dad and my grandpa and I guess I really consider myself kind of a generalist. I like to hunt quite a few different species, particularly ducks and geese, of course, but I also enjoy archery hunting for deer and really enjoy spring turkey hunting. So I got a really early introduction to not only hunting, but my dad was an avian research specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. So, I got a really early exposure to doing research, particularly waterfowl research. And so, I pretty much knew from an early age that I wanted to, not only continue to hunt these animals, but I wanted to kind of give back and make sure that we can conserve their populations and always have the ability to sustainably harvest them.

Ramsey Russell: Surely you must talk to your dad some about then versus now. He’s been doing research a long time or did research for a long time. And I feel certain he’s interested in a lot of what you’re seeing today and what your research is showing. Have you ever sat in a duck blind or across the coffee table with your dad and talked about then versus now, then when there was 1.1 million or more mallards in the Great Lakes region versus now when there’s 700,000? How it affected the hunting, how it affected his hunting then versus now? Or what he would experience or see up in the skies then versus now?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. We’ve had a lot of conversations about that. Kind of too early for me to remember, but really, the heyday of mallard hunting here in the northern Great Lakes were back in the late 1990s, right when the population was at its peak and my dad had a hand in getting this research project started. He transitioned from working for Michigan DNR to Michigan State University and was one of the leaders in getting the grant funding and getting this project off the ground. But unfortunately, he passed away a little over a year ago. So there’s a lot of things that I’d like to tell him about that we’re learning now that I’m just not able to.

Why Have Mallard Populations Declined?

 Is it habitat loss? Is it more of a genetic factor?

Ramsey Russell: Oh, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear that. So what seems to be driving the decline? Why 1.1 million to 700,000? Is it urban encroachment? Is it habitat loss? Is it more of a genetic factor?

Ben Luukonen: I think that’s a really difficult question to answer because there are so many factors that are contributing. So, I think I’ll kind of start out, my answer is to say that not only are we looking at this GPS data set from the birds that we put transmitters on, but we also have a very strong mallard banding data set for the region. Every year, state and federal agencies capture and band mallards. And so, from that data set, we have a really great long term look at what things like survival and productivity had been doing, whereas this transmitter data set gives us a more in depth look just in the past few years. So if we look at things that we can estimate from the banding data, like I mentioned, survival or productivity, for productivity, we think of that as being the average number of ducklings that are produced and raised to the point where they can fly and then are able to be banded in the banded sample. So if you look at hen mallard survival long term, there’s not really any red flags, not really any reductions or declines in hen mallard survival. And what we see from our GPS data set is that hen mallards have really high fidelity to the Great Lakes region or they have a high probability of returning to or staying within the Great Lakes region to nest. So, I don’t think that we’re losing very many mallards at all that were produced here that might go somewhere else to nest, it seems like that’s not really happening. So that kind of leaves one last option and that’s productivity. And if we look at the index of productivity or the average number of juvenile female mallards per adult female, that has decreased over the last 20 years and I think production is probably the factor that has contributed most to the decline.

Ramsey Russell: And that decline in production is something to do with the difference in old world versus new world genetics, do you think?

Ben Luukonen: I think that’s probably part of it. It’s a little too early for me to say that that’s the primary driver. There have been other things that have occurred over that time period as well. For example, we’ve lost something like 3.5 million acres of grassland and pasture in the Great Lakes region and we have things like change in climate. So, I think there’s both habitat, climate and probably genetic factors that are all contributing to that decline in productivity. One thing, I guess I’ll add is that if you look at what banding sites have the highest production, they’re the sites that are less developed or less urban and that are farther north. And that’s exactly the opposite of where we find most of these hybrids. Most of the hybrids we find are in the southern Great Lakes and they’re more likely to be at urban sites. So that might kind of point to this hybridization issue as a contributor to the decline in productivity.

Ramsey Russell: How long have you all been putting GPS transmitters on Michigan mallards or Great Lakes mallards?

Ben Luukonen: It’s been a couple of years now. We started in the spring of 2021 and there are 5 states that are partnering in the project. So, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. And over those two years, we’ve marked 435 hen mallards with GPS transmitters.

Ramsey Russell: How many?

Ben Luukonen: 435.

Ramsey Russell: Holy cow.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: A couple of questions about this, because you see it posted on social media a lot, people are very proud to shoot mallards with backpacks and things of that nature. And how many of those have been shot by hunters?

Using Duck Banding Data

I mean, there’s a million questions, you just got to help to wonder and picking up a band and being able to contribute to the harvest estimate and everything else is a rewarding part of that. 

