Delta Waterfowl Scientist Chris Nicolai has been “ringing and slinging” for decades pursuant to career waterfowl research, placing bands on every North American waterfowl species and visiting some pretty far-flung places. When and how did bird banding begin? Who pioneered it? How are various waterfowl species captured, which are hardest to catch and and why might brant banding develop expert decoying skills? Which species are most banded? What are the various types of bands and markers used, how has technology changed things, and what are the many reasons waterfowl are banded? Bands are widely coveted by hunters as precious metals–but why can that be both good and bad?  Nicolai and Ramsey plow full steam ahead in this crash course conversation about the vital role we waterfowl hunters play as citizen scientists to manage waterfowl–and even justify the continuance of our waterfowl hunting privileges!

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The Role of Duck Banding in the Future of Hunting

And the thing about it is I feel, not only is it fun just to hold ducks and see them, but it’s kind of like, it’s my chance to give back a little bit more to let that duck go and know that that’s a data point in a massive growing body of science that’s going to help the future of hunting, kind of gives me the feel good. 

Ramsey Russell: This episode is dedicated to the late Dan Spencer. Besides being one of the best shots I’ve ever seen, he was a husband, father, friend to many and a model citizen scientist. He volunteered countless hours to waterfowl banding projects throughout North America. He’ll be missed by many.

And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, joining me today is world famous Chris Nikolai, you all heard him before on the podcast. Everybody knows today’s guest or I feel like everybody should know him if you got any interest whatsoever in today’s topic, which is duck bands. I’ve been fortunate enough to do some duck banding myself back when I was with US Fish and Wildlife Service 20 some odd years ago, the best 6 or 7 weeks of my entire federal government career were up on the prairies up in Canada, in Saskatchewan banding ducks, banded a bunch of blue wings, I’ve been fortunate enough to get down with, Paul Link and Mama Duck and do some of their spring banding. I’ve been Doug Osburn down on the winter ground a little bit, I love it, man. And the thing about it is I feel, not only is it fun just to hold ducks and see them, but it’s kind of like, it’s my chance to give back a little bit more to let that duck go and know that that’s a data point in a massive growing body of science that’s going to help the future of hunting, kind of gives me the feel good. Chris, how are you doing today?

Chris Nicolai: I’m doing great sitting up here in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Ramsey Russell: Good. And Bismarck, North Dakota. Do anything about duck bands, Chris?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I have. I’ve been banding well over half my life, so probably 30-35 years, I guess.

Into Banding Hook, Line, and Sinker

How many waterfowl would you guess you have banded in your career?

Ramsey Russell: Now for those of you all listening that don’t know who Chris Nikolai is formerly Fish and Wildlife Service, I’ll let you to give your own credits. But Chris, as I got to know you every now and again, I will text you and ask you about some band data, some observations I’ve made out in the field and most recently we shot some banded brant and when we reported them on the site, they had not been turned in. So I tried to decipher who, what, when and where and you were able to provide just a little bit of insight on why those bands weren’t reported or probably where they came from. But when did you get started in duck banding? Well, do you remember your first duck you banded?

Chris Nicolai: Oh, yeah. It was a mallard down in Southwest Wisconsin, helping with some cool radio projects and whenever you put radios or anything like that they also get a band. But I’d say the first real just ringing and flinging would have been probably like 1994.

Ramsey Russell: Was it part of your research, college, master’s or thesis or what?

Chris Nicolai: No, that was all, being a undergrad student in a biology program and just being a seasonal technician working with a lot of guys that are now retired and they were taught by folks before them. Yeah, I remember working with them, we were using crates and materials that were braised and built in the 50s and 60s that was still usable.

Ramsey Russell: Wow. Where all have your banding activities? How did you progress as a duck bander from a volunteering seasonal tech to being an Arctic stations up banding brant whatever up in the polar circle, the Arctic circle. What was the progression in that?

Chris Nicolai: Damn, I’d say the progression actually happened pretty quick. I was totally into it hook line and sinker the first time I got to do it and within a year or two, I was crew leader, as the technician and coordinating with a lot of area managers where the birds are and go around and get all that stuff going and once I finished my undergrad, I had nothing else really going on other than trying to get into grad school, but that’s a pretty hard process. So I went on up to Alaska and ended up getting wrapped into some remote places, where you’re getting dropped off with a float plane and a big old box of bands and a bunch of canned food and huge pile of 50 lbs sacks of grain. And told you’ll get picked up when the grain is gone and the bands are gone. And, yeah, I got into graduate school working with brant and quickly we’re leading those efforts too and it was kind of fun after couple of years, my advisor just cut me loose and let me run the show and go from there and move down to Nevada and almost immediately after moving there, I actually got my own Master Bander permit, that’s the big permit everyone has to have and until you have one of those, you’re just a sub permitted under someone else’s Master permit. But that’s kind of fun to finally get your own Master permit.

Ramsey Russell: How many birds had you banded by the time you became a master like that? I mean, I know that’s a tenuous situation. They’re not just handing them out on every street corner, you got to qualify for that kind of stuff, don’t you?

Chris Nicolai: Oh yeah. You got to qualify, write a little summary about all your – you make a little banding resume, they call it and then you actually have to have 3 references that’ll vouch for you, for your humane handling for your data for knowing what to do when something goes bad. So yeah, you get run through the wringer a little bit, put your time in and finally qualify for it. It’s kind of fun, turn it around, I probably written about 30 letters as being one of those references for about 30 other applicants now, it’s been fun.

Ramsey Russell: How many ducks or how many waterfowl, I should say. How many waterfowl would you guess you have banded in your career? How many species?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I’ve handled all the North American species. There’s a couple of situations where if we had bands, we were holding the bird, we could have easily done it, but that wasn’t part of the project. But yeah, I’ve handled all of them but numbers wise, it gets a little tricky because I’ve worked with a couple projects that have a huge recapture component to it. So those are birds, when you’re banding, you catch a good number of birds that were already banded, they’re not all naked legged at all and some of my projects I’ve had situations like a couple of situations where every bird we caught was already marked, caught a whole bunch of them, we didn’t even put a brand new band out because they were there. But I don’t know, I’d have to guess over 30 something years, 35 years of helping folks out. I don’t know, I’d have to guess well over a 100,000, but how high boy, that’d be tough, especially when you deal with all those recaps.

Most Interesting Locations for Banding Ducks

Ramsey Russell: What was some of the most interesting locations you’ve been on to band ducks? Tell me a story about being up in some of these areas banding ducks.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I mean, they’re all unique and I get excited just going down South Dakota, the middle of the continent, there’s no coastal stuff there, no tides, no horrible freezing, no animals that are going to eat you, that’s still fun. And, yeah, you get into other stuff, where you’re dealing with storm surges and freezing conditions or white bears or brown bears or black bears and it’s all fun or mosquitoes. I mean, God, mosquitoes that are so bad, you can’t even breathe without ingesting 100 of them. Yeah, they’re all fun, but I’d say, the ones that stick out or the YK Delta is a lot of fun just because I was there, I was probably working there about 15 years but then going up and seeing new places in the Canadian Arctic, YK Delta is just massive amounts of mud, just mud everywhere, I mean, by the time you’re done with that trip there’s mud packed in every little spot mud can silt. But going up to the Canadian Arctic where it’s all rock based and you run into clay in some places which is a different beast but it’s cleaner and it’s neat. But guess what, poles for net corrals don’t go in the ground as easy as they do in mud or I got to go to Iceland once for a very short trip that is completely car based, including a lot of our sleeping and eating and just go. So it’s been a lot of fun.

