Stale ducks. No ducks. Whether real or perceived, it sometimes comes with the territory. But is it getting better or worse? Is it really a function of flooded corn fields further up the flyway, or might there be other factors influencing migratory duck behaviors? Might modern duck hunter behavior be conditioning ducks to learn new scripts? Dr. Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at Tennessee Tech. A long-time duck hunter himself, much of his research involving duck behavior and the way ducks interact to habitat and to hunting pressure originated in the duck blind. Like high flyers that ignore every secret weapon in your playbook, this sobering discussion will likely give you something to think about. And humbled.
Tennessee Tech Wildlife Ecology And Management
Well, I guess at the end of all things, we’re people that are trying to do the science that informs the regulations that affect hunters.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, and I’m going to lead off with this question. How did your duck season go this year? What kind of experience did you have? Was it what you wanted? Were you happy? Were the ducks just fogging up? Because perception is reality, and I perceive fewer ducks. I perceive fewer ducks when I’m duck hunting almost anywhere in the United States than I used to. Are we hunting paper ducks? Are there no more ducks? Are the ducks not coming south? What the heck is going on with some of us southern duck hunters that don’t seem as happy? Today’s guest, Brad Cohen, is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management at Tennessee Tech. And I think he can shed some light on our perception of hunting quality, especially in the Deep South. Brad, how are you today, man?
Brad Cohen: Doing well, Ramsey. I appreciate you having me here today.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I keep up with you on social media; you’ve got a really great Instagram page, and that’s where I keep up with you. And I love a lot of the research you’re doing now. Now, I will say this: I had to look up your field of expertise in the dictionary of ethology. What the heck is ethology?
Brad Cohen: Well, I guess at the end of all things, we’re people that are trying to do the science that informs the regulations that affect hunters.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. And you do a lot of work with habitat species interactions and predator-prey types; that seems to be the gist of your research there at Tennessee Tech, is that right?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So most of my research focuses on how we can create better habitat for a bunch of different game species, such as deer, turkeys, and ducks. And then how do we use the science that we actually are doing to promote better hunting experiences, whether you’re for the state agency folks or a federal conservation agency?
Ramsey Russell: Right, it is. A lot of the research that you all are doing in your lab is applied research. It’s not just for the symposiums and reading it as science for the sake of science; it’s actually translating directly into habitat and hunting management out in the field.
Brad Cohen: Yeah, that’s right. Because I think the biggest misnomer for a lot of people is that we’re sitting here in our ivory tower and coming up with all these research questions that don’t mean squat to the actual people that are out there. And really, we all get into this field; it’s not like it pays that well, it’s all that easy, or anything like that. People that are in this field get into it because we love to be outdoors; a lot of us are super avid hunters and fishermen. And at the end of all things, there’s nothing we’d rather be doing than trying to help the species that we love the most.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. You’re a hook and bullet biologist; that’s something I caught up on right away, and I say that you’re a scientist, but you grew up hunting and fishing. And it seemed to have shaped your career, your career choice, and who you became. Is that right?
Brad Cohen: Yeah, long story short, I was in college. I was a biology student in college, and my stepdad took me on a car ride. He said, Brad, what do you want to do for a living? And I said, I have no clue. He’s like, Well, where do you picture yourself having your first cup of coffee in the morning? Is it in an office? Is it in a cubicle? Is it in the woods? I said, hold on right there. There it is, in the woods. He said, Well, go chase your passion. Well, now I spend every day in the office anyway. But the truth is, like, I googled whitetail deer into Google Scholar, which was at the time my favorite thing to hunt, and wound up working for Dr. Carl Miller at the University of Georgia, doing deer research, and then went over and eventually worked with Mike Chamberlain on turkeys at the University of Georgia.
Ramsey Russell: I know Mike; heck yeah. Mississippi State graduate there. Where did you grow up, Brad?
Brad Cohen: You’re not going to believe this, but I grew up in Long Island, New York, which is very suburban. But I always knew I was a little different. I wound up going to the college that was right near my deer hunting spot in upstate New York. Hunting has more or less always controlled my life.
Ramsey Russell: There’s some good duck hunting, very historical duck hunting there on Long Island. It’s funny how I too kind of got into wildlife and wanted to chase whitetail deer, and that was a big part of my youth. And then somehow, another time, I found religion and got into waterfowl.
Brad Cohen: That’s exactly what happens. I mean, as far as the dynamic species, something that we don’t have and that we’re always asking new questions about, I think science drives a lot of the regulations. I mean, it’s a really good species or set of species to work on.
Ramsey Russell: And you still duck hunt today?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. I mean, whenever I can get out of the office, I’m actually going up to Minnesota for two weeks to pick up my new duck dog. So, I mean, it’s a religion for me, just like anyone else’s.
Ramsey Russell: Well, how did your duck season go this year?
Brad Cohen: Hit or miss. I mean, I had a couple of good hunts. I had my best hunt this year; I saw more ducks than I could ever see, and we couldn’t do anything wrong. And then there were a lot of days just sitting in the blind talking to friends. Which I wouldn’t call a bad day either because it’s better than sitting in this office, I swear to you.
Where the Heck are the Ducks?
I really think the most surprising part of this project has been just understanding the life of a duck.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. And do you ever find yourself sitting in a duck blind on one of those slow days, wondering where the ducks are? Where are the ducks? I mean, why am I not seeing ducks, like I imagine my granddad saw back in the 70s and 80s? You ever find yourself slipping off into that rabbit hole and wondering where the heck the ducks are?
Brad Cohen: I mean, you can’t be a duck hunter nowadays without wondering, Where are the ducks? What are they doing? And you can’t be in this field without asking yourself, All right, I’m not seeing them; what’s going on?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Have those duck blind thoughts helped form some of your research?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So everyone I worked with, the migratory bird biologist for Tennessee and the waterfowl biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife are hunters, and we’re all actually friends. And so all these talks tend to happen in a duck blind or during duck season, and it’s like, All right, what’s going on? What does it mean for waterfowl ecology? What does it mean for the people that, at least at the state level, we’re worried about, which are the hunters? What can we do? What’s going on? What can we do? I mean, that’s literally the beginning of every single talk you have as a scientist.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. What’s going on? And what can I do? That’s kind of like duck hunting. What’s going on? Why don’t they decoy with the ducks finishing into the decoys, and how can I change it?