Ben Luukonen: It’s about what we would expect based on banding data. One of the things we can look at with banding data is the direct recovery rate or essentially the proportion of the banded sample that is harvested and reported by hunters. And if you look at that for hen mallards it’s about 10%, so about 10% of the bands we put out get harvested and reported. And that is almost exactly what we’re seeing with our transmitter birds as well. It’s a little bit higher than that for juvenile hens and a little bit lower than that for the adult hens.

Ramsey Russell: Now, you’re a duck hunter yourself, have you ever shot a banded bird while hunting with your family and friends?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, I have. I’ve shot a few banded Canada geese and I’ve shot one banded mallard when I was in Iowa, that was from Manitoba.

Ramsey Russell: And here’s what I’m getting at as a researcher, as somebody that views those birds as data points. Now, for your research project, do you nonetheless get just a little excited or your heart skip a beat when the dog comes in and you’ve got a band on its leg? Or is that just shrug it off, it’s just a science project.

Ben Luukonen: No, I get excited if I harvest a banded bird. For me, it’s not so much of a trophy – but I guess what I get excited about is to learn where that bird was from and how old it was and how far it’s traveled and just to think of some of the things that birds probably seen.

Ramsey Russell: Picking up a banded bird really does answer at least a few questions that we all have. You pick up a bird that’s not got a band on it, you’re the first person since God to lay hands on that bird and you got all these questions, where did he come from? What is he saying? How old is he? How many times has he seen decoys or duck hunters? I mean, there’s a million questions, you just got to help to wonder and picking up a band and being able to contribute to the harvest estimate and everything else is a rewarding part of that. What I was leading off going to ask you is, as a hunter, it is kind of exciting and rewarding to pick up a band, we all recognize it and prize it and report it and do stuff like that. But on the other hand, now, as a researcher, that’s committing a lot of field time and a lot of budget going into some of these backpacks, how do you personally feel when you get a notification that hen number 2344 has been shot and now you got to put that backpack on another duck? How does that feel?

Ben Luukonen: It’s a complicated mix of feelings. On one hand, its good data, even if one gets shot, because one of the things we’re looking at is what kills hen mallards. So we don’t want our transmitter birds to be treated any differently than any unmarked hen mallard, right? We don’t want hunters to target them, but we also don’t want hunters to avoid them. So it’s nice to get that additional data point, but I don’t know if getting attached is the right word, but it’s kind of maybe strange to say it, but you almost kind of get to know some of these ducks because you see where they go and what they do 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and you have some that are maybe more interesting than others. And if one of those ones gets shot, there’s a little part of you that’s a little disappointed that you don’t get to see what that bird is going to do for the rest of its life.

Ramsey Russell: How often do you turn on a computer and look at all your hens? Is that something you do every morning, like fix a cup of coffee and go turn on your computer and want to see where everybody’s at or-?

Ben Luukonen: Pretty much, yeah. The transmitters are designed or they’re programmable and typically, they’re sending any data they have stored on board to an online database that I can look at once every day. So as long as they have adequate cell coverage, they’re sending all their data. And, yes, I check on them every day to see what they’re doing, where they’re going and what they’re up to, and if it looks like any of them have maybe died, then we always do whatever we can to try to go and recover the transmitter and figure out what killed the bird.

Ramsey Russell: Do you ever have any problem with somebody recovers one, a hunter not wanting to give it up? No, I want it mounted on my duck man. Are they pretty good about sending that back so you can put it on other duck? I know they’re not cheap, I’ve heard that these GPS backpacks are quite expensive.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, they’re definitely not cheap. So, it’s really helpful for us to get them back as long as they’re still working. And most of the time, they survive the shotgun blast and are still functional. And I’m really happy to say that by and large, we’ve had really good cooperation from all the hunters that have harvested them, my contact info is on the side of the transmitter so during the fall, I get quite a few calls from hunters across the region who have harvested one of our birds and are most of the time, really excited to have done so and want to learn more. And as a reward for returning the transmitter, I send them either a replica of the transmitter, if they’re interested in getting the bird mounted or a bass pro shops or Cabela’s gift card.

