Mallard ducks, absolute rockstars of duck hunting universe. Found throughout Northern Hemisphere, they’re prized for their beauty, size, and succulence. Practically the entire dabbling duck hunting playbook was scripted for mallards. But did you know there are 13 mallard-like species worldwide (both hemispheres among 5 continents)? They share similar habitats, vocalizations and behavior, but why does only the iconic Mallard have colorful breeding plumage?  From which of the 13 did they all originate?! Dr. Phil Lavretsky and I deep dive into the woodpile on mallards, mallard-like genetic studies, artificial intelligence, hybridization; farm duck origins, influences, and management implications. Guaranteed to be one of the most interesting and enlightening waterfowl conversations you’ve heard in a long while!

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Mallard Ducks Coming Full Circle

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere on the floor at SCI, where 3 years ago today, a guy walks in my booth asking me about African black ducks and African yellow bill ducks and boy, you catch me in a booth on a show like this and it’s busy, I’m in style, I mean, I went right for his throat, let’s go to Africa and shoot some ducks, which is turning to a really up and coming kick ass hunt we’ve got. And he looks at me and says, I don’t want to really go hunt them, I need some genetics. And I go, what? And for the next 20 or 30 minutes, he begins to tell me about mallards and black ducks and Florida mottled and mottled ducks and just the whole North American mallard like complex and then we jump over to other parts of the world. Today’s guest is Dr. Phil Lavretsky from University of Texas, El Paso. One of the biggest and most epiphanyl podcast episodes we’ve ever did is just a mallard that we recorded 3 years ago and I have since come down a rabbit hole. I have learned all kinds of stuff about mallards and mallard like ducks and talk about coming full circle, I have now been collecting genetic data for African yellow bill ducks and African black ducks. But why do me and you care about genetics? I mean, number one, I can’t even read the papers. But why do we care? Why is it important? Is it really conservation? Guys, you all listen up, this is going to be a really fascinating conversation. We’re going to touch on this just a matter of subject to warm up into it. But Phil, you came all the way from Texas to Nashville to see me, man, I’m glad you’re here.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: I’ll fly from the north to the south for you, man. I’m excited about this, it’s kind of deja vu all over again, walking into this booth and seeing you and starting this conversation, now 3 years later, here we are doing research together.

A History in Duck Hunting California

Did you know when you got into your kind of career mode and funneled off into genetics, were you thinking or planning to come back into waterfowl as a duck hunter or did that just kind of happen?

Ramsey Russell: I never dreamed, never in a million years, February 2020 dreamed, never dreamed that when we had our conversation and recorded our podcast, that years later, I would have come full circle, started off in wildlife. And the reason everybody gets into wildlife management you’re a kid, is you want that hands on stuff. You get out and get a job, you can’t feed your family on the first rung, if you’re just out there doing field work, it’s kind of hard to pay a mortgage, so you start climbing rungs, now you’re a bureaucrat or an administrative guy. Man, 20 some odd, 30 years later, I’m in Africa and I’ve been over a table and I’ve got my samples and I’m skinning and measuring and collecting all this field data and I feel good about it. I’m like, man, it’s hard to believe I’m getting to have my cake and eat it too, but it really gives me a profound sense of satisfaction to give back to what’s going on. But now, Phil, I just want to lead in, I’m going to lead in with this about who you are. Genetics is kind of like rocket science.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Might as well be.

Ramsey Russell: But you don’t look like a rocket scientist. I just found out – tell me what kind of instrument you played in your rock band.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: My guitar. I play guitar, bass, drums, but I mostly play guitar, real loud.

Ramsey Russell: Real loud. Well, we started off talking about Tetrachord and you’re like man, I knew you them years ago when I was jamming in the garage, I’m like what?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah, you play until 3:00 AM and then you go shoot some ducks, that was my adolescence right there in a nutshell, somehow doing it in Los Angeles, California. Couldn’t see that coming?

Ramsey Russell: No, but you really were a duck hunter. We talked about that one time, you grew up duck hunting in California.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: And that really kind of led with a scientific bent. Did you know when you got into your kind of career mode and funneled off into genetics, were you thinking or planning to come back into waterfowl as a duck hunter or did that just kind of happen?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It evolved. So the reason I got into genetics was Jurassic Park. I thought, I could be that guy, I could go and hunt a velociraptor one day, but that’s not real. I went to UC Davis, I started down the genetics wormhole. I really liked it, but I did not like the subject about drosophila and kind of worms and humans and these types of things that most geneticists or most people that think about genetics envision. So then I decided to pivot quickly and put in wildlife conservation, because that’s really what I like to talk about, that’s what I wanted to apply to. And at the time I was able to go into fisheries, I started in fisheries, I started working on trout, perch, building different data sets for whatever the questions were for the Department of Fish & Game there in California. But then I realized I just prefer talking about ducks. For my PhD, I was like, man, I found a guy, he had enough money for me, he let me do what I wanted, he had an interest in ducks as well and the rest is history. I just went down, I said, what’s a good system to start on? And he’s like, well, everybody likes mallards and mallard like ducks, so I went down the wormhole.

Ramsey Russell: Mallards are the Elvis Presley of the duck hunting world, they are the rock stars, they drive the whole thing. And somebody asked me yesterday in a seminar, 126 subspecies of waterfowl I’ve chased around the world, what’s your favorite? I said, man, mallard, maybe blue wings, but mallards, that’s the bird.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: The funny thing is, I tried to stay away from like, mallards were part of it, but I was more interested about those other mallards like ducks.

Ramsey Russell: And I call them all kind of mallard like species. 13 mallard like species in the world, there used to be subspecies, but now they’ve broken out. The first time we met, what made my head explode for those that may not have listened or need an update because I want to go here, we talked about the mallards and you kind of stumbled into a very important mallard topic, there had been some thought that the black duck in the Atlantic Flyway was becoming genetically extinct because of mallards. So you began to do what? What went from there?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: So that’s the story I was always told as. So I wanted to chase that question around and so what I did was I partnered with a whole bunch of folks and Fish & Game, state, federal agencies, got a whole bunch of samples out of the Atlantic, Mississippi Flyways and looked at it. Looked at how many hybrids are there, the only real way to identify a hybrid really know not just like the one that looks all motley, but all the other further generations of hybrids, it’s genetics, that’s the only real good way. And so we developed a whole bunch of tools and efforts and we were able to finally distinguish between mallards and black ducks and by being able to actually distinguish between them, we can find hybrids and we did. And hybridization was high, but the interesting point was that when the hybrids bred, they mainly bred into mallards and so it wasn’t into black ducks.

Ramsey Russell: And a black duck will not breed with a black duck mallard hybrid.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It seems less likely.

Ramsey Russell: Less likely.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Less likely. And it seems regional. So if you’re in more urban areas, higher proportion, if you’re in more that coastal nice salt marshes, doesn’t seem to happen at all.