Brad Cohen: It’s not much different because, to be honest with you, I’ve never worked so hard in my life to kill a single duck, and I’ve never worked so hard in my life research-wise to answer one or two questions. It’s almost like you convinced yourself you had to have a passion for it to work this hard at it.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. You have to be committed. As a Deep South duck hunter in this day and age, I feel like you really have to love duck hunting for what it is and what it isn’t. I want to start off with some of the research questions—some of the questions you’ve answered or are looking at. You’re going out and banding, and you’re going out and putting geolocators on some of these waterfowl, so you’re trapping, you’re interacting, you’re looking at habitat, you’re looking at hunting pressure, you’re looking at sanctuary, and you’re looking at how these birds are acting within their local environment on the wintering grounds. But I know you’re also tracking them as they migrate north and south. Let’s talk about mallard movements. I’d like to talk about that first: what is driving mallards to migrate? I know that cold weather will chase them out, but I know from past conversations and looking at some of this research that a lot of the mallards that are coming to the Deep South are almost working on a photoperiod queue. Do you see that also?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So there’s no doubt it’s almost—some of the stuff I’m going to tell you is that I’ll try and separate scientists from the hunter, the hunter with an opinion. Some of it’s just an opinion, some of it’s science, but let me say that even during our research project, we get a push of mallards in late October and early November straight down into Tennessee. And this year, for example, the Dakotas were wide open well into December, right? And so some of those seem to be going on photo periods. And then some of our ducks are basically following the ice. So, I don’t know if it’s light levels that are dictating the fact that ducks are showing up a little earlier or also the condition of the prairie potholes being so poor that they’re just like, You know what? It’s time to get out of dodge, and maybe I’ll just head to my wintering home. That’s certainly one thing we’re seeing: that they definitely have a winter home space like this. This is where I come back; you’re in, you’re out. It’s probably time to go there.
Ramsey Russell: This year, I started hearing reports in early October. I can remember from folks on coastal Carolina down in the Deep South, Texas, and Louisiana that they perceived a preponderance of pintails, shovelers, and gadwalls, like maybe more than they had seen that early in a long time that they could remember. And I just attributed it to habitat conditions being terribly poor in a lot of the United States, where, up in Canada, up in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas, it was very dry. And the birds showed up, maybe from Alaska, and hit the staging areas like there ain’t no habitat here; let’s keep going. That’s possible, isn’t it?
Brad Cohen: It’s really possible. I’m not going to pontificate too much on your podcast. But something I wonder about is: these are the kinds of strategies that individuals should have, right? Like if I’m a duck, I can do one or two things: I can wait to be pushed out of an area, and I can just keep pushing further and further south. And as I do that, you’ve got to imagine that there’ve already been ducks there before. And so resources are starting to be less and less as I get pushed further down, or I can be a duck that just says, You know what? It’s time to migrate. And I just head down to where I’m going to set up home base. I’m going to learn the area, what’s safe, and where my food is. I don’t have to relearn the area every time a place freezes up. So maybe that’s what part of the population is doing too.
Ramsey Russell: They have wings. And waterfowl—I don’t know how or why—are very keen on exploiting resources many miles away, further away than what they can see when they’re several thousand feet up in the air. And a point to be made: in cases in the southern hemisphere, there is no continental migration of which I’m aware. In Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand, there are no continental migrations. But those birds will transition. You’ll catch a 2.5-inch rain 500 miles away, and when you wake up the next morning, there are half a dozen ducks, and they’ve moved. How do they know that something climatic changed that far away, but they pick up overnight and go? I don’t know how they do it, but they do it. But they transition, they move around, they float on the landscape, but they don’t move continentally, like from the Arctic through prairie Canada down through the United States down to the Gulf Coast; there’s no movement like that down in the southern hemisphere. So, ducks are ducks the world over; they can find and exploit resources, it seems, pretty darn well.
Brad Cohen: That’s right. But now imagine you’re a duck in the current system we have, where you know that based on where you were last year, you survived the season, so you’re like, all right, I know the area, I kind of know if it’s safe or not, and there was a good bit of food, so I’m going right back there. I’m calling it a day; I’m going towards that area.
Ramsey Russell: So you can almost break up. If we’re talking East Tennessee or anywhere in the Deep South, you can almost partition the ducks. You see, in mid-January, the ducks that showed up early are coming to very specific areas, and then the ducks that are just kind of letting nature drive the course are showing up and making a home. Somewhere to eat, somewhere to be safe, somewhere to fly—it’s almost a distinct population. I was sitting in on a conversation, and I’m glad I wasn’t doodling or my mind wandering too much when this subject came up because it shocked me. It was pivotal. There was a property manager and a biologist on a very keystone property in Mississippi talking to a refuge manager that has an inviolate sanctuary about 2.5 miles from that property. And based on banding surveys and geolocators and all that stuff, they were saying that—and this just blows my mind—say you’ve got 50,000 birds sitting over here on this sanctuary and 30,000 or 40,000 birds using this exclusive property that’s got everything a duck could possibly want, I would just have assumed for the past 50 or so years that those ducks were co-mingling. Birds are leaving here and going there, leaving here and going back, and vice versa, but they described it based on a lot of data as independent populations, primarily independent populations. Birds show up in specific areas and then use the same habitat but differently. That changes everything. I never thought about a duck showing up for the winter.
Brad Cohen: I really think the most surprising part of this project has been just understanding the life of a duck. You look at a duck and you look at something that flies, and you see it for a second, and then it’s gone, and you think it’s going to God knows where, and what an exciting life! And then you realize that if you’re a duck, a pretty exciting life is probably a pretty dangerous life.
Ramsey Russell: Walter Cronkite once said duck hunting was a fearless sport, especially if you’re a duck.