Ramsey Russell: That’s fantastic. As we’ve talked about on here before, this research data is so important to managing continental waterfowl. But on the other hand, it’s a way that the regular guy, like me, like a listener, can participate in the actual science of it, citizen scientist I’ve heard it called before, I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

How Waterfowl Hunters Help in Reporting Banded Birds

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. You hear people get excited about various citizen science projects like, maybe eBird, for example, where people report observations of birds, why they’re birding. But hunters were really the original citizen scientists, particularly waterfowl hunters in reporting banded birds. And for that reason, that’s in large part why we know as much as we do about waterfowl in North America is because of hunters harvesting banded birds and reporting those bands.

Ramsey Russell: In general, we talked about a lot of the Great Lakes birds migrating south in the Mississippi Flyway. But are you far enough in your research, looking at the GPS data to describe and just guess where these birds are migrating with respect to their genetic origins?

Ben Luukonen: So essentially, the question is whether genetics has any impact on how far or whether birds are going to migrate right?

Ramsey Russell: Right.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. And we are seeing differences in not just migratory behavior, but even differences in how birds move locally across the landscape.

Ramsey Russell: Describe that in detail, because that’s very interesting topic.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. So, we have all these hybrids and in addition to just being able to tell –

Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, by hybrid, what do you mean? Old world genetics or a combination of the two, when you say hybrid?

Ben Luukonen: Hybrids would be a cross between a pure wild mallard, which would be new world genetics and a domestic game farm mallard, which has the old world European genetic signature. All the hybrids in our sample were hybrids between pure wild mallards and game farm mallards. The other possibility is to have a hybrid between a wild mallard and like, a domestic park or farm duck. But all the mallards in our sample so far have been hybrids with game farm mallards with the old world genetics.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right. Okay. I’m just making sure, when you said hybrid, I want to clarify that. But anyway, you are seeing differentiated movement between those two populations, please continue.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. One kind of new answer I want to just mention briefly is, in addition to telling whether a bird is a hybrid or a pure wild mallard, we can actually estimate what percent of the bird’s genome is wild. So for an individual bird, we could say that bird is 90% wild or maybe a different bird might be like 75% wild. And we are right now considering anything less than 90% to be a hybrid and it turns out that not all hybrids are created equal. Some of the hybrids that are more on the wild side, like 70%, 80% or 90% wild, might behave like a wild bird, but we’re seeing birds that are less than about 60% wild, are really behaving differently. So those hybrids move about half the distance on average, each day that wild birds do. So those hybrids really just pretty much sit around, don’t spend very much time flying and those hybrids that are more on the domestic end of the spectrum. So again, less than about 60% wild are less likely to migrate than wild birds.

Ramsey Russell: Do you see a tendency on how they react to weather? Will the more wild they are, will they respond differently to a cold front than the more game farm they are?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, absolutely. The wild birds tend to behave like what we would expect wild mallards to, right? So, if we get a cold snap and wetlands start to freeze and maybe we get some snow that covers up the waste grain and agricultural fields, then we’ll see those wild birds move south or some might move to areas where they can find open water, like wastewater plants or warm water discharges of power plants, that sort of thing. But we essentially see no response in those hybrids. They pretty much stay here no matter what the weather does and sometimes that works for them and sometimes it doesn’t.

Ramsey Russell: That’s all so interesting. How does it translate into hunting success or hunter harvest in the Great Lakes versus further down the flyway? Like some of the band recoveries or some of the recoveries you’re seeing? We were talking about how some of the hunters, wherever these birds are going, 10% of them are being harvested, can you see it that way? Where exactly are the wilder birds going? And where exactly are most of the game farm origins being harvested? Is there differentiation in that? Like, how far south they’re going, I’m asking? And how close are they being harvested?

Ben Luukonen: Well, just like the fact that we see most of the banded birds get harvested within the Great Lakes, most of the harvest of our transmitter birds occurs within the Great Lakes in terms of how far south they go, we haven’t had any of our transmitter birds that have gone farther south than the southern boundary of Tennessee and that pretty much coincides with the band recovery distribution. So, most of the recoveries occur kind of within the Great Lakes, some occur kind of in that mid latitude band around Kentucky and Tennessee and it’s really a minority, very few recoveries occur in the Deep South. So not great news for duck hunters down in your neck of the woods.

Are Hunters in the South Seeing Fewer Greenheads?

They don’t migrate as far south, they don’t need or want to push out of there. 