Ramsey Russell: Selective on that kind of ground. And you were able to break that out?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: We’ve got the data for it. So generally, we were looking at it at a species level, so then as we talked at that other podcast, we went got a bunch of historical samples, as I said then –

Ramsey Russell: On the Smithsonian. 150 some odd years old samples. Well, I’ve seen enough CSI episodes, I know how that worked.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: 1850-1910. And again, just like I said then and I’ll say it now, I mean, I am thankful for all the hunters that have been and will be, because without them, that treasure trove of information data would not be at the Smithsonian or any other museum for us to do the things that we’re able to do, they are a time machine. So anyways, we got a whole bunch of these birds and then the birds of yesteryear were the same as today. But there was an interesting facet there, which is Atlantic Flyaway, specifically Atlantic flyway mallards had this weird genetic signature today that was not present 150 years ago. Fast forward 3 years, we’ve got over 2000 mallard samples now all over North America. We went to really get this thing going, we got mallards out of New Zealand, Hawaii, where they’ve been introduced. We went got some birds all throughout Eurasia, including known game farm birds, these birds that have been bred for shooting purposes. And the first note of this bird was 1650 by King Charles II is the first note I could find. And it specified that King Charles II was a big duck hunter, was starting to see declines in his numbers and asked somebody to go get eggs, bring them in for breeding purposed.

Ramsey Russell: In 1650 the King that wanted to shoot more ducks, began to raise mallards is like a game bird.

New World Genetic Mallards

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: A game bird. So this was completely different than what you can expect from all your other breeds. So if your listeners, again, don’t remember all your domestic breeds, Peking duck, runners, all the varieties you see in a park, all your park ducks, those are mallards that have been domestically derived. So those are the dogs of the mallard wolf. The mallard is the wolf and all those things are dogs.

Ramsey Russell: And it’s what we call, when you start talking about these King George derived game farm birds, that’s called old world genetics.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That is, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Here in North America, new world genetic mallards.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah. There’s a genetic difference between North American and Eurasian strains. And so what’s interesting then is domestication always amplifies those differences. They become even more different because the way people pick, it’s not like I could tell you, hey, I know we don’t have any wolves, but do you mind if we just use Chihuahuas as wolves? They’re not wolves anymore.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: We’ve bred them specifically for specific purposes, I can’t even say a lab is anywhere close to a wolf. What this thing is, is being bred for various characteristics instead of meat production, egg production, it seems and we’ve now got 3 years later since we last talked and I was able to secure a bit of funding and we were able to really go down this rabbit hole is there were traits to make this bird, what appear like a mallard, but be nothing like it biologically.

Ramsey Russell: I’m going to hit it like this. 150 years ago, about the time those black duck samples were collected by the Smithsonian, there really were no mallards to speak of at all in the Atlantic Flyway.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That’s right. So like South Carolina, North Carolina, they get some birds out of still naturally from the prairie potholes, maybe down in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, they were getting them. But when you go into the Eastern Seaboard, I would say, New York and up and all those states, no they might as well have been a cinnamon teal out there. And so they were vagrants at the time and that was what kickstarted someone or some entities really happening –

Ramsey Russell: I think it’s state, federal and private clubs decided, hey, we want greenheads, like them boys in the Mississippi Flyway and Central Flyway have.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: And around the 1920s is when we were really seeing population decline significant.

Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. Preceding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act they were getting over gunned.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yes. And so people started raising them. Now, the point was that somebody – so we tried raising wild birds in North America, we have records of that and they didn’t take, of course they didn’t take. You put a wild bird in the cage, they don’t want to make babies. And so what they did was that somebody had a good idea or at the time thought it was a good idea and they went to Europe where they had basically mastered the game farm mallard, that breed was more or less perfected by then, and so that breed was easily bred, making lots of babies in captivity, the perfect captive bred bird for this kind of situation and they brought them here.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve done hunts in Sweden with that program, right near the Atlantic Sea on the first flush, it’s wild birds that have joined those and then came the other ones and then you start picking up the blue bills with all the different funny colors and stuff like that. But at the end of the day, if it’s all I had to do shooting those mallards, it’s a mallard. It’s a mallard in the air, when it flies, the dog don’t know the difference.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That’s right.

What’s the Most Iconic North American Duck Hunting Species?

We’re talking about a mallard duck here in, let’s say, North America, that’s Elvis Presley, he’s the rockstar…

Ramsey Russell: But what blew my mind, the first conversation we had and it absolutely my mind exploded. We’re talking about a mallard duck here in, let’s say, North America, that’s Elvis Presley, he’s the rockstar, he is driving duck hunting, the most iconic emblematic North American duck hunting species is a mallard duck. And there’s a perception in the United States that the mallard migration is shifting to the west. And Phil, from our conversation on just a mallard year ago and since then, many times as those old world genetics began to predominate, now we’re talking about a game far bird that has no genetic instinct, that has no generational migration queue, that feeds differently, evolves differently, it’s almost like and you’re seeing those genetics drifting to the west Michigan, upper Mississippi Flyway and because they don’t have that cue to migrate and they behave different, they’re a mallard, but they ain’t it’s almost like a tap being tightened, a spigot being tightened to where the flow ain’t coming down like they used to. I think there’s got something to do with maybe our perception in the Atlantic Flyway. And you also brought up a point we talked about, this is important. 20 some odd years ago, there were 1.2 million mallards in the Atlantic Flyway, predominantly old world genetic. Last year, there were 400,000 they had a spike this year to 500,000 but it’s really got to do – what is going on with the old world genetic possibly, that their number has so drastically decreased in the Atlantic Flyway?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: So what’s happened is that Spigot scenario is exactly what it is, it’s an additive effect. We’ve been dumping birds about half a million, mostly on the Eastern Seaboard from 1920-1960. Since then, best guessed numbers is about 200 plus 1000, 250 with almost all of them on the Atlantic side, every single year. And so what that is, it’s a drip. And you’re putting these genetics into the system year in and year out and so once enough of the population is just bad at their job, that’s when you start seeing population declines. And so right now, what we’re trying to understand is, how exactly are they bad at their jobs? And in the last 3 years, you’ve alluded to a few of those, but I was able to partner a whole bunch of folks, I’d like to list them, if you’re all right with that, make sure that hopefully I remember everybody. I got to say, Mike Schumer, he and I are copious on this National Science Foundation grant, studying this project with Brian Davis as a partner out of Mississippi State, Ben Luken out of Michigan State with their trackers, as well as Brad Cohen out of Tennessee Tech, Rick Kaminski in South Carolina, Mississippi. And then I got to just say a big thanks to all of the federal and state agencies that have caught, bled and sent samples to me because this project wouldn’t be able to be a part of it. Of course, I got to say thanks to all my students, particularly Josh Brown, that was on the start of all of this. Anyway, so partnering with all these folks now that I’ve said this, we brought these birds into captivity. We went, we caught – well, actually, Heath Haggie caught some birds and we were able to use those birds after they were done with their feeding trials, their TME studies. And so we had wild birds, what we thought were wild birds and then we went and bought some game farm birds, did genetics on everybody, I’ve already told Heath this, but at least 30%, 40% of his birds were not wild, caught in Tennessee. Anyway, so we brought him into Forbes biological station, I got to say thanks to Ariel for that and Pinola Aviaries and they helped us out, brought birds in and we started doing feeding trials. And the first eye popping thing that happened was when they were ready to nest, wild birds created nests, would not necessarily create eggs because of the stress, but created a nest and sat on it. Those game farm birds never made a nest and basically were a chicken, they just poop out eggs and there was never an identifiable nest. If they did create a nest, it was a half circle or half attempt, these are females. That’s the first thing we first saw. Then we started our feeding trials. We want to understand, so you kind of alluded their bills are different and now we’ve got lots of data that, what happened is that in a cage, we turned a filter feeder into a pecker. So we turned a duck bill into a goose like bill. What they’re good at is pecking at seeds. And you can imagine this, think about a cage. I’m a duck in a cage, guy comes by, throws a whole bunch of corn in there or some large seed or bread or whatever it is that some grain waste or whatever they’re feeding me, I have to be fast, I have to run over because I’m not on the water anymore and I got to peck at that stuff.

Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.

Captive Breeding Genetics or Nature?

In the age of social media, you see a lot of hybrid bird, a lot of legit, cool hybrid birds coming on the scene, pintail, mallards, but you also see a whole lot of these blonde or tan or something mallards popping up on the internet, I’m like, that’s old world genetics, man.

So what we learned though, on getting to that is when we force them to filter feed, they are 50% less efficient at filter feeding, they take twice as much time and twice as much food to get the same calories. 

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: So through 200 years of captive breeding, the birds that are alive, that was who won in a cage. But man, that’s not who wins in nature, is it?

Ramsey Russell: And another point now, I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me. I’m sitting up giving a seminar yesterday, talking about this very topic, this topic about old world versus new world genetics, making natural wild filter feeders into peckers like chicken. But it also came to my mind as I was explaining this concept, the differentiation in terms of survivability is, I got asked a question, what do you think about avian bird flu? And I’m like, well, that scares the hell out of me because domesticide type birds are far more susceptible to it, that’s scary.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah. Fish & Wildlife asked me the same question because they saw some of our results where if you tracked avian influenza and you also track the proportion of game farm genetics on the landscape, it’s exactly one to one. Is that associated or not, we don’t know. But you’re right. They’ve got half the amount of genetic diversity as a wild mallard. So you’re putting an inbred line into an outbred line and when you do that, you make them inbred. And so you’re making these birds, you’re putting that same genetics over and over into our wild population and making them more and more tame is what we’re doing. So what we learned though, on getting to that is when we force them to filter feed, they are 50% less efficient at filter feeding, they take twice as much time and twice as much food to get the same calories. Put that on landscape, make them feed for twice as long, for twice as much time and you’re going to get aerial predators and other predators hitting them that much harder. If a freeze or anything comes in out of the blue, they just don’t have the capacity to survive through that is what we’re finding.

Ramsey Russell: So in the instance of old world genetics, which are starting to predominate the Atlantic Flyway drifting over to the upper Mississippi Flyway, how far west have you picked up any samples of ducks Central and Pacific Flyway. So the whole country right now has got this chicken like duck called the mallard.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: So I pick them up and then I call the agencies, I’m like, who is throwing out birds? And they’d be like, yeah, there’s a few people throwing out, I’m like, why are they throwing them?

Ramsey Russell: They don’t migrate.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: They don’t survive, their feeding habit makes them predisposed to lower survivability, they can’t get the nutrition out of a wild habitat and to predation and then top it all off, they’re laying their eggs willy nilly wherever they can to any coon, possum or anything else can pick it up and eat it.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That’s what we’re finding.

Ramsey Russell: It doesn’t bode well for the future.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: So we got 600 birds right now with Doug Osborne, Brad Cohen and Ben Lukenen with their birds and thankfully they were able to bleed them, let me have some of the genetics. And now we’ve got telemetry units, GPS units on these birds, on these 600 birds. And what we’re finding is that the Great Lakes area is inundated with these things, either someone’s throwing them or they’re getting a whole lot of bird of connectivity with the Atlantic Flyers.

Ramsey Russell: I want to say, you told me one time that if I shot a limit of mallards up into Great Lakes region, about 80% of them are probably going to be over genetic.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Generally, in Mississippi, it’s about 60%-40%, if you go into the Great Lakes, it’s anywhere from 70% to 90%, depending on the – and I didn’t expect this. I think if I remember correctly, Michigan was the worst for some reason. Like, almost all of them were either just feral or a hybrid of some sort between a wild and one of these game farm mallards.

Ramsey Russell: In the age of social media, you see a lot of hybrid bird, a lot of legit, cool hybrid birds coming on the scene, pintail, mallards, but you also see a whole lot of these blonde or tan or something mallards popping up on the internet, I’m like, that’s old world genetics, man.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah, that’s right. So what’s interesting is the Mississippi, there’s some odd thing happening. So I was able to publish a paper 6 months ago, a year, I don’t know, time flies with looking at birds out of the Mississippi, Alluvial Valley, right? So Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, that area and so we were able to get a bunch of birds again with Brian Davis, Ken Ringleman, Rick Kaminski and others and hugely different. I couldn’t believe what I saw, which is that in those areas, over 90% of them are actually wild and I was like, that just doesn’t make any sense. Given that if I just went north of Tennessee, north of where we are, that proportion goes to less than 30% chance that it’s a true wild mallard. So that was that first study, so now we’ve got birds with telemetry units and there are distinctly different patterns of migration between these birds, the birds in the south. And I hypothesize this just with genetics because the Dakotas are pure and this area is pure and that is exactly where those birds go in and out, out of the Dakotas into the lower Mississippi, Alluvial Valley, just straight shot. You look at those Great Lakes birds, completely different, they either just stay in the Great Lakes if they have more than 40% hybrid ancestry, they almost never leave, if they do, it’s almost a random walk, it’s like they don’t know where they’re going. And no matter what, it seems like they hit this wall in Tennessee, they just don’t want to cross it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like there’s a wall there and they will not cross it. They’ll go into the Atlantic, they’ll stay in the Great Lakes, but they won’t cross. And we’re trying to figure out what that’s all about, but what that suggests is that there’s this whole group of mallards that probably once used to go into the south that no longer do and it’s not because ice –

Ramsey Russell: What about Missouri? What percent of the old world new word genetic are we talking about coming out of the great confluence in that area where there are a lot of mallards?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: I only got the southern Missouri, I’m about to get some more birds out of there. But southern Missouri, close to the Mississippi, Alluvial Valley, close to the Mississippi River. If I remember correct, it was also almost 100% wild.

Ramsey Russell: Okay, that’s encouraging.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah. So that area and south. Like I said, under Tennessee, there seems to be something completely different than what’s happening north of Tennessee.

Ramsey Russell: Firstly, before I say secondly, firstly, you named off in the last little bit over a dozen superstars scientists, state, federal, university. Man, it is encouraging to me that you’ve put together such a dream team. Every single name you just named that is actively working in this, I’m telling you, I got a great comfort. But secondly, this is why I like this discussion, this is what I lose sleep about, about my grandkids hunting one day is the big list serve. There’s a conversation, be pop comes out. And for those of you all listening here’s kind of how sort of it works, they get up and they fly and they come up with basal populations, they look at all the different species, but really and truly mallards have a lot to do with how long the seasons are and what the bag limits are. Somehow another, they extrapolate greenwing teal off of mallard. I mean, mallard’s kind of driving adaptive harvest management and somebody asked the question to the group of all the state, federal and all the biologists that are on this list serve asked the question, well, I mean, that’s the big number of the count mallards. But like Rick said, what do we do about the 2 different, totally different genetics. Right now, the system is saying mallards, they’re not saying old world. But if we sat here discussed for 30 minutes, it’s 2 different critters.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Like I said, it’s like –

Ramsey Russell: Does it worry you? Does it worry you that all of the best waterfowl management program on Earth, right here in North America is being predicated by a mallard? But it ain’t really a critter, it’s been polluted.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It’s being polluted.