Brad Cohen: Exactly. So think how smart it is to kind of just stay there if you can get everything you need in a small area as possible. You learn that there’s that blind, there’s that place, and I’m not going there. You’re super smart. And if you’re going to learn to use as small an area as possible, The larger the area you use, the fewer the fine-scale details of everything, and the more likely you’re going to make a mistake. So we shouldn’t be surprised when ducks really aren’t moving up and down and all around like we expected.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I remember a post you made: you all had a transmitter on a mallard drake that ended up not returning all the way up to Prairie Canada one year. He kind of—I’m pretty sure it was your post I read—kind of spent the summer in the south, but then the following year he did go up to Canada.
Brad Cohen: For drake, it’s all about following females. So the first year he found a female who wanted to stay, he stuck around. Next year, I found one that was going up to the prairie potholes and took off with her.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I’ll tell you what, that will get a lot of guys in trouble, won’t it?
Brad Cohen: Listen, I mean, there are sex ratios in ducks that are so skewed. If you’re a male that can pair up with a female, you just go where they want.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I could relate to that. I sure can. You’re seeing a lot of—I want to talk about hunting pressure because that’s what a lot of your research is beginning to demonstrate—waterfowl behavior in response to hunting pressure. Is that right?
Waterfowl Behavior in Response to Hunting Pressure
You talk about technology; you talk about everything on the access side; you had that plus the internet; there’s not a duck hole in the world that people don’t know about any more.
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So for a lot of our research right now, we have GPS transmitters on a bunch of mallards. During the winter, what we’re doing while we’re watching and measuring their behaviors is flying aerial surveys where we can actually go along and count all the blinds, which in Tennessee most hunters hunt out of blinds. And on top of that, we’re not just looking at the blinds and being like, Okay, there’s a hunting blind here. But when we run these aerial surveys, we’re also looking to see if you guys have mojo spinners outside the blind, and if they’re on, we assume it’s being hunted. So we know how much hunting is going on in space and time, if that makes sense.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. How did you come across this line of research? What led you to this?
Brad Cohen: So Tennessee—it was actually Jamie Feddersen, who is the migratory bird biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He and the biologists in West Tennessee were wondering: We have a lot of land that’s allocated in sanctuary, so state-owned refuge; this is beyond federal refuge. And basically, the question that always comes up is, What role do these refuges have in waterfall ecology? How are they moving ducks up and down these? Tennessee has a river tributary system, so basically, how are they moving ducks around? And what type of access should we allow to these refuges? Should we not even have them? Should we have more? We don’t know. So that’s where it started.
Ramsey Russell: Well, there have been for years and decades now prominent personalities, and a lot of regular folks call for a cessation of sanctuaries and refuges, or we should move them from time to time. And we got this lake over here on this federal refuge; it has been a sanctuary forever, but no, every few years we need to move it somewhere else, kind of tricking these ducks to come off. I mean, that doesn’t seem reasonable to me because I like to shoot ducks with the best of them. But ducks have got to have somewhere to go to do ducky things to satisfy their own lifecycle requirements without getting shot at. Am I right?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So when I started the project, I remember having a really in-depth conversation with one of the people in West Tennessee, and I was like, listen, if the data says we don’t need refuges ever, that’s what the data says. And if the data says that these are the end of all, that’s good too. And the truth is that people who say we need to switch up refuges or anything like that are ignoring a lot of the nuance of waterfall ecology. It’s not that simple. You can’t just do that at the federal level. And so really, what we’re seeing is that those refuges are the only places that ducks have to be really safe. There’s not much duck habitat left where there hasn’t been a blind put up or where there’s not some kind of hunting pressure. So it’s amazing just how, if you think of it that way, okay, when we think about me as a biologist, I always go, All right, I want to manage for something. I had to find out what the limiting habitat is. What is the thing that’s most necessary? And then that’s what I manage for. Well, if you think about ducks, there aren’t many places they can go where they’re not going to get shot, so it’s amazing to really think about how few and precious those safe areas are.
Ramsey Russell: That’s one thing that seems to have changed drastically since the “good old days” of the 70s and 80s. And I can remember when they came out with a little 110 ATV Honda 3-wheelers, and those little machines were a huge convenience compared to walking in like we used to do, but they would not penetrate the landscape like a 1000 Polaris quad. And the outboards of the day would not get you into parts of the marsh or parts of the landscape like a long tail or a mud motor wheel today. And in some areas, some of the technological advances are like spinning wing decoys. Transitioned to where marginal duck land all of a sudden would produce ducks if you could get back there and get set up. I mean, a lot has changed just technologically and in our ability to access areas. I had a conversation with a guy that was a market hunter back in the 70s, and he had his own little secret spots off in the woods, and all those other market hunters that were going to the barber and selling their ducks did too. But as he described it, he said it was such a big landscape that there were holes off in the woods that none of us knew about places that ducks could go. And that really doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
Brad Cohen: You talk about technology; you talk about everything on the access side; you had that plus the internet; there’s not a duck hole in the world that people don’t know about any more. There’s not a piece of land that will hold water that people don’t know about anymore. And duck hunting’s become such a religion and access is so limited that if you’re going to go get yourself a duck hole, well, I’ve got to buy it, lease it, or compete with a bunch of other people on this public land. You add all that together, and that adds up to a lot of pressure on just about every ducky area you could imagine.
Ramsey Russell: An observation: I was working at the US Fish and Wildlife Service briefly right after college. I was a forester, and the biologist came in one day and told me that there was a cohort of mallards using a sanctuary over the homey refuge in the delta. And that Ducks Unlimited had called instead that there were three transmitters on—three hens with transmitters. So that’s how they knew where they were. And I would have just assumed back then, 20 or something years ago, that, okay, they’re using this sanctuary right here, and there are thousands of acres of soybeans and rice and wetlands nearby. They’re coming off in the mornings, probably flying off into the wind, going 2 or 3, 4 miles, and hitting the crops. But it turns out that all of those band recoveries were instead getting up in the morning and flying 11 miles west, crossing the Mississippi River, hitting the White River, and flying 35 miles north, and they all died in rice fields in Stuttgart, Arkansas. And I’m sitting here thinking, wait a minute, they just flew over a whole lot of habitat to get to a specific area. Now see, what I’m saying is that all of a sudden, it just enlightened me that ducks will fly a long way to go feed from where they’re roosting at night. And not just a little; I thought it was being more local. They’ve got wings, and they can fly at 45 mph; that’s nothing to them. And so what I’m getting at in terms of hunting pressure is that I can remember having a conversation with a guide out in Kansas not too long ago. He’s like, Yeah, we’re going to set up shop, and we’re going to do this and do that. And I said, well, someone so operates over there; he goes, yeah, but he’s 50 miles away, and I’m like, that’s the same ducks and geese you all are hunting. It’s just more and more outfitters piling in and putting pressure on the same populations of wintering waterfowl. That’s a pretty fair assessment, isn’t it?