Ramsey Russell: No. And I heard Lavretsky, I don’t know, week before last presented a seminar at Mississippi State University and he said the same thing and if he said why those birds aren’t penetrating past Tennessee, I don’t remember. But I did notice him saying that a lot of these birds were coming down as far south as Tennessee and then stopping. It was like a wall and they weren’t crossing that wall. Might that be because that’s just where, for whatever reason, that sample cohort traditionally wintered? Or could there be some other genetical or climate factor going on that’s just now stopping them? You see what I’m saying? Did for some reason, those birds coming out of Michigan and Ohio or the Great Lakes area, were they historically coming beyond Tennessee or is that just where they always laid up? I’m wondering. Do you got any ideas or thoughts on why there might be that barrier around Tennessee?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, I guess, kind of speculate based on some of our data, but I think it’s really hard to say exactly or point to one factor. So I think it’s a combination of things. I think one of the things I had talked about a little while ago was just the fact that hunters in the Deep South are seeing fewer greenheads in general, so I think there’s some climate or some weather factors that might be related, I think in general, even wild mallards don’t really need to go as far south as they used to because they can find open water and food sources farther north as the climate changes. And I think we’ve probably been increasing in the number of game farm hybrids we have, at least in the Great Lakes and so I think that as genetic kind of distribution shifts closer and closer, more and more in favor of those game farm hybrids, I think that’s also contributed to a reduction in the number of mallards that make it down to the Mississippi alluvial valley.

Ramsey Russell: Why do you think the game farm genetic doesn’t move as much in a day or move as far over the course of a season. Are they lazy? Are they weak?

Ben Luukonen: Well, that’s a really good question for Phil Lavretsky. The speculation is they were kind of bred to be flighty, right? So essentially kind of appeared to fly fast or erratically and probably were fun to shoot out of the air, but that resulted in them having a smaller body size than wild birds and also proportionally shorter wings. So that’s fine for making short flights, but that’s probably not conducive to make sustained long distance flights. So my guess is that these game farm hybrids are essentially, they’re just not adapted to make these long distance migrations that mallard is probably used to.

Ramsey Russell: On the one hand, all right, we’ve gone from 1.1 million to 700,000 in the Great Lakes area, mallards we’re talking. Out of the 700,000 approximately half are more game farm origin than wild origin. They don’t migrate as far south, they don’t need or want to push out of there. So, I’m sitting there thinking, if I’m a Great Lakes hunter, if historically, I had 1.1 million mallards produced in my area, that mostly had a tendency to fly way on down to Ramsey’s part of the world in the wintertime versus now, I may have a decreased overall population, but at least half of them really don’t want to leave. I mean, it seems like hunter success for mallards may not have changed much up in that area, or has it?

Distinction Between Hybrid and Wild Mallards

One of the most striking differences that we see between hybrid and wild mallards is that these hybrids are not only more likely to use, but they’re actively selecting for urban areas.

Ben Luukonen: Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because one of the other differences and maybe one of the most striking differences that we see between hybrid and wild mallards is that these hybrids are not only more likely to use, but they’re actively selecting for urban areas. So, they’re selecting for, essentially, parks and places in cities where they probably don’t encounter many predators, they are largely not available to hunters and in a lot of these places, they get fed. At first glance, it might seem to be a good thing if you’re a duck hunter up north, but chances are these hybrids very rarely, if ever, leave the urban areas.

Ramsey Russell: Well, that ain’t good if I’m a duck hunter, that’s not good at all. There’s a bunch of ducks up here, but I can’t get to them, they don’t want to come out here and hunt and play with us, they want to sit up there in the city parks eating wonder bread. That’s not good at all. Question I’ve always had, and its purely opinion but I wonder about this. When they go out and do all the counts, the federal government goes in surveys, and from those May and later surveys, they estimate population and from that seasonal population, as it reflects in the trend, they begin to make management decisions. And the mallard is one of the most preeminent, that’s the preeminent species surveyed mallard, pintail, they count them all, but the mallard drives the management plan, bag limits, harvest, stuff like that. What kind of problems might we be having? And this is just something, it occurs to me. So, from the air, the powers that be are out counting mallards. But in hand, it’s not an equal mallard. I’ve got hybrid or old world genetics and I’ve got new world genetics, they behave differently, their survival is different and yet, in terms of the overall collective national management, they’re all treated the same. Do you see any errors or can think of any problems that could present in managing mallards, let’s say, continentally, when I’ve got this obvious bias within that mallard population?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of challenges and not really any great solutions. So a couple of ones that we’ve talked about quite a bit here is that, one of the things is that we’re not very effectively surveying these urban areas and anecdotally, the number of mallards that use these places like city parks has really increased. So it seems like there’s a growing proportion of the population that uses these urban areas and are essentially not counted at all on the aerial surveys. And then there’s the issue that you just brought up, which is that of the ducks that are counted in places that we think of as traditional mallard habitat, only some proportion of those are pure wild birds and there’s probably some portion that don’t count the same or fundamentally not the same as wild mallards.