Ramsey Russell: Should we be worried?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: I am. Yeah, if I wanted to reintroduce wolves and I just used huskies and said, it looks like a wolf, is that good enough?

Ramsey Russell: That’s a great example.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Is that what we want?

Ramsey Russell: That’s a great example.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: I can’t tell anybody what to do, but when I’m sitting in a duck blind and those greenheads come in, I sure as hell would rather make sure that they’re wild. And I know that they can survive and they did survive and not just like, oh, by chance, they survive because they suck at life, but because they survived because of a million years of evolution on this planet.

Duck Habitat in the Heart of the Mississippi Delta

Billions of dollars of us hunters’, time and money going into wildlife conservation, wild birds, wilder places to shoot tame ducks makes no sense whatsoever, we should be fighting to death for this.

Ramsey Russell: Even in the heart of Mississippi Delta, I hunt with some close friends of mine that have some beautiful duck habitat and they were showing me at dinner one night some bands and some of the bands had names on them, Jeffrey, Joe and others had a private club nearby. And there’s one guy that raises birds just because, and he names them and puts tags on them and he’s real excited if you call and tell him you found Jeff and he’s on strap, but that’s okay. The club will send you a tshirt if you shoot one of their club bands. Now, wait a minute, this is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: I’m asking a bunch of questions at one time right here because I’m spinning. Is it too late to stop it? Should we stop? Should we enact some form of legislation that we’re not polluting wild genetics with this, number one? And number two, is it too late to turn the tide, if we did? I know it’s a loaded question.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That is a loaded question. I guess then I have to ask everybody, do we want to stop it? Do I want to stop it? Sure. I don’t do it, I don’t see a need for it, I don’t see a reason for it. Out of all the bird species in the world, ducks are the one thing that actually increase in size. We don’t need to continue to pollute them. What this is, here’s the real thing. If you want to go shoot mallards in France or Sweden, France alone, if I remember my numbers from last year correctly, is about 3 million birds that they release to have a fall flight. Does that sound like something we’d like to do? We’ve seen this before in fisheries especially, they have done this for a long time. Once you start stalking, it’s very hard to get off that stalking. And that’s because your population, after only a few generations, they become less adapted, they just are not good at their job in the wild. They’re good at their job in a tank, in a fish tank or in a cage, but they’re just not good in the wild. And that’s why when you think about rainbow trout, you think about salmon.

Ramsey Russell: Bob white quail.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Bob white quail, you’re stalking them, they’re just not going to survive. Pheasants in Ohio, ever since the freeze of 1980 something or 1970 something, they’ve been stalking them since then because they won’t take. A, the habitat’s not there, but B, they’re also just not good at life.

Ramsey Russell: When the first Europeans landed on Plymouth Rock in America, we had more wildlife, more wildlife diversity, we were the Eden of the world.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It was.

Ramsey Russell: And now we ain’t. And so as a duck hunter, the prospect of my beloved mallard duck becoming something that my grandkids have to go raise like chickens and turn loose on the camp to go shoot a few ducks, that’s very disheartening. Billions of dollars of us hunters’, time and money going into wildlife conservation, wild birds, wilder places to shoot tame ducks makes no sense whatsoever, we should be fighting to death for this.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: And what you just said is exactly it. All our data points to, let’s say, Ducks Unlimited or somebody or private individual goes, buys a golf course and decides, you know what? I want to turn this thing into a beautiful mecca. What you’ve actually done is decrease the carrying capacity or the potential of that land for these types of mallards, you should have left it at as a golf course if you wanted more mallards, those types of mallards, because they’re just not efficient at wild living.

Hybrid Ducks?

 State of Texas was concerned about some dusky duck issues, you’ve got coastal mottled duck, you’ve got some Mexican mallards in parts, you might have some hybridization going on and you did some research down there, too.

Ramsey Russell: Swapping gears. We also had a meeting, we did a call to a lot of listeners and you did get some help. State of Texas was concerned about some dusky duck issues, you’ve got coastal mottled duck, you’ve got some Mexican mallards in parts, you might have some hybridization going on and you did some research down there, too. And correct me if I’m wrong, but what I remember is that in parts of their historic range and I’m thinking the prairies out there on the coastal prairies, they were beginning to see their mottled ducks declining, but there were some dusky ducks beginning to emerge further west in non-traditional habitat. Where are you all with that? Just give me a synopsis of what have you found out in Texas since then? Since we had that conversation.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: So, again, thanks to your listeners, thanks to you, we were able to get a few private individuals that were able to get us samples on top of Texas Parks and Wildlife, Kevin and others. So the gist of it is that, those birds did go interior and so it looks like up to through Houston and everything, that’s all mottled duck. But what’s interesting is that they’ve come into contact with Mexican ducks and we have true Mexican duck mottled duck hybrids in a particular zone. So if you’re a hybrid enthusiast, I could show you where to go, go get yourself a Mexican duck, mottled duck hybrid, didn’t expect that. We are now building up some maps, we’re figuring out where the new locations that Texas Parks and Wildlife should start flying over, adding numbers to those mottled ducks. As you alluded to, birds on the coast haven’t been doing so well. And the question has always been, well, is this a population decline or population shift? Those are management wise, 2 very different very different questions, different scenarios. If it’s a population shift, well, maybe shift your bag limits or hunting seasons, depending on region, we do this all the time. If it’s a population decline, well, that’s a whole different question. And so what we’re showing at minimum, there was definitely a population shift and there’s a good number, lots of birds actually in the brush country of West Texas and getting a chance to drive around that area, I finally realized why. I mean, there’s stock tanks for all those big game and nobody’s shooting them. These birds I was sitting on –

Ramsey Russell: Is it a function of hunting pressure they’re shifting or habitat quality?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It’s a good question.

Ramsey Russell: Nobody knows.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: I don’t know. The second phase of this, which just started this year, we’ve identified locations where true mottled ducks are at least breeding and we’re starting to put telemetry units to figure out, okay, well, are they just annually shifting? Did they shift and that’s where they are all the time? What are they doing on the landscape is the next question. And on top of it, Texas Parks and Wildlife will have a chance to potentially have maybe even a new bag limit, I can’t talk for them, probably shouldn’t have said that or anything else, maybe something new about hybrids.

Ramsey Russell: They’re exploring all options because it’s a management concern for them.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It is.

Ramsey Russell: That’s what they’re entrusted to do and they’re doing a good job of it, I’m going to tell you, there’s some good guys.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah, there are. It blows my mind that I’m working on it with folks that probably didn’t want any genetics anywhere near their studies. But now we are the foundation to how they’re making decisions. So we’re building these maps, we’re telling them exactly who is what and so they can then start seeing, well, okay, for example, I think they put out 10 telemetry units, 2 of them were hybrids, the rest of them mottled ducks. So now they know exactly which one is our mottled ducts and which ones are hybrids. So you’re not polluting the data set with hybrids and potentially causing issues biases in the data set. So now you can partition those data sets, well, maybe hybrids do something totally different, maybe they’re the better duck for some odd reason on the landscape. This is what I’m excited about, that I get to contribute towards the applied aspect, towards future conservation of all these species.

Ramsey Russell: And that’s what I really love about your work, Phil, is you sent me a couple of papers one time and it took me two and a half hours to get through the abstract, I still didn’t understand what I read, but all of that complex jargon layman like me don’t understand is being truly applied. We spent a whole lot of time just talking about the implications and why this is so important.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah. And that’s what I’m better at talking at.