Ramsey Russell: What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been? See to me when you tell these stories, I’m thinking, I just remember maybe it’s my imagination. One time you were somewhere up in the Arctic, I’m going to say Canadian Arctic because it was tundra, not muddy and it was like a lot of just ancient dwellings, where would that have been? It’s like stone wall, stone remnants, like 1,000 years old of human dwellings somewhere up in the Arctic.

Chris Nicolai: Oh, yeah. Now, the whole Arctic’s littered with bird history. I mean, that influx of birds in the summer in the Arctic drove their movements and activities and stuff. I mean, even the YK Delta where things rot really fast, there’s still a lot of history in birds. But yeah, when you get into those places with the rocks, all in the Canadian Arctic, you’d find old village sites with these rock fox traps, where it’s basically this huge contraption that they’d throw some bait down in the bottom and it’s basically an upside down minnow trap made out of rocks. The fox could get in but he couldn’t get out and then they’d have a pelt to get, the coolest stuff is just finding those old corrals for herding flightless geese. I mean, it looked like the original version of exactly what we were up there doing, hurting captive geese. But all these native folks were herding them for food. They’d get them in a corral and then spear them or club them or hit them with rocks and salt them up and air dry them and save them for food months down the road. We’re using almost the same techniques just harmlessly put a band on them and let them go and use them for harvest assessment all the way up and down the flyways.

When Did Attaching Bands and Markers Onto Waterfowl Begin?

…the same birds are running into different cultures or different countries and all that, so it definitely took someone, a famous guy, a guy named Frederick Lincoln that is a federal employee that organized it all to have a central reporting place and consistent ways to mark them and a lot of that collaboration and it grew from their side.

Ramsey Russell: Who and when did waterfowl banding start? When did attaching bands and markers onto waterfowl begin? And who started it would you think?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. I mean, there’s lots of stories and there’s other birds mark long before waterfowl. One story I always liked hearing was folks in northern Europe, seeing storks that come back and nest on people’s roofs and really like to sit on like their chimneys and things like that. And a stork showed up with a spear that people identified as coming from some African tribe, it was just a marker, that’s all a band is a marker. But yeah, all of a sudden there’s this bird that made it all the way north, carrying this spear from African origin was pretty neat. And then you read some of the older stories about the kings hunted with falcons and they’d mark them just to show that they were theirs. And sure enough, some falcon disappeared one day on a hunt and someone found it hundreds of miles away captured it for their hunting purposes and here it had someone else’s mark on it from being handled before and those go back hundreds of years, I’d have to guess, the high hundreds. But for actually, resembling a band for what we have now, I think it was some night herons over on the east coast as the first little pieces of metal with contact information.

Ramsey Russell: Now, were those night herons at the time kind of – you didn’t put a date on this? But were they game animals or non-game animals, considered game or non-game?

Chris Nicolai: Well, I don’t know, I’d have to imagine they were. I mean, it was long ago where they would have been legal but I don’t know, I’ve never eaten a heron and I would imagine they don’t decoy all that well.

Ramsey Russell: There’s folks that shoot them. And I mean, back in the day there’s a lot of animals that I don’t think of as game animals that get eaten, ibises and stuff like that. I was curious, man, that’s very interesting. Do you have any idea when or who come up with the idea of starting to scale out and approach waterfowl management that way? Like, for example, the earliest I know of and I don’t know which came first the chicken or the egg, but I know that Jack Miner was somehow figured out back in the day and I guess it’s been early 1900s, somehow figured out that all those Canada geese coming down around Kingsville Ontario were going back up to the Arctic where there were a lot of indigenous people that may not have been aware of his gospel and he began to put scripture as a form of   spreading the gospel. And I’ve always wondered and I don’t know, did government agency start to do that, did he borrow from that idea or vice versa? I don’t know.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I’d have to guess they work together a bit. But the migratory birds are so different and just like you talk there, we got different – the same birds are running into different cultures or different countries and all that, so it definitely took someone, a famous guy, a guy named Frederick Lincoln that is a federal employee that organized it all to have a central reporting place and consistent ways to mark them and a lot of that collaboration and it grew from their side. Even currently, even if a government agency is running it, there’s definitely a lot of input from everyone out there, hey, I figured out this and this might work better and I’d have to guess, especially back then, way more of a collaborative effort.

Ramsey Russell: Very interesting isn’t it? Would you guess it all started in about the early 1900s or later?

Chris Nicolai: No, I’d say it was all then. It was all with the real formality of a lot of things. The game laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Lacey Act, all that stuff, development of monitoring systems and shortly after, I mean, you’re talking in the 40s and 50 now, the development of the flyway prospect. Yeah, it’s all that big conservation movement at – it started getting grounds in the 1800s but getting really formalized and stood up big, it was the beginning of the 1900s.

Ramsey Russell: Let’s talk about some of the different ways of the techniques that birds are banded. I have done up in Canada and when I was up there in Canada that one summers we used swim in traps and they were targeting the crooks were mallards and pintails, that’s what all the banding stations, that’s kind of priority on that western Canada cooperative, duck banding project, of course, we banded anything got in a trap and my particular station and I may be off a little bit, but I think we banded it somewhere around 8000 ducks for the summer and 5800 were blue wings. And once those little guys got hooked on the barley and we bought grain from a nearby farmer and oh boy, I wish I’d podcast and been around then I’d love to get that guy on here. Because the stories and we’d sit around for hours and he spend yarns about that region, that part of Saskatchewan growing up there. But when those little blue wings, we would show up, we set up the traps, little funnel, we bait him, put a float in there. Heck, I didn’t know that ducks had to have a way to get out of water so they could stay dry before daylight the next morning when come through and it didn’t take long for the ducks to get on them. And it was so cool for a new timer to come up, see a swimming trap full of ducks and net them out and band them and then it got to be, like you said, ringing and slinging man. But then a few weeks into it, the recap became extremely high and we were dealing with predominantly adult male blue wings, the vanguard, the guys that were bugging out early and it got to be where we had to shut the trap or block it because sitting 50 yards away, us sitting here, ringing and slinging, they would make a pass and go right back in that trap. And then they cleared out and here come the hens and predominantly started transitioning into hens and hatch your birds with all those blue wings. And I’ll be honest with you, Chris, after handling that many blue wings in a 6 week period, came back went teal hunting, I just expected every other bird to be banded and that was not the case. But we caught some interesting stuff, I’ll tell a story later maybe on about a real interesting bird we caught. But that’s one way we did it and we’re out in California, Brian Huber and then a lot down here in the Deep South, down in Louisiana. Recently, have been banding with Paul Lincoln Old boys and its rocket nets, I know that some of the refuge managers and I know there’s a lot more way when I’m picking name, a lot of refuge managers in Deep South will catch wood ducks, female wood ducks, used to be an old thing that, if you want to shoot bands and stack your eyes here in the Deep South, the more hen wood ducks you shot than males, probably the more bands you catch up. But I know there’s a lot more way that’s basically covering your puddle ducks, but there’s got to be myriad of ways that waterfowl or captured and affixed with markers. Could you elaborate on that?