Ramsey Russell: So what do you think is going to come out of your research, Ben?

Should We Stop the Release of Game Farm Mallards?

So, it really depends on what your remaining wild population looks like, or essentially, do you have enough wild birds left in the population to breed out those game farm mallard genes? 

Ben Luukonen: Well, I think it’s going to change the way that we think about mallards and mallard management. I really hope that we’ll be able to identify what are the most important factors that are limiting the Great Lakes mallards population and I think from that, we’ll have some good management recommendations to try to address those factors and turn this decline around. And one of those might be, if we decide that these game farm mallards are a hindrance to the population, there’s a pretty clear management option to counteract that and that’s to stop the release of game farm mallards.

Ramsey Russell: See, that’s the million dollar question I really wonder the most, is the genie out of the bottle and I can’t put him back in. And it’s not just that the birds were historically released and have now gotten out of hand, it’s that throughout the entire flyway, they continue to be released. And maybe even I don’t even know my world, I know that in Mississippi, the Mississippi Flyway, the Atlantic Flyway, there are clubs and private individuals and everything else, turning these game farm birds loose. In fact, even right down here in the Mississippi Delta, I hunted a property this year, great area to hunt, they’ve got some beautiful habitats, old catfish ponds under great management, manage water levels and everything else and it’s just beautiful. And they were showing me one night at dinner, a lot of the leg band they said, now here’s why you got a good chance shooting a band. And there was a club that banded ducks and if you killed one of their bands and reported it to them, they send you a t-shirt. And then not too far from there, in fact, they pointed out about a dozen birds sitting on the water that you couldn’t make swim, it looked like Easter ducks that had grown up right just sitting out there in your backyard. And they were saying, now he bands these birds and he names his birds, Bubba, John, Jim, Jerry, somebody had a Bubba and a Bubba banded. And he names birds and turns them loose and loves to hear when people shoot one of his ducks, he takes a sense of pride in it. So that’s just one county in the state of Mississippi Delta that this phenomenon exists and those are both game farm genetics. But it’s everywhere. And I just wonder, how could you put the genie back in the bottle, if it’s a problem and it sounds like it is. How could it possibly be – even if we stopped it – so, I’m asking a lot of different questions at one time, I’m just shotgunning up in the air, spraying and praying. But even if you did, okay, they say, no more, the United States of America, you’re not allowed to release farm bird genetics into the population anymore. Is it too late? Would it work itself out? And if it did, how long would it take?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, that’s a really great question and the short answer is, we don’t know exactly, but we have some ideas. So, it really depends on what your remaining wild population looks like, or essentially, do you have enough wild birds left in the population to breed out those game farm mallard genes? And then the other question is, where are the game farm mallard genes coming from? Here in the Great Lakes, we have a lot of early generational hybrids. So what that means is that we have a surprising number of hybrids where one of the parents was a pure wild mallard and one of the parents was a pure game farm mallard. And so, their resulting offspring are 50% wild and so we don’t know how many – and that’s part of the problem. We don’t know how many game farm mallards are being released here in the Great Lakes or the Mississippi Flyway and how many of our game farm mallards are coming from the Atlantic Flyway, where I’m sure, as you’ve discussed with Phil, the issue is even worse.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah.

Ben Luukonen: In the Atlantic Flyway, they might be too far, they might not have enough wild mallards to get back to a self-sustaining population. But the simulation suggests that after like, I think it’s 3 generations of back crossing. So, if you have a hybrid that breeds with a wild bird and then its ducklings when they grow up breed with wild birds and then their ducklings breed with wild birds, you should pretty quickly in about 3 or 4 generations, I think, is what Dr. Lavretsky predicts, you’ll get back to wild birds. So here in the Great Lakes, it’s not too late, we still have a substantial number of wild birds and if we could stop the influx of game farm genes, we think we would be able to gradually increase the number of wild birds in the population. And it’s certainly not too late for mallards farther west, because the population that nests in the prairie pothole region is almost entirely wild.

Ramsey Russell: So, really, that’s a great glimmer of hope, if this is as big a problem as it seems, is that in as little as a decade, it could work itself out, assuming there’s enough wild genetics still in the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway to do that. That’s good news.

Ben Luukonen: That’s right. I’m not sure you would see a population response that quick, but I think there’s definitely reason to be hopeful.