Ramsey Russell: And you’re pulling in this dream team of really astute waterfowl biologists to help you and it encourages me.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It can’t be done any other way at these landscape kind of levels that I’m trying to do. There’s a whole bunch of great biologists doing a great work and they’ve already got a whole bunch of birds in their hand, that is the hardest part. You got that bird in your hand, time to get some data. And thankfully, most of them are more than happy to give me a little blood or even just a toe pad and we get all the data we want from that and we’re able to contribute towards all of those data sets. So, again, with Heath Haggie, now he knows who’s who, right? In all his TME studies and everything. So now it’s like, okay, well, did we not see a significant pattern? Because all of a sudden we got these game farmy birds in there and so let’s partition that out and that helped him out as much as it helped us out.

Ramsey Russell: And for those that don’t know who he is, he’s essentially the waterfowl manager for the entire southeastern United States, I mean, so it’s kind of a big deal, that’s a big management implication right there. Let’s talk about Africa.

All About African Waterfowl: Genetic Patterns

I’m there, we’re shooting yellow bill ducks, we got lucky last year and I believe we collected 4 African black ducks, that’s a very hard bird to hem up. 

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Let’s fly to Africa.

Ramsey Russell: Because you sent me down a rabbit hole, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, man. I mean, you sent me some tools, it’s been a long time since I used some of them calipers and different stuff like that in the way I needed to do it. And you sent me some stuff I had to read up on collection, on methods, get back to scientific stuff I’d forgotten since lab in college and holy cow, did I enjoy that. So we came back the first year with African yellow billed ducks, which are part of the mallard complex and they really are a mallard and African black ducks. I think I killed one the first year, the first ever wild harvested African black duck, went back last year and you sent a bunch of vials, you called me up when I brought back and you said, why’d you use them all? I said, because you sent them, I’m glad you didn’t send more, I like to kill myself getting all them things done.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Those are just in case.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I mean, but why wouldn’t you collect them?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: Why wouldn’t you fill them up? I’m there, we’re shooting yellow bill ducks, we got lucky last year and I believe we collected 4 African black ducks, that’s a very hard bird to hem up. We were talking about aoudad hunting, walking game out in West Texas, that’s African black duck hunting. But it hearkens me being 15 years old and carrying my uncle’s golf bag 18 holes to go find an African black duck. And the more I’ve gotten into it, the more I’ve told some of my contacts over there, I said, I need to come schedule a week, put on my hiking boots and I’m ready to walk every drain between Johannesburg and Free State, just start walking. Because I know as I was collecting African yellow bill ducks field, I’d get off into, I’m going to say they’re separated by 6 hours or maybe roughly 300 miles, I’d get off into this area and this area and all of a sudden, I’d jump down to Zululand and the birds were longer and taller. It’s like you get into some culturals that are shorter or longer or taller or fatter. And I could see little variances as I’m picking the biggest birds I’ve picked, the longest I’ve picked up are down in Zulu land. To me, at a glance, I think they’re longer. And they seem to me when I pick them up to be a little bit bigger than these other differences.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: What you just said blew my mind because I saw a genetic pattern that I couldn’t explain, there’s two genetic types in the data set you collected of yellow bill ducks and I was like, it doesn’t really make any sense, but what you just said totally makes sense.

Ramsey Russell: Well, it’s like you see, all of humanity is derived of tribes and clans and you get into parts of Mexico or you get into parts of South America, you get into parts of Africa and you’ve got communities that are short, everybody’s kind of short. And you get into communities like the Zulu, they’re tall, those are the guys running those marathons and playing basketball, they’re tall. And I could see it in the freaking ducks down there and I’m like, holy, the biggest ducks I ever put my hands on come out of Zululand. I’m like, God, these things are so much bigger and longer and they’re so much more elegant looking and the bills seem longer down there.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: You’re making me want to pick up my laptop and show you what the results right now. But I got to tell you, man, you’re not only a hunter conservationist, you’re a hunter researcher.

Ramsey Russell: I’m digging it, dude. That African yellow billed duck, I’m telling you, it was very daunting. Like one day, I can remember, I had some close friends and we were eating lunch, we had about a 2 hour lunch schedule, they were grilling steaks, I decided I’m going to break them out and get started on it. And it’s so tedious.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Oh, I know.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve got 7 or 8 measurements that I got to pay attention to, I’ve got a dozen photos and then I got to take the tissue sample and I got to concentrate. I can’t have somebody looking on my shoulder, trying to help and having a conversation because I’ve got to get in a rhythm. And so what I find myself doing is color my birds out, taking them home, I label the bills, so I keep them in order, I lay them on the counter, maybe turn on a little podcast or a little bit of rock and roll and I sit there and fall off into this little microcosm zone.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That’s exactly what I do.

The African Yellow Billed Duck

But the yellow bill duck is very challenging to me and really and truly, the black duck is also very similar.

Ramsey Russell: And I’m processing my birds. But the thing about an African yellow bill duck and I want to talk about the applied science you all are doing, you’re going to show me. But, wow, what a duck to choose. Because whereas greenhead, male and female is totally different, the juvenile is pretty damn easy, yellow bill duck almost identical. And the bill, the color, the under chin, some of the colorations, but they don’t have – basically, they’re clones of each other, it’s very daunting. And I found myself taking lots and lots of notes, like trying to find a pattern, maybe the undertale covered or maybe on this or maybe on that. I see there’s a lot of variability, but I could never pin it down and say, this is male or this is female other than size and it’s either got a penis or it don’t. And that was it. Now flying because of size Mexican ducks.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Boom. I can pick a drake.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: These ducks here, I know when it hits the water if it’s drake, because their melts are so much bigger, the adult melts are so much bigger. And isn’t it interesting, Phil, that out of 13 mallard like subspecies, they’re all dusky ducks, except for our beloved greenhead, I find that interesting. But the yellow bill duck is very challenging to me and really and truly, the black duck is also very similar.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: They are what we call true monochromatic species, where mom and dad look identical and they are hard, right? And so the greenhead is a true dichromatic species where mom and dad don’t look the same anymore.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve enjoyed it and it’s made my head spin and it has made me thirsty to do more. We’re sitting here talking about all these mallards in North America and I’m like, I know a guy that travels from coast to coast every hunting season, I just need some genetic vials to start sampling these birds, I’m killing. Because now when I pick up a mallard in Vermont or I pick up a mountain in California, I’m wondering. The last bird I killed this hunting season before I go back down to Mexico was a pair of greenheads in Azerbaijan. I just can’t help but wonder, what is their genetic origin? What is their genetic origin in this part of the world? And now I want to get back on track with African yellow bill ducks, I got 2 questions. What are you doing with this data? And how does it apply to North American management? But what are you doing? Because it blows my mind what you and your students are doing with this African yellow bill data.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Let’s correct that, what are we doing?

Ramsey Russell: What are we doing?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: What are we doing with it? You’re going to get a paper with all that jargon in it in the next year.