Waterfowl Banding Methods 

I mean, it sounds like herding cats.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. I mean, with ducks, yeah, use bait, go to loafing sites, there’s a lot of species that just don’t like grain or it’s the time of year where grain isn’t really their focus, so you got to go on their roost sites. Like what you were mentioning with in California, those guys are shooting nets on a lot of roost sites, so those are flying birds. Then, we go around with spotlights in the dark and disorient the birds, you don’t necessarily blind them, but you disorient them pretty good where they can’t tell what’s coming. And you can get a lot of flightless ducks. Again, a lot of the species that aren’t attracted to grain, like gadwalls and shovelers and things like that. Nesting birds are really easy, it’s slower because you’re just catching bird by bird, as you mentioned, a lot of those artificial nest structures, like wood duck boxes and all you catch are the adult, all the breeding hens, you’re missing all the males and all the hens that aren’t in the best of shape to breed. But we do that a lot with nesting geese as well. And then, you get into stuff, the mass molting captures, which means you’re the perfect example, even all the temperate low latitude breeding Canada’s and western geese that a lot of people get to help with in urban situations or up in the Arctic when everybody molts really fast and you can catch them all using helicopters and stuff. Yeah, another one I’ve done too is using decoys and E-callers for some of the geese outside of the molting period where – stuff like brant that just won’t come to grain but you can attract them with decoys and E-callers is, that’s a lot of good fun too.

Ramsey Russell: And then what, rocket net them?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, rocket net them, get them in, that’s when you really learn to understand how to set decoys, shooting birds is pretty easy, get them in, I was just seeing some snow goose videos last night, let’s say get them within 80 yards of shooting according to some of these videos. But shooting is easy, you just got to get them within an effective range of pellets to get a bird down. But to rocket net a bird, you got to make them land right there, not over there, 5m, no 5ft, maybe a little better. But you want to get flock after flock to land right where the net is. And that’s a lot more challenging, that’s good fun. Good frustrating fun, how about that?

Ramsey Russell: What about some of the ways you all are catching, the bigger Arctic geese like emperors, Canada geese, speckle bellies, are you all decoying them or somehow capturing them when they’re flightless.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I’d say the 99% of them are caught when they’re flightless. It comes down a lot to your objectives of your study. Some of the emperor goose stuff that’s going on now is in the winter because you’re trying to get a random sample, when you’re designing your studies, it’s a lot dependent on when and where if you’re going up and catching arctic geese when – So that’s one thing that’s really cool with geese is they molt and the parents molt with their kids, which ducks that doesn’t happen even mom, typically a 98% of the time does not molt with her kids and dad’s definitely never around. So with arctic geese during the molt, if you’re catching groups where you want to band goslings as well, you’re still not catching the failed breeders or the teenage adults that, aren’t old enough to start breeding yet. So you always got to think about what the goal of the project is and set it up the right way. Sometimes it’s best to catch them in the winter, sometimes it’s best to catch them in breeding. So, you got to go north and south with that and which ones you want to get because they’re all different.

Ramsey Russell: I’m sitting here thinking, I’m going to try to walk a lot of geese into a flightless goose. It seemed like it would be like herding cats if I want to fill the funnel up with geese. I mean, do you just have a bunch of guys out there walking around trying to let them, make them go that way? I mean, it sounds like herding cats.

Chris Nicolai: Well, it can be. I mean, some of them are just horrible, I mean, just the most frustrating thing ever. I mean, I don’t think I’ve met anybody that will say banding white fronts is easy, I mean, they’re about the nastiest of the nasty. But then you get something like black brant, they’re as easy as herding sheep. So it all depends. It depends on where you’re at. Can you use boats and large numbers of people or is it really expensive to get in there and there’s no water ways and you’re limited to a helicopter with a bare bones crew. So again, similar to the objectives, it’s like, how can you catch them? And we hear stories, white fronts where everybody in the helicopter is wearing dry suits because you’re going to be swimming in some really cold water to get those 100 white fronts up on shore where brant, we’re basically using a lot of people because we can boat there and covering some large – you start with a really big perimeter which takes a lot of people running and spread out to walk and run and herd them all into a little spot.

Capturing Tundra Swans

Ramsey Russell: What about swans? How are swans captured? Because that’s a great big old bird.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I mean, again, it’s all depending on when you catch them in the winter, you can rocket net lots of them. I had one opportunity, I think I caught 83 tundra swans in one netting occasion. But when you’re up in the Arctic, they’re all spread out. They’re distributed nester, they’re not a colonial nester at all. So you find them, one family at a time and you go out and use boats, net them one by one or you don’t even have to go out at night because they can’t fly at all. So you just herd them up, catch them one group at a time and that’s where you can’t catch. In the best of years with tundra swans, a few 100 have been banded, not the thousands or the tens of thousands with geese.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I’ve heard of that. I know talking to Rich Hansen up in Utah, they banded a lot of Canada geese and I suppose some of the swans that stay by too, catching when they are flightless in airboats and just race up on them and snatch them up and I mean, it just sounds crazy, but it is doable. What about sea ducks? Because I know, I was up on Saint Paul and was talking to Jeff and Mo and whatnot about banded king, never in a million years, never ever in a million years and the very next day a hunter brought one in and hunter gone out that morning and shot a banded king eider and I’ve heard of it, I’ve heard a couple of folks doing it but all of those birds, those king eiders originated as I recall from an oil spill, they had been captured pursuant to an oil spill in Alaska and rehabilitated, cleaned whatnot and hey, while we got them, let’s band them and turned out. How would you otherwise band sea ducks? And it’s got to be a problem else, there’d be more king eiders, I’m guessing banded.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And like those oil spills, like you mentioned, they are rehab birds. And we’ve done that with botulism outbreaks and stuff too and we code those different, when we band birds, we collect all this goofy data and one thing is, bird status that we do and like those rehab birds we’d code them a 700 where a rocket net mallards coded as a 300, that 300 is what we want in most of those times. But when you get those neat situations where it’s just easy to band them, we got different codes for that. But yeah, sea ducks, keep in mind a good number of hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes have been banded, just part of nest box programs or local night lighting efforts, they’re pretty easy to get, they’re on the road system and civilization and you can get them. But yeah, when you start getting into those tough areas where imagine if you had to do a study with nesting harlequins or one of my good old friends worked on nesting black scoters, I think they spent over 40 hours of people, time to find a single black scoter nest. I mean, just the hardest of the hard and if you can catch her there’s one band. Yeah, so nesting birds for sea ducks is probably where most of the northern sea ducks have been banded. Now you get some situations, the guys in Maine, they’ve been really good with doing banding drives, it’s almost goose like just during the molt and timing it right to get the adults or the ducklings and get some numbers out but yeah, I mean, if you want to bring in a group of birds that have been banded the least, it’s the sea ducks.

Most & Least Banded Waterfowl

Ramsey Russell: If there were a species that’s been ban at the least, what would be the species? What would be the species would you guess of North America let’s say that’s least banded.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I’d have to say the long tails, white wing scoters and then probably, the common eiders, especially when you get into those subspecies, like the northern it and there’s a couple exceptions. You get into East Bay, none of it and you get into those Hudson Bay it down around Churchill, there’s always those exceptions. But yeah, otherwise those studies are far and few between.

Ramsey Russell: What would be the most banded species in North America, ducks, geese? Like, break them out into ducks and geese, I’m asking. What would be the most banded?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I have to say mallards and Canadas, hands down. And then you start getting into cacklers and snows and wood ducks and blue wings, black ducks and especially if you correct for it that there’s not as many black ducks as those other populations. But see, that’s where we’ve thought about it and we’ve mentioned it a little bit in this discussion is that, the purpose of banding and a lot of those are driven explicitly for harvest management not all birds are targeted for banding for harvest management. So just some of those species are the ones that have been identified to collect a lot of good data on.

Banding for Global Harvest Management

…that problem of getting that band information back gets complex quick.

Ramsey Russell: That to me is just interesting. And I see bands in other countries like New Zealand, I know that there’s Field and Game Australia is doing a small as best they can themselves, a small relative to the United States, huge relative to Australia because the government over there ain’t doing nothing this Field and Game Australia is doing it, marking birds. I know in Europe, barnacle geese, greylags, speckle bellies other parts of the world I don’t see or hear of any down in South America or Africa. Globally, are you aware of any? Although I did pick up a ring teal that had been banded in Brazil and shot, I take that back because Brazil that was pretty cool. I guess because of the North American waterfowl management, we seem to be doing the most banding by far.