Ramsey Russell: As you’ve been doing your research, first off, how much longer do you have to complete your dissertation?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, well, as long as it takes me to get done. So as long as I keep my nose to the grindstone, I’m expecting to be done by the summer of 2024, so little over a year.

Ramsey Russell: I know from talking to you, your long term interest because I asked you what you want to do when you grew up, your long term interest is to continue in the waterfowl research pertaining to applied, either working at a university or working for a DNR and continue to do research like your dad did and participate in that program. But pursuant to your ongoing research project, you’re out there doing your field work, you’re watching the ducks on the computer, you’re putting all your research together. Has your mind already started spawning or talking to your faculty advisors? Have you all already started to kick back other research needs to build on this body of work you’re doing right now?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. We are fortunate to have a lot of really great partners across the Great Lakes region that are supporting this research and are actively invested in the results because they’re going to take the results and apply them to the management decisions that they make and the management actions they take to hopefully improve the Great Lakes mallard population. So we are essentially in constant communication not only with folks in academia, but also the managers in the state and federal agencies that are ultimately going to put our results into practice.

Ramsey Russell: And who are some of the supporters and some of the cooperators in your research?

Ben Luukonen: It’s a good question. If you don’t mind, I’ll just go ahead and read off the whole list of partners.

Ramsey Russell: No, I’d like to recognize them because I think this is vital insert. It’s not often that the folks that are putting their time and their money behind critical research like this get recognized, that’s why I asked.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, it’s been a massive undertaking to mark birds across such a large region. And we’ve just been absolutely overwhelmed with the amount of support to purchase and deploy these transmitters and we just simply couldn’t do large scale research like this without the support of the partners. So our partners include Ducks Unlimited, Franklin College, we got funding from the Great Lakes, Fish & Wildlife Restoration Act, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois Natural History Survey and Forbes Biological Station, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan State University, of course, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the upper Mississippi and Great Lakes region joint venture, Winous Point Marsh Conservancy and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Ramsey Russell: Fantastic. Thanks to all of you all mentioned.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah. And of course, I want to mention we’re partnering with Dr. Lavretsky there at University of Texas, El Paso, on all the genetic analyses.

Where Does Mallard Population Research Go Next?

So I think that’s a big priority and I think one of the other things that’s going to come out of this research is related to habitat management.

Ramsey Russell: Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Where does this research need to go next? Where do you see you get your dissertation put to bed, you all come up with a final conclusion? We’ve covered a lot of the topics pertinent to your research, but where next? Where does this body of research need to continue?

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think it’ll depend a little bit on our final conclusions. What depends on what we find to be the most important limiting factors for the mallard population. But I think anytime you do research, you always have additional follow up questions that you raise. I think one of the biggest questions is one that we talked about, and that’s if we were to stop releasing game farm mallards, how long would it take to maybe reverse some of those effects, and what would that look like? So I think that’s a big priority and I think one of the other things that’s going to come out of this research is related to habitat management. It seems like while the number of wetlands are probably not limiting for mallard production in the Great Lakes, it seems like nest sites might be limiting. We’ve lost a lot of grassland and our GPS mallards are nesting in some strange places and really don’t have a lot of great nest sites available. So I think we’re going to have both management recommendations related to genetics and also recommendations related to habitat management.

Ramsey Russell: Fantastic. I got one last question for you. Your hook and bullet origins that led you with your dad’s influence into this field of wildlife management, you’re very busy getting a lot of research done. You got a timeline, you got a lot of irons in the fire getting your research done. Do you still have time to hunt?

Ben Luukonen: I do. I always make time to hunt. That’s really what I enjoy doing in my free time and I think it helps, at least for me, it helps my productivity is just a way to relax and maybe not think about anything in particular for a while, except for harvesting ducks or geese or whatever it may be.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right. Got to keep it fun. That’s why we all got in this field, right?

Ben Luukonen: That’s right. Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Ben, thank you so much. I have found this episode to be extremely informative and I appreciate your time and explaining all this stuff to us.

Ben Luukonen: Yeah, thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to come on the podcast and I think it’s really important to make duck hunters and just others aware of some of the research that’s going on and how it may be applicable to them. So again, I really appreciate it and I’m always up for a discussion about ducks.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, what do you all think about this topic? What do you think about the research going on? How might it affect you, if you’re in the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway, particularly, especially my buddies up in the Great Lakes? Are you all seeing a difference? Be sure to rate and comment and share and subscribe and hit me up in social media or text. Let me know some future topics and what you think about this particular episode and others. Thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.


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