Ramsey Russell: Somebody’s got to write me up, got to dumb it down to about 4th grade level for me.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: I’ll write a secondary abstract. Yeah. So what we’re doing with it is first we’re just looking at population structure like you had talked about. You’re like, man, these things look different, so then the question becomes, are they different? Is there something genetic different? And hearing that story for the first time and knowing the data I have, it seems that there is, because there’s these two distinct kind of populations that don’t quite make sense genetically, like, I just didn’t expect it. Second thing, so we’re looking at population structure between how different is an African black duck from a yellow billed duck and those 2 from a mallard. So we put mallards in there to see how different are these species, how do they evolve kind of evolutionary questions. What makes them different is what we’re asking. And then the next thing is that we’re taking all that data you provided us, all the measurements and pictures and first we’re working with the measurements and what one of my students was able to do was parse down a single measurement to get 95% accuracy at identifying between sexes just by bill length. If you just do bill length, we have almost 95% accuracy. If I remember correctly, if it’s less than 56 mm, it’s a female, if it’s longer, it’s a male. And all of that would not have been possible without the data that you provided. But it’s actually so different, those measurements that you provided between males and females, that we can distinguish them at a better rate than we do for mottled ducks, I believe, you need multiple measurements to do that.

Ramsey Russell: That’s what I told you when I got back, that I was going to say, everybody listening, when they were a child, collected a leaf collection. This is an oak leaf, this is a pine needle, as a forester, this is not all oak, you can’t look at the leaf on the ground. When you’re out there in the woods, let’s just say ten characteristics of a nut all oak, the site, the location, the bowl quality, the bark appearance, the branchation, the leaf size, the juvenile leaf size, the fruit, the flower. And what you do sometimes on some of these species is just say well, 6 out of 10 characteristics is this, so it must be this and that’s the same thing I had to do with a lot of these ducks.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: And so what we did, we took all your characteristics and threw them into machine learning or artificial intelligence and we ask the machine and we just asked the Terminator to be like tell us what are the fewest number of characters to get above 95% accuracy? And it spit out 2 mottled. One mottled with just that one bill and then we can get maybe another percent accuracy if you add weight and bill. So just by weight, if they’re under 988 grams female, over 1000 male. Just with those 2 characteristics you could tell the sexes apart quite readily. So what that does is it provides a new tool for African Fish & Game or African local enforcement or anybody that’s studying those species because that didn’t exist, that data, that information, that knowledge did not exist until you collected it.

Ramsey Russell: And you’re building an app.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That’s the secondary thing. So we’re building an application, we’re really starting with the data sets that are the most rich, which is our New Zealand data set for New Zealand gray ducks and mallards over there and I almost went down the mallard hole again. And then in North America for mottled ducks, Mexican ducks and then also we’re starting to put game farm mallards. In fact, those characteristics that you look at can distinguish between a game farm mallard and a wild mallard and its hybrids. So that’s how different they’re as different from each other as a male and a female of a yellow bill duck. Again, we just went down that rabbit hole, didn’t we?

Management Implications of Hybrids, Game Farm, and Wild Waterfowl

But it really is the more I know about the whole mallard conclave, the more we know and the more we can manage all of them.

Ramsey Russell: But I mean, that’s the whole point because I asked you one time, hey, I love the field work, I love being a part of this, I feel like I’m giving back. But so what, it’s way over in Africa, that’s an 18 hours, I mean, it’s a long way from here, 5000-6000 miles. So what is the relation to a mallard or a black duck or a mottled duck and the management implications? But it really is the more I know about the whole mallard conclave, the more we know and the more we can manage all of them.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: That’s right. So each one is providing information about their history and they’re all entangled in that history. And so we’re able to use the differences and the uniqueness to understand well, that is what makes a mallard, that’s what makes a yellow bill, so then we can tailor things, get numbers up. So this application, before I forget, what we’ve got right now is a beta version, but what we’re hoping in the next year or two, my students are working on it and always looking for partners to help us out –

Ramsey Russell: We’re going to talk about that.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: But we’re building this application based on all this information, the same data that you collected for your birds, your birds are going to be there, our birds are going to be there and we’re building this thing that a person can take a picture and it’s going to tell you sex, age, plumage and hybrid or ancestry probability.

Ramsey Russell: In years to come as this artificial intelligent app progresses, we’re probably going to have an app on our Apple and anywhere in the world, anybody’s sitting, Michigan, California, Azerbaijan, I can break out my phone, it’s going to say age and sex and species.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: And right now for the mallards. So your question about Azerbaijan, when you’re like, I wonder what this thing was, you would be able to take a picture of it and it’ll tell you wild mallard, game farm mallard, game farm wild mallard, there’s lots of unique questions we can ask. And essentially, if the hunting community especially gets on board with this, we could be monitoring wild population almost real time during hunting season and have true identity of those individuals. Now, the other part of this, the real applied, the immediate thing is that we standardize the way everybody, all the banding crews, all those people, banding mallards and black ducks and mottled ducks and everything, how they identify things, right? When it’s 2AM, 3AM in the morning and it’s day 5 and you’re tired, the way you see specs on stuff and the way you’re calling things might be different than the way you called it on day one or somebody else is calling it in a different field and so that creates noise in our data set. This would standardize it and clean it up. On top of it if there’s enough buy in, potentially, this is a management tool, if you use the tool, potentially hybrids don’t go against your bag limit. Potentially we can look at it where we can have separate bag limits for black ducks, mallards and Mexican ducks if the tool is used and if the state and federal allow it and all that good stuff. But I think at minimum we can start to identify locations of high hybridization and potentially those areas because hybrids are technically not protected by the feds.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Potentially those areas –

Ramsey Russell: If you talk to people like yourself or to down to Mr. Dickson at Pinola, hybrids are a sinkhole, they’re going nowhere.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Eventually they go nowhere, but they still pollute.

Ramsey Russell: They’re a dead end.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: They’re a dead end and most of the time they are true dead end. But the problem with game farm mallards is that they trickle, they just keep going their genetics.

Ramsey Russell: We’re talking about 13 mallard-like species and pursuant to this conversation, I’m sitting there thinking, how arrogant are we that they’re mallard like species? Because now we’ve got mallard, black duck, Florida mottled, gulf coastal mottled, Mexican duck in North America, down in Australia, we got Pacific black duck, we’ve got yellow bill duck, African black duck, we’ve got eastern spot bill ducks, got a couple of mallard like ducks over in Hawaii.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Hawaiian duck, laysan duck, Philippine duck, Meller’s duck, all of those guys.

Ramsey Russell: Okay, now, which came first? You got a guess?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yellow bill duck. Yellow bill duck or African black duck is the first.

Ramsey Russell: Came first?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Yeah. So actually, it should be the yellow bill duck complex.

Ramsey Russell: We ain’t really got a mallard like complex, we got a yellow bill duck complex.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: We just call it the mallard like complex because everybody likes greenheads.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a good question. Where are we going next? Like you’ve told me, we need some Australian genetics, we need some other stuff. You were looking on something like and I’ve asked myself this question, it’s like you’ve got this massive spur wing goose, you’ve got knob bill ducks in Africa, it could be some genetic relation. One thing when I pick up an Egyptian goose, which I think is technically a duck, though, it behaves like a goose, if you look at that wing, that’s a freaking shelduck with a black stripe across the bottom of the secondary colors, I mean, there’s got to be some relation at some point in time. Is that kind of stuff important?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Absolutely. Because then once we actually know what they are, we can actually then stop making assumptions. Like you say we call them a goose, do we just assume it acts and is a goose? Is it a duck? Well, if it is a duck, what kind of duck? How does it eat? How does it feed? And understanding their true relationships lets us get that first question, what is it? So that’s what I try to explain what genetics, if nothing else provides you, is just telling you, what is this thing? Like you said in the list, serve everybody’s like, what is this thing? Is this type of hybrid or that type of hybrid? The only real way to understand we can all discuss it and make our own assumptions, but the only true way to understand what a thing is, is their genetics.