Brad Cohen: Well, let me tell you about the life of a Tennessee duck based on what our GPS data says. Our ducks get here; most of our ducks get here sometime in December. And once they’re here, they hold tight to typically one refuge, even though these refuges, the state-owned refuges, are typically only a couple of miles apart. And as far as a dozen or two dozen miles apart, but they tend to just hold to one of those refuges, and they don’t leave Tennessee, they don’t fly—this is their true wintering area, it’s not a stopover. So, they set up shop on one refuge or maybe two, and then they get into the pattern that, before hunting season, they’re exploring up and down these river tributaries, and then come hunting season, they run over to a refuge, and then most of our movements are within a mile and a half of the refuge. They never-
Ramsey Russell: For the entire duck season?
Brad Cohen: They very rarely go more than a mile and a half to two miles further than a refuge.
Duck Habitats, Sanctuaries, and Migration
Flooded corn fields are, according to some folks, the absolute nemesis of why ducks don’t move and why they don’t migrate.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the habitats in those sanctuaries they’re using and never having a range of a mile and a half? It sounds to me like they’ve got everything a duck would want for the wintertime.
Brad Cohen: People go, well, why would they ever want to leave a refuge? It’s got food, it’s got safety, it’s all that, but the truth is, you can’t hit the number of ducks that are using these refuges; there’s not nearly enough food throughout the season for them. We’ve been taking measurements every other week on all the different food types that are in these areas, and most of the food is depleted, if not late December, very early January. So you get at least a full month of food; there is almost no food on these refuges unless some kind of dynamic flooding happens. You know what I’m saying? The ducks are there because it is safe; they are not there because there is food. There is so much food elsewhere on private lands that it wouldn’t matter if there was ever a drop on those refuges, but because of the federal regulations, there needs to be for the way we manage waterfowl, but it wouldn’t matter. They would still be right there, doing the same behavioral patterns that they do. Because what they do is, in the evening, when they get up, they typically go to flooded cornfields. We’re dealing with mallards here, so it’s going to be a little different depending on species, but our mallards tend to go to flooded cornfields. They do not move at night; they just sit there loafing and eating, and then they wait for somebody, some hunter, to come in and kick them off in the morning, and then they fly back to the refuge or they go to a timber hole somewhere.
Ramsey Russell: There are a lot of people listening who just woke up when you said flooded cornfields. Flooded corn fields are, according to some folks, the absolute nemesis of why ducks don’t move and why they don’t migrate. And somebody tried to seduce me into a podcast debate one time about flooded cornfields. And the way I answered it Brad, I’m throwing this out there as a kind of rhetorical question, but in the form of a statement, the way I answered a question with a question, did I think flooded cornfields ought to be banned? And to which I said, are you proposing that we ban all flooded grass? Corn is grass. So you’re saying, I can’t plant corn, but I can plant Japanese millet or something else. Is that what you’re saying? Well, no, that’s not what we’re saying. And what I’ve noticed in some of the habitats I’ve hunted is that ducks love flooded corn in the same way that they like flooded stands of coffee weed, or they like flooded stands or some kind of vegetation that they can get down into. The hawks can’t see them; nobody can see them. I actually hunted a WMA in California one time that was flooded with corn. And we got to the blind, we got there, we got drawn up, and ducks were just fogging in and going to their little nooks and crannies within the cornfield. But as you shot, they stayed there; they didn’t get up and flee because they were safe. So it’s not just the feed, its cover, its sanctuary; it’s a safety spot; it’s their little safe rooms, a little safe place that they can go to on the landscape and not be disturbed. Am I right?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. I mean, people, flooded corn hits on two parts, right? It’s food, and it is undoubtedly a vertical structure that provides safety. And I know, the enemy is flooded corn for the southern migration, and people say, Well, you’re talking about hunting pressure, as if it can’t be both or neither or whatever. But there are some really good scientists out there who are trying to answer these exact questions. What I think about is, Okay, why do ducks push further down? While they push further down if they have no food, basically. But what we’re seeing is that a lot of our ducks are already here, and they’re not pushing down at all. Even when we had that really hard freeze in February of last year, none of our ducks pushed down.
Ramsey Russell: When you say they didn’t push down, you’re saying they stayed in Tennessee?
Brad Cohen: They stayed in Tennessee. Even when we had all this cold weather in January, our ducks stayed in Tennessee. And I think part of it is that it’s really dangerous to learn a new area. Do you know which ducks are killed in Tennessee as part of our research? They’re the ones that trade across multiple refugee camps. They’re the ones that are. I remember lamenting to one of our students that this is BS and cool ducks keep getting killed. Ducks that are doing cool stuff keep dying; we’ll never get good data until it just struck me. It’s like, yeah, no wonder they’re getting killed; they have to relearn everything all the time. And I really think it’s discounted; there’s a ton of energy on the landscape, period. If it’s not going to be corn, it’ll be something else. Private landowners are going to spend their money to get ducks on their property. The question is, What can we change? And the answer is that the only thing that they’re super sensitive to is that they don’t want to move if they don’t have to. And that’s because of hunting pressure.
Ramsey Russell: Speaking of hunting pressure, how do you quantify hunting pressure, or what have your studies done to quantify hunting pressure numerically?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So the simplest way is that we just have a density of blinds in an area, so we do an aerial transect and count the number of vines. The vines stick out like a sore thumb for the most part. The other one is that we can get the frequency with which they’re hunted. We have acoustic recording units out, so those are actually out there listening to the number of shots that are occurring during the hunting season. So all three give us some picture of some hunter density and pressure and some hunter success or opportunity. But all of them are trying to figure out the puzzle of what’s going on between the behavior of the ducks, the behavior of the people, and hunting success.