Chris Nicolai: By fire, I mean, one –

Ramsey Russell: You breaking up, go ahead.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And sport harvest is just such a big deal here, compared to a lot of these places, it’s still subsistence that. You have to take some exceptions, the New Zealand the Australia, probably Central Europe is more of a sport harvest. But when you get into Asia and Africa and some other areas, most of the harvest is probably more of a subsistence type. So you’re dealing with folks that don’t have the best communication or the ability to report those because we’re talking before the call here, just how important the hunters are to getting this information back, the citizen science and you’re not just putting bands out, when you’re putting bands out, you shouldn’t generally be thinking how many get out, ahead of time, you’re thinking how many of these am I going to get back? I need this many to get my sample sizes and need to do that. And you use that information to say, okay, we probably got to mark this many to get the answer we get. So it’s this circular process that develops. But yeah, I think you nailed it too and we’ve done such a good job here in North America between the US and Canada in particular that a lot of folks are trying to set up their process is similar to what Frederick Lincoln did way back in the day, luckily we only have two countries for the most part in North America and for the most part only two languages, there’s a lot of exceptions to that. But it’s a much easier system than I can imagine, Eastern Asia, how many different languages you’re dealing with in different phone number systems and Holy Moly, that problem of getting that band information back gets complex quick.

Ramsey Russell: When we reported that ring teal band, I was shocked you remember though, Avis Bands, this one had Cemave and when I got back to the States, I googled it, found it, boom, printed off the report, they got online reporting and I couldn’t read it and I don’t speak fluent Spanish, but I can pick around and get enough right. And I was helpless, I couldn’t figure it out. And I took it to a local Fish and Wildlife Service office where I knew some people that helped me, but they looked at it too like, man, we don’t know, and finally someone snaps his fingers and go hang on a second, he call somebody down the hall and said, look at this and tell me what you make up. And he goes, yeah, it’s Portuguese and he spoke Portuguese, so we filled it out. And it was the first and I have to ask myself, what was the purpose of this biologist in Brazil banding waterfowl birds in general? Because he wrote me an email and asked, a little more detail, where did I get it, because I was the first American and the first hunter to ever recover one of his leg bands. And I’m like, and I was asking myself, well, what’s the point? What’s the point in banding these birds if – I guess unless you can just recap them some kind of how down the road and get something from that?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, we can cover that too. And your comments there with the ring teals pretty similar. I caught a Japanese banded pintail back in, I can’t remember when that was, that would be in the 2000s still. But same thing, I couldn’t google it and it was all in English and Roman characters and everything. But I bet you, it took me a month to figure out where that bird was marked and recovered just because the internet wasn’t super powerful yet. And yeah, it took a lot of word of mouth of biologists talking to a biologist’s friend over here and yeah, it took us a while to figure it out.

Ramsey Russell: My idea would have been to go, well, I’m guessing you were in Nevada or stationed in Nevada would maybe have been to go to your local sushi chef.

Chris Nicolai: It was all in English. It was totally in English. But there are no instructions, there’s no 800 number on it or a website on it.

Ramsey Russell: Technologically, banding has come a long way since the old days, since they got started with this thing. Frederick Lincoln and those boys got started. I read this book one time, it’s a government book, I can’t remember which one it was and I’ve gone through both of them without rereading them, trying to lay my hands on it. But they were actually talking about some of the early efforts, they rounded up, there were a lot of hook and bullet biologists in the agency’s plural at the time and they actually had like say, I work for one of them agencies and I want to go up there and catch ducks me and old Char dog would go and run a series and demonstrate that she wasn’t too hard mouth that she had a good nose and then we spend the summer, I guess walking through the fields and her picking up birds in the grass and flightless birds or whatever and bringing them to me, I mean, that’s like dark ages, isn’t it? Or do they still do that?

Chris Nicolai: No, I mean, you still do it. I was doing it, not that long ago. And we’re getting lots of little fingers of discussions here, man. I’ve got a 400 things I’d like to say. But, yeah, the technology has changed a lot, I mean, it’s still this neat metal, but just this morning we just got a neat new paper published with a grad student from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, we just got the official page proof this morning and it’s pretty cool. It’s the first paper I’m aware of with North American ducks to where we’re showing, what proportion of them are getting – when they die, what proportion of them are dying due to the gun or due to other natural sources of mortality. It’s the same little pieces of metal, but it’s just the way we can write code and use all this different sources information to get these different questions, it’s pretty cool. That’s what’s changing the most is the ability to analyze this data.

Ramsey Russell: Right. Technologically has advanced and I mean, I can just imagine back in the old days the 40s, 50s whenever they started this stuff, off of tally sheets, being manually inputted and then somebody having to go back to a file cabinet and take along and find it manually to track it down versus now computers and just the modeling and the technology and information you’re able to get in this modern era with computers.

Chris Nicolai: It’s crazy. Yeah. I mean, when they started they just were interested in maps. I mean, it goes all the way back to that wood stork or that stork with the spear in it. Wow, people go to Africa, it was as simple as making a map. And then you’re mentioning to that ring teal, why is he studying this? And it’s like, well, I think about it too. There is radio transmitters for sure, I mean, they came out in the 60s and stuff and they’ve been around but radios they’re always constantly changing year after year. But one of my friends that did his masters at the same time I did on brant, we had people up and down the coast with their spotting scope, reading these auxiliary markers, the leg bands and then we were up in the Subarctic and reading leg bands as well and putting it all together. And it’s like, okay, if we saw you, what latitude did we see you wintering, does it influence how many eggs you’re laying now when we’re up in the Arctic? And so even with a hunted species, we’re collecting a lot of data that was independent of hunters. You could do that study, depending on where you winter, how many eggs do you lay? That’s pretty easy. But all of a sudden you’re dealing with a hunted species, you get all this extra data. So it’s like, okay, if we missed them in the winter or on the breeding grounds, why did we miss them? Did they die or did they go somewhere else? And that’s what’s cool with the hunters is it provides a check for this data because hunters are everywhere. Biologists with spotting scopes and nerdy data books can only afford to have so many places to go to or time, but hunters are everywhere. So it’s like, okay, we haven’t seen this brant in 10 years, he must have died and then all of a sudden boom, the next year some hunter shoots it and it’s like, wow, that’s pretty cool, that just gave us data showing that it kept living, but we kept missing it. So now all of a sudden, our analyses with these new cool models are actually way better when we combine both non-game approaches with game approaches. And again, it makes the waterfowl data sets with bands, the envy of so many different type of ecologists out there. And you could go down 30 rabbit holes on that topic.

Types of Bands and Markers on Waterfowl

So, let’s talk a little bit about the band types and why they’re important and how they’re used and the purposes because I wonder myself about a lot of them. 

Ramsey Russell: Let’s change up just a little bit and talk about the markers themselves, the types of bands and markers. How would you describe the first and I’ve seen all kinds of configurations along the way, different materials, I know there’s like a nail and an aluminum just on the leg bands and then you’ve got plastic markers. But I mean, there’s a whole spectrum of stuff and break, you see a lot of difference, you see them a lot posted now because like you talk about the hunters that are out there taking pictures of birds, they harvested, of the birds they’ve seen, of birds they’ve collected and we’ve got a mutual friend, Chris and I’ll say his name because he’s a very good friend, Mr. Dan Spencer and who I know does a lot of volunteer work in the different banding channels. And I’d love to get him on this podcast just to talk about a lot of his experiences. And who started off as a hunter, he is a hunter, a very good hunter and he is one of the best shots I’ve ever seen, but he started off one time, he shot a collared goose and he had never seen one and asked a local biologist I’m assuming right there around Great Salt Lake about it and went and bought a spot in scope and started prowling around and developed a profound interest and started reporting a lot of birds he was finding through his spotting scope and it led to a passion, a real passion for conservation that he has. And I backtracked but it started with him just putting his hands on that collar. So, let’s talk a little bit about the band types and why they’re important and how they’re used and the purposes because I wonder myself about a lot of them. Some of them I understand, but some of them, I really don’t. Start with some of the early prototypes, how have bands themselves evolved, what they learned over the way?