Ramsey Russell: We had this discussion, let’s go to Australia and collect Pacific black ducks, great because it’s a mallard like species, but especially in light and I had this conversation yesterday, especially since COVID my world is getting smaller because of politics, because of emotions. And you know what scares me also, Phil about the future of everything is it’s really not. Us hunters are chastised as killers. 10% of America, let’s say 6%, actually goes out and kills stuff and I’ve been asked a question and it made me wonder, why do I choose to kill stuff to interact with nature? Because a lot of people do not. But my answer is this, if you look at habitat loss in America and elsewhere, we hunters are singularly the minority that is putting our time and money into habitat conservation to produce wildlife, it’s the 80% to 90% of humanity that’s completely indifferent to interacting with ducks and wetlands that are letting wetlands be paved and lost to benign neglect, it’s important. But as the world’s moving forward, we got 8 billion people going on 50, I guess and we’re losing habitat. And it’s like, man, why don’t we collect all, why don’t we right now while we can? Why don’t we begin to database all the genetics? And I’m leading up to a question, because we hunters, duck hunters, especially on public land, we perceive a lot more hunters than it used to be back in 70s, 80s, 90s, I disagree, when you look at stamp sales, we hunters are declining. But because we’re losing so much habitat, we’re becoming more highly concentrated on a drastically shrinking landscape.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It’s a drought and all the ducks are going to one spot.

Ramsey Russell: Okay. As we’re losing habitat and all these waterfowl in America, in Canada, around the world, they’re also becoming more distilled on a smaller landscape. How’s that going to transform their genetics? Does that make sense for future managers?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: So the good thing about ducks and why waterfowl are so adaptable is their capacity to increase numbers in good years and basically make “decisions” to breed or not breed on bad years. On top of it, what we’re seeing initially is as there’s warming the north, places like the Yukon, northern Alaska, boreal forests that were not open to these ducks are increasingly open. I got to tell you, I was hunting moose close to the Yukon border and I was astounded by the number of dabbling ducks I saw. Pintail, teal, gadwall, mallards in September and I said they shouldn’t really be here. And so what’s happening is I think they’re shifting north and there’s data already showing.

Ramsey Russell: They’re finding the new habitat.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: While the polar bear can’t go anywhere, those ducks thankfully can. Potentially, they’re doing what they’ve always done, they’re adapting. Now, the problem is, at least for the mallard, part of that population is just not good at that game.

Tools for the Hunter and Game Habitat Manager

So once I’m done, whoever I’ve taught or whoever’s in the next one, it would be doing the same job I do and ensure that there’s a lab that is sole focus is this, is to make sure that this data stream continues forever for waterfowl and making sure waterfowl conservation stays ahead of all other conservation programs.

Ramsey Russell: Sum up real quickly, I’ve asked it and I’ve hinted all around, but tell me real quickly for the listener because we have covered a lot of really cool and dawning and interesting topics, if you’re a mallard of duck hunter like me and everybody else listening, what is the role of genetics? Just sum it up to a layman. Why is your genetic research so important to all those keystone managers you were talking about and to us hunters? Just sum it up.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Foundational. As you saw, we’ve partnered with so many people, so many folks are now asking for more and more help. And essentially what we’ve become is that foundation and if that foundation has cracks and those cracks are basically knowledge gaps, then potentially everything you build on that foundation, the wetlands, the birds, the habitat, whatever you’re doing may also be not optimum for what you’re trying to achieve. So, again, foundational to Texas Parks & Wildlife, they’re changing where they’re going to start to count ducks foundational to all of the studies on mallards and understanding what’s happening there, because now we know who is who and what they are and we can start to partition them and ask the question, well, what does a hybrid do? What does a pure wild do? What does a game farm mallard do? What makes them different? And how can we change that. So it’s becoming foundational –

Ramsey Russell: We can manage maximum output, we can manage maximum or ideal consumption.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It’s taken time, but we have methods now that our turnaround is quick, our data is refined and we’re doing 23 and me on ducks with birds, so it’s 30 and duck. But we’re able to do that in more or less record time and trying to get it faster and faster so we can almost do it in real time. These applications that we sort of alluded to, we’re hoping to even further get away from genetics, but genetics was the foundation of those applications. So that way we can give managers and hunters tools that in the field, in the blind, you can make a decision based on, again, that foundational aspect, which is genetics.

Ramsey Russell: I asked Rick Kaminski, my old hero who sent me down, this passion for waterfowl, I’m serious, man, he’s one of my heroes. But I asked him and I said, Rick, how important are genetics to waterfowl management? And he summed it up in a word, very. He didn’t say foundation, but he said, Ramsey, it is the basis for all this management. So we’re talking about one of the most crucial aspects of modern day waterfowl management, is your genetic studies, but just like all other research, it takes funding. I came back with I don’t know how many vials, 100 vials, I’m going to say and you call me up, I ain’t got funding to process all these, but I’ll find it. In all of research, no matter what field you’re in, it’s all about funding.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: It is all about funding.

Ramsey Russell: And funding is a grind, especially for something as groundbreaking and as critical to waterfowl management throughout the world, especially here in the United States, as your genetic studies are, you’re having to hustle and beg to get some funding for this kind of stuff.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Constantly and that is the hard thing. So a lot of the stuff that you provided, we just trickle that in. I want to help every hunter that asks me a question about their duck and I tell them, send it in, we’ll figure it out.

Ramsey Russell: Why isn’t every state, federal, NGO why aren’t they beating your door down to fund research like this?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Increasingly so. But just how much can they give each project to work it to make it work and it’s daunting. And the problem is that I want to give data to the hunters, to the managers in record time, I want them to know what they have so they can make decisions. We don’t want to wait a year, we don’t want to wait months, we want to do this in 2 weeks, a week. Hell, if we had the personnel and the right equipment, we could do it in 3 to 4 days.

Ramsey Russell: All right, now bear with me. We sent $85 billion in foreign aid to Ukraine whether they need it or not, the New York City public school budget is $22 billion a year, we know where public education is going, folks. Our federal government really a lot of these spending things they’re doing out is not a B, it’s a T, a trillion dollars by comparison to some of these numbers I’m just throwing out, what would it take to endow your research program and what would it take in the bank right now just a bank account that you could fund, all this research and all this stuff you’re doing. What are we talking about, a billion dollars?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: No. $1,500,000 to $5,000,000.

Ramsey Russell: $1,500,000 to $5 million.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: And that would endow it indefinitely, forever.

Ramsey Russell: Forever.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: And it would give us the exact about my expense on all these extra projects and all the hunters and everything is about $200,000 a year. On top of doing the project that’s actually funding all that stuff, so I’m penny sucking all these other projects to make sure we get all these other things done, like all the African black duck, yellow billed duck.

Ramsey Russell: We’re talking 1.5% to 2% of a major NFL athletes bonus contract to fund something this important indefinitely.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Indefinitely. Forever. So once I’m done, whoever I’ve taught or whoever’s in the next one, it would be doing the same job I do and ensure that there’s a lab that is sole focus is this, is to make sure that this data stream continues forever for waterfowl and making sure waterfowl conservation stays ahead of all other conservation programs.