Ramsey Russell: And what are you seeing? Throw some numbers out there and describe what you’re seeing in terms of blinds, shots, and all that good stuff. What are some numbers?
Brad Cohen: I don’t think it comes as a surprise to most people who hunt in west Tennessee. But we have a very high density of blinds, at least. For example, on one of our transects, which is pretty standard, we had one blind for every 23 acres that we observed. So you can do the math there on how many per square mile. But a lot of that has to do with property ownership fragmentation and all these other things. Most of our blinds are hunted at least 80% of the time. On Saturdays, we average about 90% of our blinds being hunted. But what’s more surprising to me is that on Wednesday, we average 80% of our blinds being hunted.
Ramsey Russell: How many blinds on a piece of landscape are we talking about? And I know there’s a variable with fractionalization, but that’s the number I’m looking for because this just blew my mind.
Brad Cohen: You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of blinds over a relatively small area. A single duck probably encounters anywhere from a couple dozen blinds on its flight back.
Ramsey Russell: One blind for 23 acres is a number you all threw out there. One duck blind per 23 acres, which I’m a forester, so I start breaking up a section of land and trying to do the math in my head. That’s a blind every 250 square yards on a landscape, or 27 blinds per square mile. We are just talking about those ducks that will fly within an hour and a half of a sanctuary; he’s encountering nearly 40 blinds. No wonder he ain’t coming in.
Brad Cohen: Oh yeah. But one thing I’ve learned from this project is that every single duck has been there and done that. They know the routine because they’ve not only experienced it here in Tennessee, down in Louisiana, or down in Mississippi; they’ve experienced it all the way through what was in the Dakotas, and everywhere else that they’ve been, they’ve experienced the same old song and dance. Decoys out call at them, and I think we’re lucky to kill as many as we do sometimes.
Ramsey Russell: I do too. I was up in North Dakota in late October, and we went to a do-it-yourself hunt with a bunch of close friends up in Northwest North Dakota. We went to a feed that had 9000 birds on it, and we shot 6, and I couldn’t understand that morning why the birds were acting dopey. I’m not the best caller in the world, but I can call a duck. And they were stuck. I mean, they were stuck up there at that 100-yard mark, looking up at us. And on the second day, they did it. I just realized, Wait a minute, I’ve seen this before; I’m from Mississippi. I know a stale duck when I see one. Those ducks were stale. They were stale. You could not kill them out in the fields like that, at least for the weeks I was up there, but we could go somewhere to a small drinking pond up in the hills and put out 4 decoys, 35 or 40 yards downwind of us, and sit quietly and call to them a little bit when they’re distant, when they’re working shut up. They get out there about 35–40 yards outside of range from those decoys and finally realize they were plastic, and then they would bank into the wind, and they would be just enough that they’d be 25–30 yards from us, and we killed them. And I mean, this is October, man.
Brad Cohen: Listen, I go up to Saskatchewan every year to go hunting. And I mean, last year was the first year that we weren’t the first group to show up, because I knew right away because the ducks were acting weird. It was hunting season for them, and it didn’t take long for them to realize it. And usually when we go up there, we spend a week up there, and by day 4 or 5, those ducks have caught on very quickly, but they were already caught on when we were up there. We were working really hard for our ducks. So I don’t think it takes long, and it makes a lot of sense, like you’ve got to learn really quickly or you’re a dead duck.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Brad Cohen: That’s not something you forget, if you know what I’m saying.
Ramsey Russell: No, and there’s a perception that I’ve heard forever that we need to extend our hunting season later in February, maybe because that’s when the ducks are showing up now in the Deep South. And I queried Doug Osborne about this based on some of his similar research, and it really is maybe a perception is not reality, maybe a week or two or three after the guns go home and get put back off in the gun vault for the season and the waiters hang up for the season and the ATVs are washed and parked for the season, maybe those ducks realized it’s safe to come out of their hiding place and start hitting some of these fields that are heavily hunted? Can you see that?
Brad Cohen: Yeah, I mean, if you think about it—listen, you said you were a deer hunter, right? What do we say about deer? The big bucks, the second they hear that first shot go off, know the routine. They go to their little sanctuary, wait, and when things calm down, they come out. What we’re seeing with our ducks is that it actually doesn’t take long for them to realize that hunting season’s over. Most of our ducks start to leave the refuge and stay the whole day on private and public hunted lands about 3 days after hunting season is over. But like this last week, we had youth and veteran hunts on Saturday and Sunday, and the second those happened, our ducks kind of got bumped out of the area, and they just went right back to the refuge. And I mean, if a lot of people go, well, then that means there shouldn’t be refuges, but the answer is that there would have been no ducks there to begin with.
What Would Happen in the Absence of Hunting or Refuges?
So when we disturb these refuges, what winds up happening is that the ducks freak out in a sense, right?
Ramsey Russell: I was going to ask you, what do you think would happen in the absence of hunting? What would happen if a lot of these people got their wish that state and federal sanctuaries were open to hunting? What would the ducks do, do you think?
Brad Cohen: Let me just rephrase this: So what would happen in a world where there are no federal refugee camps and no state sanctuaries? Nothing, right? Everything was free. My gut tells me, Now here’s part scientist, part hunter. Would duck distributions be a little different? They would be different in the sense that ducks would have to find other safe areas. The other thing is that ducks would be so stressed and unable to actually do the things they need to do while they’re down here, like court display and eat, that we’d have so many strong, what we call indirect effects, like not just killing them but indirectly hurting them, that there’d be so many strong indirect effects that we would have a really strong negative effect on waterfowl populations.
Ramsey Russell: Decreased productivity, decreased survival.
Brad Cohen: 100%. That’s what just knowing from what other literature tells us is that there’s a reason that we did this to begin with. And it’s because we know that by just giving ducks a little bit of a stress-free environment, we can increase their productivity. We can increase their survival, and we could increase their spring and summer survival; they call them cross-seasonal effects. And really, it means that there are more ducks to shoot because we have these areas.