Chris Nicolai: Bands for the most part haven’t changed a whole lot. They’re made out of a lightweight metal that’s hopefully durable, which most metals are compared to the flesh of an animal. But yeah, I’d say they haven’t changed a whole lot since probably the 30s and 40s with the exception of that inscription. We had biological survey bands back in the day and then we switched to Avis for a long time and in the 90s we got the 800 number, 2000s, we got the website and for the most part now it’s just website report.

Ramsey Russell: What about – go ahead.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And then, you’ve got all the different things, you got tarsal bands, you got nasal saddles and disc, you got radios, you got web tags, you got patagial tags, streamers.

Ramsey Russell: What kind of tags, patagial?

Chris Nicolai: Patagial tags, yeah, they’re really similar like, ear tag on cattle, but you attach them between the wrist and the shoulder on a bird, right in front of the elbow there, we call it the flight web. So it’s a nice, simple, a part of the body that’s just skin and it’s almost like an ear piercing. And there’s a time and place, we found a lot of bad effects with them, but I still see a lot of swans marked with them, some pelicans out west, but with waterfowl, we knew with ducks you had to have them big enough that you could actually see the things and they just had some deleterious effects or they just got beaten up pretty good and just became frayed way too fast. Yeah. I mean, we’re always developing the best things. I mean, even these radios that we’re so excited about and we still run into some problems with them and there’s a lot of folks out there that, we’re all trying to make them better. We can’t wait for the day and can you imagine if we could start following migration just by picking up like DNA wafting in the air?

Ramsey Russell: Like sooner or later, it’s coming. I’m sorry. But let’s go back to markers, let’s baby step this a little bit. Nasal saddles, some of these tags I’m assuming, even the tarsal markers that you’re putting on birds, I mean, those are mostly so biologists can sit out around and watch those birds and document them. Was that right? So they can read them through a spotting scope.

Chris Nicolai: Pretty much, yeah. It’s another way to tell that they’re still alive without having to actually grab that bird or have someone kill it. It gives you another opportunity to know that it’s alive.

Ramsey Russell: And the toe tag – I’ve shot a few with toe tag those were birds that were caught before they were big enough to put a leg band on?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. So web tags are usually put on, the day of hatch or really close to it when the birds or waterfowl are way too small to put a normal band on. Like shore birds are pretty cool, like woodcock, you can band them when they’re still sitting in the nest bowl just because their legs are nearly full size, but with waterfowl you can’t. So for the most part web tags are put on so that when you do go banding very shortly thereafter, you can look at things like growth rate and what proportion of them came out of natural cavity nets, rather than nest boxes and stuff like that, it’s more of a short term marker. We usually don’t do long term stuff, if you catch one, then you put a band on it, the band becomes the marker. But part of my PhD is actually estimating survival based off those web tags. But for the most part, those are kind of like how fast do they grow in 35 days, kind of projects.

Ramsey Russell: That’s very interesting. And I know you were saying, I just can’t imagine what the technology for like the backpack transmitters must have been back in the 50s and 60s judging from the size of our computers, I don’t know how it would fit onto a bird.  But now as microchips get closer, batteries get closer get smaller, as batteries get smaller, as everything gets smaller. Like I was recently down at the Panola Conservancy a Private Aviary does a lot of research, it is an amazing place. And now instead of just like the backpack monitors, they’re actually small enough and they were telling me that only recently have the technology allow them to put them on lesser scaup and they were doing little surgical implants, it looked like little remote cars out there swimming around with antennas and they had a biologist from Forbes there, she was watching those birds so she could gain an understanding of what they were doing, giving the signal, it was throwing, I’m guessing, were they sleeping? Were they diving? Were they feeding? And boy, that just all of a sudden takes a whole another level of movements on a map to now the life history of that bird based on observations from a bird that could be thousands of miles away when you’re making these readings, that’s just mind blowing. And I’ve heard that some of the more antiquated packs they would put on birds, it lasted months or year and now, they last longer to where a speckle belly may disappear off the radar because there’s no telephone signals up in the Arctic, but it’s still steadily recording and the minute they fly in south and it gets within connectivity to a tow where bing bing, you start getting all this data, that’s incredible.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. And you think about guys, a guy emailed a guy today because he was on that teal paper we were talking about that, he was working on giant Canadas geese back when they were refounding and trying to figure out where they were going. So, I mean, they had radio transmitters then that actually had tubes in them. I mean, you remember, like, your old huge TVs back in the 60s and 70s? It is an important part. And, yeah, I think they were able to have them so that they would send the old style VHF beeps like once a week for maybe 8 weeks and that’s all you got. And that thing probably weighed, that is enormous, probably 50 g to 80 g, only the biggest waterfowl could hold them and you’d only get days of information in the long run.

Ramsey Russell: Wow. And I’ve seen net collars placed on some of these geese that, you definitely don’t want to shoot because there’s still some very expensive technology. But that power themselves with solar panels, that’s crazy, it’s crazy how that stuff work, the technology evolved.

Chris Nicolai: It’s like you’re talking with those white fronts, yeah, with the current technology we’re using right now and you figure with normal geese, snow geese are a little bit of an exception, but normal geese, about 15% to 20% of them die every year. So, let’s say an 85% survival rate for a bird to live for two years would be 85 times 85 which what comes out to about 65. But by about 4 years, half of those geese are now dead. So the average lifespan of a goose, like that’s about 4 or 5 years as an adult, those collars are typically lasting longer than the goose does, which is pretty cool. When it’s a collar we can just retrieve it, clean it up a little bit and slap it on another goose, it’s still working.

Ramsey Russell: The longevity of a goose is much longer than a duck anyway. I mean, you put something on a goose, it’s going to last, you’re going to get a lot of data for a lot longer than you would off an average duck, is that right?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. You hope so. Black brant are the exception. I mean, all of us are working really hard to figure out a way to track those, those have probably been the most sensitive of all the waterfowl, especially of the geese to be able to get these cutting edge technology on them. Yeah, they just don’t like anything on. But I think that’s because they make such an impressive migration.

Ramsey Russell: Maybe surgical implants will be a solution.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, we did that in the late 90s and the males, if you mark the gander at a nest, they’d be back there nesting next year. But if we did an implant in her, 100% of the time we did not see them nesting again. Yeah, they’re just sensitive, I think again, their migration is so epic compared to all the rest of the North American birds that it throws them over the edge.

Ramsey Russell: Is that why so many black brant seem to have been banded? I mean, because it’s unbelievable how many relative to other species I’ve hunted seem to be banded.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I mean, that fed to it. I mean, it was a great source of data but when my advisor started putting those out, he tells stories that people would make fun of them, good luck ever seeing those other than at the nesting grounds again. And then all of a sudden he started getting all these calls like you’re mentioning from people seeing them, they’re like, hey, we read this, can you tell us about it? And all of a sudden he’s getting several of these like, oh, maybe we should actually send some people out and go purposely try to do it. Boom, all of a sudden we got this new technique that for black brant actually worked pretty good and we still missed a few like we missed a lot actually, but we found enough that we could start doing these really cool analyses with them.