Ramsey Russell: I’m going to Africa for a month this year, you going to send me more vials?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Oh, I’m coming with you.

Ramsey Russell: Where else we going this year?

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: You tell me. I got a little grant, I’m excited to work with you and come out with you, so you tell me where I’m going.

Ramsey Russell: If we’re going to go to Australia, we need to go because the world’s getting smaller, they’re fixing to shut that summer gun down. It’s fixing to be Australia ducking going to end. And I’ve already started putting out fillers in other parts of the world for some of these species we might need to get into.

Dr. Phil Lavretsky: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: Well, folks, I know that’s a different podcast, but wasn’t that interesting? Wasn’t that important? Go back if you want to, if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, go back and check out “Just a Mallard”, one of our issues from quite a few episodes ago, we also did a Dusky Duck episode, this one kind of ties it all together. A lot of us worry about the future of duck hunting, you and I, everybody listening, we spend so much time and so much money for what we do, what are our kids going to do? What are our grandkids going to do? What are we going to do in a few years, 20 years from now? It’s very important stuff. I thank you all for listening. Phil, I thank you. You’ve set me on a great path and I’m in my happy place doing this kind of stuff again, I get to shoot ducks and have fun, but I get to give back, too. And folks, that’s my point, it can’t be all take, we have got to give. If any of you companies, any of you name brand product makers, if any of you guys that’s hitting a lick this year need a tax write off, maybe consider helping to endow this research. It’s very important to what me and you and our kids and grandkids do. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.

Podcast Sponsors:, your proven source for the very best waterfowl hunting adventures. Argentina, Mexico, 6 whole continents worth. For two decades, we’ve delivered real duck hunts for real duck hunters. because the next great hunt is closer than you think. Search our database of proven US and Canadian outfits. Contact them directly with confidence.

Benelli USA Shotguns. Trust is earned. By the numbers, I’ve bagged 121 waterfowl subspecies bagged on 6 continents, 20 countries, 36 US states and growing. I spend up to 225 days per year chasing ducks, geese and swans worldwide, and I don’t use shotgun for the brand name or the cool factor. Y’all know me way better than that. I’ve shot, Benelli Shotguns for over two decades. I continue shooting Benelli shotguns for their simplicity, utter reliability and superior performance. Whether hunting near home or halfway across the world, that’s the stuff that matters.

HuntProof, the premier mobile waterfowl app, is an absolute game changer. Quickly and easily attribute each hunt or scouting report to include automatic weather and pinpoint mapping; summarize waterfowl harvest by season, goose and duck species; share with friends within your network; type a hunt narrative and add photos. Migrational predictor algorithms estimate bird activity and, based on past hunt data will use weather conditions and hunt history to even suggest which blind will likely be most productive!

Inukshuk Professional Dog Food Our beloved retrievers are high-performing athletes that live to recover downed birds regardless of conditions. That’s why Char Dawg is powered by Inukshuk. With up to 720 kcals/ cup, Inukshuk Professional Dog Food is the highest-energy, highest-quality dog food available. Highly digestible, calorie-dense formulas reduce meal size and waste. Loaded with essential omega fatty acids, Inuk-nuk keeps coats shining, joints moving, noses on point. Produced in New Brunswick, Canada, using only best-of-best ingredients, Inukshuk is sold directly to consumers. I’ll feed nothing but Inukshuk. It’s like rocket fuel. The proof is in Char Dawg’s performance.

Tetra Hearing Delivers premium technology that’s specifically calibrated for the users own hearing and is comfortable, giving hunters a natural hearing experience, while still protecting their hearing. Using patent-pending Specialized Target Optimization™ (STO), the world’s first hearing technology designed optimize hearing for hunters in their specific hunting environments. TETRA gives hunters an edge and gives them their edge back. Can you hear me now?! Dang straight I can. Thanks to Tetra Hearing!

Voormi Wool-based technology is engineered to perform. Wool is nature’s miracle fiber. It’s light, wicks moisture, is inherently warm even when wet. It’s comfortable over a wide temperature gradient, naturally anti-microbial, remaining odor free. But Voormi is not your ordinary wool. It’s new breed of proprietary thermal wool takes it next level–it doesn’t itch, is surface-hardened to bead water from shaking duck dogs, and is available in your favorite earth tones and a couple unique concealment patterns. With wool-based solutions at the yarn level, Voormi eliminates the unwordly glow that’s common during low light while wearing synthetics. The high-e hoodie and base layers are personal favorites that I wear worldwide. Voormi’s growing line of innovative of performance products is authenticity with humility. It’s the practical hunting gear that we real duck hunters deserve.

Mojo Outdoors, most recognized name brand decoy number one maker of motion and spinning wing decoys in the world. More than just the best spinning wing decoys on the market, their ever growing product line includes all kinds of cool stuff. Magnetic Pick Stick, Scoot and Shoot Turkey Decoys much, much more. And don’t forget my personal favorite, yes sir, they also make the one – the only – world-famous Spoonzilla. When I pranked Terry Denman in Mexico with a “smiling mallard” nobody ever dreamed it would become the most talked about decoy of the century. I’ve used Mojo decoys worldwide, everywhere I’ve ever duck hunted from Azerbaijan to Argentina. I absolutely never leave home without one. Mojo Outdoors, forever changing the way you hunt ducks.

BOSS Shotshells copper-plated bismuth-tin alloy is the good ol’ days again. Steel shot’s come a long way in the past 30 years, but we’ll never, ever perform like good old fashioned lead. Say goodbye to all that gimmicky high recoil compensation science hype, and hello to superior performance. Know your pattern, take ethical shots, make clean kills. That is the BOSS Way. The good old days are now.

Tom Beckbe The Tom Beckbe lifestyle is timeless, harkening an American era that hunting gear lasted generations. Classic design and rugged materials withstand the elements. The Tensas Jacket is like the one my grandfather wore. Like the one I still wear. Because high-quality Tom Beckbe gear lasts. Forever. For the hunt.

Flashback Decoy by Duck Creek Decoy Works. It almost pains me to tell y’all about Duck Creek Decoy Work’s new Flashback Decoy because in  the words of Flashback Decoy inventor Tyler Baskfield, duck hunting gear really is “an arms race.” At my Mississippi camp, his flashback decoy has been a top-secret weapon among my personal bag of tricks. It behaves exactly like a feeding mallard, making slick-as-glass water roil to life. And now that my secret’s out I’ll tell y’all something else: I’ve got 3 of them.

Ducks Unlimited takes a continental, landscape approach to wetland conservation. Since 1937, DU has conserved almost 15 million acres of waterfowl habitat across North America. While DU works in all 50 states, the organization focuses its efforts and resources on the habitats most beneficial to waterfowl.

It really is Duck Season Somewhere for 365 days. Ramsey Russell’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast is available anywhere you listen to podcasts. Please subscribe, rate and review Duck Season Somewhere podcast. Share your favorite episodes with friends. Business inquiries or comments contact Ramsey Russell at And be sure to check out our new GetDucks Shop.  Connect with Ramsey Russell as he chases waterfowl hunting experiences worldwide year-round: Insta @ramseyrussellgetducks, YouTube @DuckSeasonSomewherePodcast,  Facebook @GetDucks