Ramsey Russell: You were saying earlier that a lot of these ducks figure out to go with what they know, deal with the devil, stay in these areas, stay within a mile and a half, and that the birds that are willing to venture out and try to find new areas typically have a higher mortality rate. Have you seen or do you suspect any differentiation between age class and sex?
Brad Cohen: So right now, our juveniles are a little bit more susceptible to harvest and a little bit more willing to have bigger space use, but nothing across sexes. So males and females use about the same amount of space. Our females do tend to get harvested a tiny bit more, but not at any significant rate. It’s tough to pull out. What does it mean to be a juvenile and just be susceptible to hunting because you’ve never really seen it before? But yeah, even across our adults, the ones that use more space go up and down these river tributaries more; they’re the ones that are dying.
Ramsey Russell: Do you think waterfowl have a brain the size of a pea? I can see where, by Christmas, they’ve been shot at enough; they kind of know the game. But do they have the cognitive facility to remember years from now?
Brad Cohen: Oh yeah. There’s nothing more frustrating than dealing with this data. And then, being that these things have a tiny brain, how are they doing this? How do they know? We have hens that fly 1000 miles between their wintering ground and their breeding ground, but they winter in the exact same spot, and they breed in the exact same spot. You tell me how that’s supposed to happen, right? And so when you start to think, Okay, maybe it’s not brain size but what in that brain is really important to them, Maybe then they should remember that type of stuff.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the trends you all are seeing, and are they twofold? One of the behaviors of these ducks among years progressively as they get older and also management problems and I guess that’s almost twofold, not just from a landowner-hunter perspective but also from a wildlife manager perspective.
Brad Cohen: So I don’t know the differences in behavior across years because we haven’t really looked at that, and nothing sticks out in the data that I can go, Okay, well, they’re acting a little different. What I can say is that, as a biologist and as a hunter, it speaks to this idea of landscape connectivity. This idea that it’s safe areas are so important to them, and they got a hold of these safe areas. Well, if their safe areas aren’t close together, then you get ducks that literally spend their entire time on that one refuge, learn the entire area, and play it safe. But if you had more safe areas, if I’m a private landowner that can do it, I’m setting aside 100 or 200 acres and making that sanctuary so that ducks can move up and down and trade between them. And if I’m a state agency, some things we’re in talks with TWRA about are, like, should we have some places that are rest areas that basically act as a kind of connector amongst our refuges? So we do get those ducks trading back and forth, so they do use more space and fly more. And what we know is that because they’re flying more and using more space, they’re more susceptible to harvest. So it’s kind of the exact opposite of what you would think. But what if it were that more safe areas could produce better hunting just by producing fewer stale ducks?
Ramsey Russell: Right. That’s a good point because, like you said earlier, they’re not going to just stick to the safe areas; they’ve got to come off them because a lot of food is in private habitat.
Brad Cohen: That’s right. They’re going to come off; it’s just a matter of: do you want them to go back to the exact same safe area when they’re done, or do you want them to go to a new one and jump and jump and actually use a lot of the area in that case? They don’t know every single detail. They don’t know that you’re blind.
Ramsey Russell: Besides getting shot at boom, boom, what are some of the other disturbance factors that may influence ducks and force them to go to these quiet areas?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So some of our research is looking at this. One of my PhD students, Abby Blake, was looking at both and thinking, What about just a person walking into an area, maybe even a bird? So we go in there with binoculars and count ducks, and we see what happens. We track the GPS, which tells us how they react to that. We’re driving trucks and vehicles around an area where they think it’s safe. And we’re also doing things like boats or ATVs driving through an area, and all three of them have the potential to act as a disturbance or as some kind of pressure, like hunter pressure. What they really don’t like is to see people, I’ll tell you that. Anytime that they see a person, they instantly assume, at least in Tennessee, that they’re being hunted, and they act differently based on that. A truck just driving around is certainly the least invasive.
Ramsey Russell: I know a lot of ATVs and motors seem to bewilder ducks. And I was in a camp up in Arkansas for years, and you never took an ATV out; you walked. And some of the walks are tough, but they paid off, and I’ve seen that. You step off into the duck hole, and there are a lot of ducks that may have swam away from you as you walked into the dark, but they’re still sitting on the water, quacking.
Brad Cohen: Right. I mean, some of the best deer and duck hunting properties I’ve been on have a routine, and it doesn’t matter the time of year. They’re going to run vehicles through the area all year. And what they’re going to do is condition those animals to realize that not every time they see a vehicle or a person, it doesn’t mean they’re about to get shot. It doesn’t mean you have to leave; it could be safe. They pick up everybody out of the blind with the vehicle; they do everything out of the vehicle. The best place I ever hunted didn’t allow hunting until about 9 a.m., and they would let all the ducks sit while they drove through, rallying up all the ducks in a sense when they put the blind down, and then the ducks would just come back. It’s all about conditioning these ducks; what do they equate with being killed?
Ramsey Russell: I just remember one time working for the federal refugee agency. We had a 620-acre sanctuary inviolate, and I had to go over to check the boards and clean the pipe out a little bit. And of course, it’s a long way across the field and a long way back up in there. I had to take an ATV, and I parked at the gate to unlock it to get in, and the entire section was void of ducks. With that motor sitting at the front from a mile away, once those ducks started rolling, they all left. And I told that story one time in Canada to a landowner that hunted nearby; he says, I remember that day. He remembers seeing those ducks come off, and they remember everybody starting to shoot. But they don’t like disturbances, period. It’s more than just guns going off and decoys and mojos, isn’t it?
Brad Cohen: Can I tell you something? So when we disturb these refuges, what winds up happening is that the ducks freak out in a sense, right? They all get up, they all leave, and then they realize, Well, what the hell do I do now? And so yeah, you hear the initial volley of a couple shots going off. Certainly one thing we’re looking at is, if we disturb these birds, how does that affect hunter opportunity? But what winds up happening is that they wind up back there in that same area eventually. Because, at the end of all things, that speaks to just how important this place is: I have nowhere else to go.