Ramsey Russell: That reminded me of an interesting story I heard the other day about blue wing teal involving blue wing teal and a guest from, I don’t know where he was from, but he had been to Haiti and I’ve been invited, now look, I’ve been invited to go to Haiti to duck hunt and man’s got to draw a line somewhere and that’s probably it, it’s just something about it, it don’t fly up on my radar. But anyway, this volunteer was observing all these blue wings being banded and said, so that’s where my friend got that cigar box full of those aluminum bands that he never reported because he didn’t know what to do with them, hundreds and hundreds in Haiti. And the biologist just telling me the story said that, he got contacted and he couldn’t put, it was so long ago, he couldn’t put where or when or some of that, but he just put unknown, but boom, got like 30 from Louisiana, they’ve flown down to Haiti, who knows where the rest of them had come from because it was a cigar box full. But that’s interesting, isn’t it?

Chris Nicolai: Well, it’s the same thing. Like you’re talking with Jack Miner and a lot of them, the native folks in the Arctic would go to their missionaries with these birds and that’s how they started getting those reports was the hunters taking them to the folks that could read and then they took care of it and that’s where we started learning stuff. So, yeah, same thing, different place, different day.

Purposes of Banding Waterfowl

So I’d say first and foremost, the most common thing to do the reason for banding is for harvest…it’s a way to use ratios to meet population size.

Ramsey Russell: All throughout this discussion, you’ve talked about the various and sundry purposes at the purposes and I always think back of folk like Belrose that to me, one of the standards on species and flyways and things, it’s still one of my go to reference books, Mr. Frank Belrose. And you talked about, the maps, putting these bands on here, going back to the era coming from Africa and okay the spear, so we can use that, that’s obvious what we can do. I band a bird here, it’s killed here and here, so I can start piecing together flyways, what other purposes or values are bands used for Chris, tons, I know.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I’ll try to be quick, but I’ve narrowed it down to about sports, I get to ask this question all the time. So I’d say first and foremost, the most common thing to do the reason for banding is for harvest. So that’s why there’s so many mallards, so many honkers, so many eastern wood ducks, so many black ducks and the purpose of those is we let 100 go and 10 got shot and reported, so it looks like 10% harvest rate, but then they adjust that by kill rate and reporting rate and it’s probably more like 14% of them are getting shot. But that’s a really important tool, like the service just started running some analysis on pintails this year because in the past, they used the wing estimates as the top part of a fraction, the numerator and divide by a number like the B-pop to say, oh well, we’re shooting this proportion. And this year they actually started using the band recovery rate and quickly found out that using the former way the ratio of estimated harvest divided by estimated size was actually overestimating harvest by factor at 2.5, they were just telling all the flyweights about that this last spring and they’re like, yeah, when we use banding data, it looks like we’re actually shooting even less of a proportion of all the pintails and that’s huge for harvest management. And then a second reason is a lot of the like Lincoln estimators, this is a really neat thing that Frederick Lincoln developed way back when, it’s a way to use ratios to meet population size. And about 15 years ago, one of our brightest waterfowl biologists out there, Ray from Saskatoon brought it back to life and now all the midcontinent and eastern goose managers have switched almost all their goose management to this Lincoln estimator because they realized one, it’s very expensive to survey a lot of places in the Arctic. And two, if you try to count birds or geese from an airplane, you can’t make sense out of the numbers. A lot of people underestimate or overestimate and this is just a much simpler way to do it. So that Lincoln estimates the second reason. Third, I’d say we’d get into some of these examples we’ve talked about with brant, but they exist with a lot of these other ones, it’s all these individual based bird studies. So basically when you put a band on a bird, you just gave them a name, it’s like a license plate on a car. They’re not repeated, that one it’s that bird, you weight them, who you know it’s mated with, you know how many eggs they laid this year, how many of their eggs hatched and you can follow them for – we’ve got some brant in their 30s that we could look at these high performing brant compared to these other brant that hardly lay any eggs and yeah, it’s what I call an individual based project. Then you get into what I’ve kind of just dumped into the fourth category of what some people referred to as recreational banding. Banding with really no reason, you mentioned it when you were up banding, when you worked for the Feds up in Canada, you band everything that you caught and luckily a lot of people did that. Recently and you probably remember 10 years ago, 15, now, I think it’s more 10 where the early teal seasons got a little bit liberalized right?

Data Collection on Waterfowl: Issues and Benefits

You got to randomly select your data and put it into a database and run your statistics and it’s just boom, you get these accurate pictures. So targeting bands would corrupt that data.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Chris Nicolai: So they used all the cinnamon teal, all the green wing bands and the blue wings, but luckily a lot of people were banding them because they already had them in hand. I mean, catching them is the expensive, hard part, so you might as well take advantage and put this cheap band on it and hope we do that. I mean, I got a really neat redhead paper about a decade ago now, that was all based off accidental redhead bandings and it’s contributed, I’m glad a lot of biologists say, hey, I’m out catching scaup right now, but I’m going to band everything I catch. I mean, you do that if everybody does that enough time over time with these new awesome analytical techniques on computers, all of a sudden we got a free data set that we can use.

Ramsey Russell: That data set, like you’re talking about all these bands that get input from this project or that project or this species and that species still, it represents a scientific body of data that can be mined later for a myriad of different reasons, doesn’t it?

Chris Nicolai: Hey, Ramsey, yeah, a lot of this data, we just couldn’t do it without hunters and we trust what data they’re providing us and everything. But sometimes we don’t get the best data.

Ramsey Russell: What do you mean?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. Well, I mean, we see a lot of different stuff, it could be band targeting, which we’ve known about for quite a while. But in the early 90s or so late 90s, I guess when the internet was really growing fast, we were running into band sales showing up and there’s been issues with replica bands being made and we’re not getting the honest data. We wanted it to be birds just shot at random and in a perfect world they’d all get reported. But we know that not all of them get reported and that when they do get reported, they’re extremely accurate with the dates and locations and stuff.

Ramsey Russell: Well, the whole premise of scientific data is random selection, right? I mean, that’s kind of a thing. You got to randomly select your data and put it into a database and run your statistics and it’s just boom, you get these accurate pictures. So targeting bands would corrupt that data. And you talk about the 90s and I remember, they used to see a lot of different colored neck bands on snow geese and Ross’ geese. And now, my understanding was they had discontinued that practice because some people were going out and specifically targeting those birds with rifle or otherwise.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And it wasn’t completely due to band targeting. So, we can go into a little bit of the nerd science behind it. So with a really the most basic band analysis we can do is when we let a bunch of mark birds go as biologists and then a whole bunch of hunters bring the data back to us. So we got releases and we got recoveries and with that, we can estimate two things, survival, the probability that they survive from one year to the next. And the other is the probability that they get shot and reported. So two neat pieces of data we can get from standard banding, it can include neck collars as well. And what’s interesting, the guys that looked at it, yeah, the harvest rate was slightly enhanced, the probability of getting shot reported went up. But with the net collars themselves, they also affected survival. Whether they got shot or not, those birds, they pick at them, spend a lot more time grooming them rather than feeding or looking for predators or you get some minor effects like icing and stuff, but all those other sources of mortality other than hunting actually was higher for some of these neck collars. And we’ve seen it with Emperor geese with satellite radios versus leg bands. And so there’s just a big feeling, exactly like you were bringing up a couple of minutes ago that we’re trying to get an unbiased sample of our birds out there, we want them to behave just at random like any other bird out there and if we’re influencing that we don’t really want to be marking them that way. We want to try to estimate these unbiased things, so the survival part is more of like a counter effect and then the harvest rate would be vulnerability to getting shot.