Ramsey Russell: A little bit of a slight change of subject. Who are the stakeholders that you deal with? And in regards to the sporting public, us hunters, do you see our stakeholder values transitioning at all? And in light of the hunting pressure and the relative difficulty of shooting ducks as compared to yesteryear?
Brad Cohen: So when you say stakeholders, are you talking about who’s paying for the research or who are we doing the research for?
Ramsey Russell: I consider both of them to be stakeholders.
Brad Cohen: Okay, well, that’s fair enough. So do I. So the people that pay for this type of research are state agencies; in this case, it’s the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So they’ve given us some money for this research. Those are the two people that are funding our research, and the reason they’re doing the research is because they want: A. the best waterfowl habitat they can produce for management; and B. to know how their management effects duck behaviors, which can then be translated into how they can manipulate things to improve hunter success. There’s not a single person I worked with out in west Tennessee, and let me tell you right now. The place we worked, some of the greatest people I’ve ever worked with, made this project a success. But in the end, everything they do—avid duck hunters—is to try and figure out how to make it better for the people they serve and who they serve. At least in West Tennessee, there are a lot of duck hunters.
Ramsey Russell: That describes 99% of every waterfowl biologist I know.
Brad Cohen: Yeah, it kills me when you see a lot of these comments by people that think that there’s some kind of, I don’t know, insidious nature too-
Ramsey Russell: “Anti-hunting conspiracy” or something like that.
Brad Cohen: Yeah. At the end of all things, all we’re trying to do is do what’s best for the resource first and foremost. And a lot of us are hunters ourselves, so that’s always on our minds too. The two hands wash themselves; you know what I’m saying?
Ramsey Russell: I’m concerned as a duck hunter. It’s a very interesting topic to me, Brad, because on the one hand, via habitat loss or changing landscapes or whatever has you, there’s less hunting land available, and it seems to us that there are fewer duck hunters than there were back in the 70s and 80s. And so it seems to be—even though they’re telling us there are fewer duck hunters, there seems to be increasing hunting pressure on the landscape via access via technology and via our passion that our granddads didn’t really have. It’s something they did, but they weren’t cultivating a sense of self over how many days they could duck hunt and things of that nature. So it’s all kind of culminating into a lot more hunting pressure today. But it’s an interesting topic to me because, on the one hand, there is a lot of hunting pressure, and we’ve got to deal with it. On the other hand, we need more hunters. I’m sitting here watching. I’ve been on the phone all week with some buds over in Australia, and I predicted 10 years ago that they were going to lose their duck hunting season. It was not a matter of if, but when, and it’s coming. All their decisions are based on emotions and politics, not science. And they’re going to lose their duck season in the next few years; it’s coming. And the hunters are bailing on it because no matter what the habitat says, the government says, No, you can’t shoot but two or three. And guys are just throwing up their hands and saying, Well, I’ll go play golf or something. They’re losing their fight, and I can see that happening here. So we need more hunters. We need a lot of research, and a lot of the funds coming from Fish & Wildlife and from the state agencies that are funding this research are coming via hunters.
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So all of our state money is from the Pittman-Robertson Act, so that flows through money from the federal government based on excess taxes on ammunition and guns. It’s hunters. They fund the vast majority of all wildlife research. It is a catch-22 because it’s not just that we want more hunters; we want hunters to be more satisfied in the blind. But hunting in and of itself is becoming more and more restricted in access and more and more expensive to do. If you want access, you have to pay. You pay for the blind here in Tennessee, and you’re not talking about something cheap. I mean, you’re talking about a real investment. Tens of thousands of dollars were split among a group of people. And it’s hard to say hunt that much, you know what I’m saying? And the solution is not going to be an easy one if we’re going to relate at least some of what we’re seeing to hunting pressure. It might just be worth a try to access your property a little differently. Try and hunt the edges of the property; leave the inner part as much as possible undisturbed. And I’m not saying it’s a solution for all that; it could be a solution for some.
What Solutions Do We Have Collectively and Individually to Mitigate Our Hunting Pressure?
And I’m not saying that is the solution because the last thing I do is necessarily restrict hunter opportunity, but it’s all a matter of quality versus quantity.
Ramsey Russell: That kind of leads into it, and probably you have answered it. But I was going to ask my next question: what solutions do we have collectively and individually to mitigate our hunting pressure? And I’ll canvass it by saying this: I used to read a lot of Nash Buckingham, and back before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the group of gentlemen at Beaver Dam, where he hunted, had self-imposed duck limits. Back in the day, there were no bag limits. They had self-imposed bag limits of a whopping 50 ducks. But still, compared to just going out and not having a bag limit, that was something back then. They self-imposed bag limits, and I do know from hunting with some private clubs that a lot of the clubs and landowners nowadays do have inviolate sanctuaries. I mean absolutely inviolate sanctuaries. And I hunted with some guys this year, limit or no limit, shot or no shot, but at 9:30, the guns get in case, and you go back to eat breakfast. They leave this habitat for the ducks. I mean, what are some of the solutions you see out there that can offer hope for this?
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So there are different levels to this. So at an individual property level, not many people are fortunate enough to have a big enough property where they can leave part of it as a sanctuary. But what we think based on our research and research from others is that if you can leave about 80 to 100 acres undisturbed, that’s the beginning of what a sanctuary would look like. And I’m talking about the thickest, nastiest buck brush you can imagine; it’s not stuff you’re necessarily going to be hunting anyway; the thicker, the better. The depths that want to be there want to be left alone. Now at another, like, kind of higher level, maybe it speaks to—I don’t know what it exactly looks like, but kind of cooperation across properties—where you speak to adjacent landowners and go, okay, do we want to leave one of our blinds open as if we haven’t hunted at all? And maybe that will be our little sanctuary for the four of us. I remember when I was hunting on a lease in Arkansas, the guy came up to us and yelled at us, saying, I can’t believe you leased this out; this was our sanctuary area. All right, well, I don’t blame them for being pissed. The other answer at a state level is that maybe this talks to some managers about how we can change what connectivity actually looks like on the landscape and incentivize and educate landowners to put some of their property in sanctuary areas if that is at least part of the solution for better hunting.
Ramsey Russell: I just feel like it’s going to get better before it gets worse. Excuse me. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I’m being optimistic there. That’s right.