Ramsey Russell: Chris, how bad is the targeting problem? How bad is it? Is it bad enough you can see it in data?

Chris Nicolai: In some cases, yeah. I mean, I’d say probably the best case of that I’ve seen has been that recent coloring effort of minima cackling geese over in the Pacific Northwest, boy, if we actually analyze that data, like I mentioned to you, we’d probably think that population would be going extinct in about 4 years or 5 years because they were just obvious those guys are – the goose hunters over in the Pacific Northwest have to pay a lot of attention to their white cheek geese just because of the dusky issues. So these guys are really good at looking and critiquing birds and then seeing an inch and a half tall yellow thing around the neck blares out pretty good. And yeah, a very high proportion of those net collars got shot pretty quick.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve seen where in some states, Utah or maybe probably others too, they started putting black leg bands on Canada geese. Is that the same thing going on or are there duck hunters with eagle eye sight enough to actually select just the banded geese?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. There’s a lot of ideas for that, do they see the bright shiny steel or do they just see that lump around the ankle? So, yeah, those guys there, Utah, it’s actually an experiment. So, they put out a sample of normal bands and then also these black bands and same thing like we were talking, they’re looking at survival or harvest rate impacted conditional on the color of that band. And if it is, then we could think, people are seeing that bright silver color to them.

Ramsey Russell: I can remember seeing an internet photo or story or something many years ago from Mississippi Delta, I really think it was Department of Narcotics had made a bust in the Mississippi Delta and pursuant to that bust, the guy they busted had like, 250, 300 snow goose collars strung around his room, like Christmas lights. Clearly he’d been out there, targeting them probably with a rifle. But in my imagination he probably didn’t bother to report them, you know what I’m saying? But still, it’s still entering bias into that important scientific data, isn’t it?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And with that one, in that case, if he didn’t report them, it would impact that survival rate, because there’s no data to inform the harvest rate. And yeah, I’ve heard of stories like that as well. I remember there is a story very similar to that with tule geese and in the Pacific Flyway. And, yeah, it’s pretty unfortunate because that’s a bird of management concern, probably only 10,000 to 12,000 of those birds and to be able to lose that data so quickly is pretty, it’s quite a shame.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I’ll tell you really and truly, I don’t have band luck, I’ve got bad luck when it comes to bands, it looks like, I just happen to pick up a few of them time to time. But I can only remember ever seeing one, one before it was killed. One band and it was a brant and you’d had to been Ray Charles to miss seeing his band because he was 5ft from the blind and I didn’t shoot him because he had broken off a want to come in early and others were still getting sorted and we had about 30 or 40 it just made me think, man, usually where there’s one, there’s more because them cohorts a lot of time travel together and I told my sons, don’t shoot, he is banded, but don’t let him get out here either wait in the other ones. Middle son, middle child, young son stepped up trying to big hole everybody and his gun clicked, so when the bird jumped, oldest son shot him, we got the band, but we lost any other chances on the bird that would have been behind him. So I regretted having even said anything or seen it in the first place. But then again, now Chris, I had a client down in Mexico one time preceding the hunt, he carried on about all the bands he’d killed and he came back with quite a few brant bands and I asked, he’d gone by himself and hunted with somebody he didn’t know to start with and I asked the guy, he hunted with like, man, was that guy really seeing them? He said, hell yeah, it was like, nine ball corner pocket, he said he called, he not only saw it, he called it before he shot the bird, I’m jealous of people that got that kind of eyesight, Chris. But that’s not really going out and actively targeting it, is it? That’s not like going out and rifling or just spending your entire duck season, just targeting bands? Is it? I mean, if you just got good enough eyesight to pick one off when you’re working, that’s kind of expecting isn’t it?

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. I mean, similar to you, I think I’ve only shot two bands that I saw as I was squeezing the trigger on a common golden eye and a common eider, they were over the decoys, I was up and right as I was squeezing that trigger, a leg stuck out and it’s like, oh, ok, I got one. But yeah, the stuff you’re talking about there is actually really neat. We deal with it statistically in that same analysis. So, it’s interesting, like your story like that almost makes you think, how it would be if all we were allowed was one shell in the chamber rather than, one than chamber and two in the magazine. Because it’s different than – the probability of someone getting a double or a triple out of a flock isn’t that big, whether it’s single shooting or Scotts double or triple or beyond. But what’s neat is there, imagine and this is one of my academic brothers actually worked on this is, let’s say we went out and banded 1000 adult birds, but let’s say it was actually 500 pairs. And so we put 1000 bands out 500 on girls, 500 on boys, but they all have a para bond going on. They could be geese. Geese are notorious for keeping para bonds forever. So when we do that analysis, what you’re describing happens quite often, that group is shooting and both mom and dad get shot or it could be a pass shooter that just gets one of them, but not both of them. All these situations where it makes it easier or harder to get both members. But this guy that’s a professor now, he actually analyzed the data looking at it, is it 1000 birds or is it actually 500 is the pair actually the sampling unit rather than the individual bird? And yeah, he actually got a signal on it and with all our banding analysis, yeah, we call it this goofy group of words called Lack of Independence. So when we put a single band out there, we think that’s an independent bird, but hey, guess what, there’s some neat behavioral stuff going on that, not all the time is that actually a single sample. So it influences – well, I should back up. It does not influence our parameter estimate, what it actually does is influences our sample size, which is what drives the plus or minus when you get an estimate. Does that make sense?

Band Reporting: Hunters’ Role in Conservation 

We’re talking about citizen science, we’re talking about the value of data, we’re talking about hunter’s role in this whole scientific thing.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. Chris, do most people report bans? Is that an issue? And I know you and I’ve had some discussions years back about this very topic. But do most people seem to report? We’re talking about citizen science, we’re talking about the value of data, we’re talking about hunter’s role in this whole scientific thing. Do most hunters turn in their bands, you think?

Chris Nicolai: Well, I mean, things have changed all the time and folks with the Fish and Wildlife service are constantly updating that. You go back in the day with the Avis Bands, they were estimating, when you actually had to write a letter, put it in an envelope with a stamp and they figure, way back when it was only about one in three, got shot and reported or I should say one in three that got shot actually got reported. Then, in the early 90s, we stood up the 800 number and it took that reporting rate up markedly, all it was now is a phone, when he got home, he got on the dial, the rotary phone and dialed your phone called it in and took care of it. Then over time, cellphones showed up. So now, I remember when it was first happening, people were so impressed that they’re getting calls from hunters with gunshots going off, they’re reporting band, this is the first time the bands are getting reported from the duck blind on the same hunt they got shot on. And then, the website came up and now we’ve realized what for probably 6 years now that the website is superior to the 800 number for a lot of different reasons. And now, the only way to report band is on the website and every time those changes happen, we have to do a reward band study to figure out what proportion of them are actually getting shot. And we’d hope every time we make changes that it actually gets higher. And, yeah, I saw some of the more recent estimates, I mean, we’re just under 90% of the bands that get shot actually get recorded in this day and age. And it’s not perfect. But I don’t think we can ever get there. Unfortunately, there’s just so many urban legends and goofy stories that people just don’t want to report them for one reason or another.

Ramsey Russell: Urban like what? Give me some of these urban legends, why somebody don’t report a band? I’ll go there with you.