Brad Cohen: I was going to say it: you’re the first optimistic waterfowl hunter I’ve ever met.
Ramsey Russell: No, I’m sitting here looking; it’s extremely dry, and I know they’ve got some snow and some precipitation up in the Dakotas in Canada. But I don’t think it’s going to be enough to turn the tide and be a repeat. When the planes go and count ducks this year, especially mallards, I think it’s going to be woefully less than what they saw last time they counted. And I think it could possibly translate into restrictive seasons, and good luck if you’re that guy cultivating your ego around a dead pile of ducks trying to be that rock star when it’s a 30-day 3-duck limit again.
Brad Cohen: I mean, if that were to happen, it would definitely change a lot of waterfowl hunting. I don’t know what the chances are; I don’t know what the probabilities are; somebody is a lot better at that stuff and would have to answer. But it’s all going to be based on what the data says. And right now, with COVID and our inability to get up there, we just don’t know.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I’ve seen where—I’m thinking of a WMA in Arkansas—green timber is heavily hunted and for years has had a special bag limit of fewer mallards than what the state in Arkansas required to mitigate hunting pressure. And I know that as much as I like to shoot ducks when I go over to the Atlantic Flyway, a couple of mallards are plenty. Yeah, it seems less, but you come out with a couple of mallards every day; that’s my limit, and maybe I picked up a black duck or a couple of green wings; it seems like plenty. And I just wonder, even though a lot of biologists say that hunting does not negatively affect the population, if it might be a way for us to mitigate hunting pressure by just having, like for years, voluntary restraint on shooting hen mallards, maybe we could collectively organize in areas to restrain and just get the heck out of the field sooner. I mean, I’m grasping at straws here, but something has to be done, it seems.
Brad Cohen: My suggestion on that is this: Our data suggests that if you leave an area to rest for about 3 days, then it starts to feel more like the birds will be on it more; more than likely, they’ll be on it, like it’s a safe area. Before three days, they still kind of treat it like a hunted area. I would say I would push for less frequency on days and not necessarily being done earlier per se because I think ducks learned that routine. I was just on a public land hunt where, in Tennessee, the public land area shuts down at 3 o’clock. The ducks at 03:01 are putting their feet right down in the water.
Ramsey Russell: Pouring into it, they know, don’t they?
Brad Cohen: They know; they’re not dumb. And I’m not saying that is the solution because the last thing I do is necessarily restrict hunter opportunity, but it’s all a matter of quality versus quantity. And what do you guys value?
Ramsey Russell: Right. And I ask myself all the time, What do I value most, days hunted or quality? And I guess the older I get, the more I’m willing to give up days and go out fewer times but have higher-quality hunts.
Brad Cohen: Yeah, I think that — I don’t know, I think there’s such a strong dichotomy on that social media has influenced it that I think you would find a lot of people want to be out there every day. But it’s an unrealistic standard to be like, I’m going to go out there every day and shoot limits. And TV shows and social media have made it seem like this is what it could be when it’s not realistic.
Ramsey Russell: Social media is a distorted form of reality anyway. And always go back to the picture of the happy family sitting in Disneyland. They’re all sitting there smiling getting off the roller coaster, but I’ve been to Disneyland, and let me tell you what those kids were whining about and how mom was threatening to whoop their asses if they didn’t shut up and smile for the photo.
Brad Cohen: But let me ask you: how do you remember that? When you look at the camera and the picture, you remember it as a nice moment in time that was a great vacation, or, oh my God, what did I think?
Ramsey Russell: No, I remember that, but don’t think I still remember the blisters on the bottom of my feet and the long lines and sitting in the sun and buying $7 Coca-Colas. I’ll never forget that. But I’m just saying it’s a perverted sense of reality just to accept seeing all these pictures of all these dead ducks and thinking, Well, everybody’s killing them but me. No, it just happens to the best of us.
Brad Cohen: Yeah, I mean, at the end of all things, the one thing about duck hunting is that you hear how other people are doing. You hear it either through social media or through a gun. You’re hearing how your neighbors are doing, and there’s always that person who’s doing better. You’re always chasing it, and there’s always the next person to be angry at, so why not me? And trust me, I’m just as much—that’s coming straight from me. There’s no bigger victim in the world than me when it comes to duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Is there anything worse than sitting in a duck blind, not having fired a shot, and listening to somebody off on the horizon shelling out?
Brad Cohen: Ask everyone that hunts with me; they can’t stand hunting with me because I’m walking around chasing ducks all day. I’m not patient enough to sit there, so it’s like, okay, they landed over there, and I hear people shooting over there; let’s go. I mean, it’s the most miserable experience in the world to hunt with me because I can’t sit still. I’m always chasing it. I hate it.
Ramsey Russell: Anyway, Brad, tell everybody how they can plug into you on social media. And folks, listen up; some of the stuff you’re posting up, Brad, the little videos with the duck movements, is just fascinating. I sit there and watch them. But tell everyone how they connect with you.
Brad Cohen: Yeah. So we have a Facebook page where we post as much information as we can for everyone. It’s called Cohen Wildlife Lab. You can go there, and we’ll post as much information as we can, and the same thing goes for Instagram. Those are our two methods of communicating how we feel it’s best to communicate our results to our constituents.
Is There Hope for the Future of Hunting?
I’m optimistic because of the quality of the people in this field.
Ramsey Russell: Are you optimistic for the future? I mean, you’ve got to be. You’re sitting here doing research, and you’re doing applied research to help managers and hunters figure out that quantity versus quality effect.
Brad Cohen: Listen, I’m optimistic because I work with the people who help make the decisions. I work in this field and know that they’re good people. I’m optimistic because of the quality of the people in this field. And on top of that, the investments that are being made to help answer it I don’t think that people’s thoughts are falling on deaf ears. So I am optimistic.
Ramsey Russell: Amen. Folks, you have been listening to Brad Cohen, assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management at Tennessee Tech. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. And don’t forget to go to getducks.com and sign up to win a brand new Super Black Eagle 3 that has been customized by Rob Roberts to whatever color pattern you want and a case of Boss Shotshells. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere; we’ll see you next time.