Chris Nicolai: People get all nervous about giving up their secret spot that the whole world’s going to get it. But it’s data that’s pretty well locked up and managers are the ones looking at it. We actually, when we graft data to do these band analysis, that location is usually broke down to about 10 minutes of latitude and 10 minutes of longitude. So depending on where you’re at, I don’t know, that’s probably 30 miles wide. And especially as you go north and south, it could be 50 miles north and south or 150 miles north and south when you get really to the high latitude. So when we’re analyzing that data, one, we’re not looking at name, we’re not looking at wildlife area, we’re not looking at a bend in a river, we’re looking at a general kind of location and usually, if we’re looking at locations, we’re usually breaking it down by state or county and rarely do any papers get finer than that.

Ramsey Russell: You can’t find nobody’s hunting camp or their driveway or pickup truck really. But I tell you something, I’ll tell you a funny story, I had just started work for US Fish and Wildlife service only worked there for 3 years. But maybe I was just in a foul mood because I was at the office and somebody called, it was actually hunting and I was a forester, not a biologist, but I answered the phone. Yes, sir, I killed a duck with an antenna on it and I said, yes, sir. I said, well, who am I talking to? He goes, I’d rather not say. And I said, I replied, oh, never mind, I got you on the computer right here, we’ll be right back, he hung up on me, the minute I told him we had him pinpointed on a computer, he hung up on me and I’ve always wondered what he did after he hung up or where he was or what he had done, the nature of him harvesting that duck that had a radio antenna because the minute I told him, never mind we got you found on a computer he hung up and I just imagine him tearing down the driveway with it or something. I shouldn’t have done that, but I did.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And one of the biggest – I’m working at Delta now but being able to use these data sets to protect our hunting. It’s like most people can’t believe that we have this data. I mean, harvest has been sued a lot over the years and what keeps especially waterfowl hunting open is having this data. If we didn’t have this data, it would be a lot easier to be attacked, but by collecting this data and using hunter’s data and all this stuff together really helps legally protect the ability to hunt.

Ramsey Russell: That brings me to a point, Chris about protecting hunting, protecting habitat, protecting things and this is an observation. Some of the banding activities I’ve been on down in Louisiana, they choose that rocket net, it’s April, it’s 50°, 60° still, the name of the game is to safely and efficiently remove those birds as quickly as possible and that requires a lot of hands, a lot many hands make quick work and you show up and boy, you go through a boot camp and you’ve got a lot of eyeballs watching you to do it right. And I’m just thinking of a recent banding, I’m going to say 500 birds under the net. Boom-Kaboom got 500 birds. Within a minute, there’s 40 volunteers on site, we’re there. There’s already 5 on site that were in the bushes watching and we’re a little way down the road we come, the volunteers are out running like a military expedition and everybody is very quickly, waist deep and on their knees up their belly button in water, hands up on the net, up your elbows in the water, very deftly removing these ducks very quickly. And we’re shoulder to shoulder, you’re rubbing shoulders and elbows with the guy next to you behind you, you’ve got other volunteers taking this crate, this floating crate of 20 birds to the bank, pulling another one and bringing it up behind you, so you can go very quickly and it’s like one of them, a calf rope competition, where you haul, tie a calf, you run it on the clock, man, it’s like boom done. You know what I’m saying? It’s like 4 minutes, 500 birds are safely dry on the bank and already being removed since they’re not stressed out with any – everybody’s talking quietly, it’s a lot of effort, it takes a lot of people now. But what gets me is when I get to go on these things, you do have some biologists, you’ve got some scientists, a lot of these birds right now being swabbed for bird flu, it’s a real project going on. But here is what makes me smile. Just imagine this conveyor belt of humanity, picking up a teal, taking it to get swabbed, taking it to get banded, turning it loose within a minute. And you walk by, there’s 50 people smiling because they’ve got their hands on this beautiful critter and they’re smiling. She might be a 70 year old bird watcher, might be a 18 year old, 19 year old college kid that’s never hunted a day in her life, she’s a wildlife management. Could be a hunter. But what really strikes me is how it connects everybody, hunters and non-hunters alike to that animal and to that waterfowl resource and I’m just becoming aware of the more podcasts, I do, the older I get the changes, when I look in the rearview mirror for the past 20 or 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, granddaddy’s time at what was then and what is now habitat. And what I’m becoming aware of because of the increasing habitat losses is that we hunters are footing the bill for everything, our sleeves are up, we’re volunteering, we’re doing what we can, we’re going to the events, we’re supporting NGOs, we’re doing everything humanly possible we can for this resource, but it ain’t enough financially, there’s not enough of us anymore. We have got to get the non-hunters to join us in conserving this habitat. And personally if, if you’re a non-hunter, you play golf or you go to the coffee shop in Manhattan for fun things to do, why do you care about a duck or its habitat? And the best way I can think of that I have personally seen to connect that part of society to that resource, let them put their hands on that pretty little thing and now they love it. They know it and they care for it.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of fun times doing that.

Ramsey Russell: And I know you can’t freaking take folks up to the Arctic or sea duck, a lot of stuff you’ve done and described, but there is a lot of way, there are ways to get to bridge this gap between hunter and the middle ground that 80% of Americans that does not hunt, but loves wildlife. They can put their hands on them and now that I’m free streaming and thinking, maybe we can recruit them into buying a pair of binoculars and going out and spotting these birds and helping us get that data passively. But you somehow get them involved in this thing. We’re facing a whole lot of habitat issues, there’s just a tremendous lot of habitat issues and we’ve got to get them hook line and sinker involved with this thing. We hunters, I’m scared. Did habitat continue to decline? Like I have seen it or think I’ve seen it decline in the last 20 years that if it left unchecked for another 20 years, we’re all going to be bird watchers and I don’t want that for my kids and grandkids, what do you think?

Chris Nicolai: No, I fully agree with you. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to get people out there and see the smiles. I mean, even if something bad happens, like, goose poops and it’s hanging off someone’s glasses and they look pretty sad and depressed for a minute, pretty soon everyone’s laughing and it’s a pretty good time. Yeah, I mean, it’s a great tool. I think we just got to get more people have empathy for a lot of these wildlife that we have, they need our help, have an interest, get engaged, care about something bigger. A lot of people just don’t even know that there’s a bird other than that black duck. Yeah. I mean, taking people out just showing them, it’s a blast, I mean, I’ve had thousands of first encounters for people with a living bird, I’ve had thousands with a dead bird too, but the living ones are more fun. And I remember one time, it was the first time we rocket netted wood ducks in Nevada and it was on a farm and right behind their house and when the net went off, 4 generations of this family came out including great grandma in her wheelchair and it was just awesome. She’s like, I’ve been watching these things for years, now she’s holding one in her lap, she’s like I had no idea they were this good looking and she thought it was awesome and threw it in the air after we were done with it and watched it fly away for many seconds until it disappeared on the horizon, she thought that was a hoot.

Ramsey Russell: Chris, I appreciate you coming and giving us the crash course for dummies on bird banding. Bands are kind of a big deal for hunters. I can remember my granddad tossing them out, back in the 70s, but it’s a big deal but it’s by design reporting those bands is very important. It’s another way hunters contribute to a growing body of science, so we understand these birds.

Chris Nicolai: Yeah, big time. Yeah. Without that, I hear a lot of people pointing fingers that, well, not pointing fingers but giving credit to a lot of waterfowl work that, some of the biggest original citizen science in the wildlife field is just the massive cooperation from hunters encountering these birds and reporting them properly. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

Ramsey Russell: Bands are cool. Chris, thank you very much for joining us, you want to give anybody your contact information, how they can connect to you.

Chris Nicolai: Sure. Yeah, go ahead and yeah, feel free to just send them to the Delta Waterfowl website, my email is pretty easily found on there.

Ramsey Russell: All right. Folks, you all been listening to Chris Nicolai who is with Delta Waterfowl but banded a whole bunch of birds. Chris, thank you very much and folks thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, see you next time.


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