File this one under interesting things learned in a duck blind during Ramsey’s 2020-2021 North American Tour. Following a fun diver hunt among friends in blustery North Dakota, where lively duck blind banter ensued between volleys, Ramsey and Chris Nicolai warm their fingers around cups of hot coffee back at camp where they get down to the serious business of talking waterfowl management and implications. Nicolai is now Waterfowl Scientist at Delta Waterfowl. Formerly with US Fish and Wildlife Service, he’s a renowned waterfowl biologist with 20 years experience conducting elite-level waterfowl research. Importantly, he’s an ardent, lifelong waterfowl hunter. The conversation tears like a bluebill with a tailwind through a variety of interesting topics such as (Pacific) black brant, recreational hunters’ conservation role, northern pintails – you’ll probably want to pay especially close attention to this part boys and girls – and more! Who is Nicolai, how’d he get started hunting, how’d he become a serious waterfowl biologist? What’s the purpose of banding waterfowl, and why are black brant of particular interest? How many North American waterfowl species has Nicolai handled/banded, and what are some of most interesting places he’s conducted field research worldwide? Why is the pintail limit only 1 daily in the Lower-48, why hasn’t this iconic species responded to decades of restrictive harvest regulations, and what are the scientific justifications for a newly proposed 3-pintail daily bag limit?! Today’s Duck Season Somewhere episode is a heavy hitting conversation!
Where Waterfowl Hunting and Science Converge
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to another great episode of Duck Season Somewhere, mobile studio. I am in North Dakota and it is a Balmy 22° I’m going to guess, looking at the thermometer on the dashboard, let me tell you all what, sitting on that lake this morning with a 9 or 10 mile wind blowing. It felt more like 5. That’s what it felt like to a southern boy. These guys up here, they were laughing at me for getting a little chilly and cold and stuff like that. We had a great hunt this morning, got a great guest today. Very great guest. Chris Nicolai biologist works presently for delta waterfowl, but he’s got a pretty interesting career. He’s done a lot of really cool things in waterfowl management and you all stay tuned. How are you today, Chris?
Chris Nicolai: I’m good Ramsey. It’s nice to finally meet you, after what probably 15 years?
Ramsey Russell: Likewise man. I keep up with you and we found out this morning. Not only do we know a lot of people in common, we know a lot of people we didn’t know we knew in common. It really is a small world.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, we both know a lot of duck hunters.
Ramsey Russell: What’s the weather like here today as compared to where you were down in Nevada? Comfortable, colder?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. We have days like this in Nevada. I mean, I was there for 18 years, I think the coldest temperature I ever saw in my part of the state was -8º, but there’s parts of Nevada that get down to -30º. You get over to Ely or Northern Elko County. We’ve definitely done some winter camping hunting, grouse -15º in a wall tent.
Ramsey Russell: I could feel my Viking blood lacking, watching your 13-year-old daughter out there dressed with half as many clothes I had on. Just happy go looking, I’m saying man. Just you folks are tough.
Chris Nicolai: Now I’ve never seen that kid wear gloves before so, she never gets cold. That’s probably the coldest, I’ve ever seen her was this morning.
Ramsey Russell: Well it was plenty of reason to be cold. Chris introduce yourself to the people that don’t know, who you are? Who are you?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. So currently I’m working for Delta Waterfowl as the waterfowl research person of the office answering to Frank Rohwer, who everybody knows in the waterfowl research community. And I’ve been there just about a year now and before that I worked for US Fish and Wildlife Service for about 10 years, working on waterfowl, game birds stuff and a lot of renewable energy golden eagle stuff, and before that, that was in 2010, I did a 2.5 year postdoc with Nevada Department of Wildlife redesigning their waterfowl surveys or banding program, a bunch of stuff like that. Right up about the same time I finished a PhD working on nesting brant at the University of Nevada Reno. And then about ‘02 I finished the Masters also working on nesting black brants. But I was up living in Fairbanks, Alaska going to UAF at the time.
Ramsey Russell: So you’ve been at this a while, all ducks all the time. Where did you, let’s back up even before all this, where did you grow up? Where you from?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, pretty much, I’ve lived everywhere. My wife gives me grief that I don’t have a place to call home and she’s right, but a lot of my family’s in Missouri. So a lot of history there with St. Louis, first goose I shot was at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge back when those EPP geese or whatever they’re called now used to go there. And first time sitting over duck decoys was on the Mississippi River by Cape Girardeau and then we moved to Minnesota when I was about 13 or so. And everything changed then. Lot of breeding geese. Geese are rare in Missouri, they’re just starting to explode in Minnesota. And see these ducks, see those ducks, I was the kid that would get on someone else’s school bus to carry a bag of decoys and my camera back then and walk home a different way to take pictures of a wigeon I saw. So it’s been like that forever and yeah, I was into ducks by the time I was about eight and I’m about 40 years older than that now.
Ramsey Russell: Who got you started duck hunting?
Chris Nicolai: I’d say it was a combination of my dad and uncle talked about it and then I as a kid,
Ramsey Russell: Did they hunt ducks?
Chris Nicolai: Talked about ducks. They used to hunt ducks. I remember they were both working down in San Antonio at the time and we picked them up at the airport coming home, they had a whole cooler full of redhead breasts that they shot down somewhere along the Laguna Madre there. And then I had a kid at school that was really good friends but his family duck hunted a lot in Missouri and the wildlife areas and I know they’d be coming home from their weekend hunting and I’d go see all these ducks I could only read about in a bird book. I never got to touch one. I don’t think I touched a duck probably until I shot my first duck when I was 13.
Ramsey Russell: 13. Do you remember what it was?
Chris Nicolai: It was a wood duck?
Ramsey Russell: Was it?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. Two wood ducks and a mallard, opening day of 1987.
Ramsey Russell: It’s been a while ago. When did you realize you wanted to be a waterfowl biologist?
Chris Nicolai: I can remember high school knowing I wanted a job where I was around water. And then to be honest I didn’t know you could do that stuff as a career. Back then you’d see stuff like Marty Stouffer on TV, that’s about the only exposure you got to a wildlife biologist. And I figured the guy just did it for fun. He’s a filmography, he wasn’t a wildlife biologist, but that’s as closest you got and then it was my first or second week in college in Northeast Minnesota. I was in an aviation program and I was sitting there eating ice cream at a really cool ice cream shop and some guys were talking about tracking these wolves and following dear and breaking marrow and radio telemetry and flying. It’s like you guys get paid for this? Sure enough, there’s some, one was very famous wolf biologist. And it happened the same week I was walking by a classroom full of duck wings. It’s like, well, what’s that? So I knew the teacher already. He was a nice guy and talked with him and it was in that class the next day. And pretty much never look back now. I thought at the time I could just get a two year degree and be happy. And as that was wrapping up, it’s like, no, I need a four year degree. And as that’s wrapping up, it’s like, no, I need a masters. And the next thing you know, you’re in a PhD and my youngest daughter asked me years ago, what grade did you go to school dad? And added it up. I said I went to the 25th grade.
Ramsey Russell: 25th grade. That’s crazy.
Chris Nicolai: She wasn’t too happy about that as she was in second grade. It’s a lot of years left for her.
Ramsey Russell: I got to subject I’ll start with getting kind of the media thing. Let’s talk about Brant because forever on the internet that I was aware, Chris Nicolai, you were the Brant guy.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah.
The Brant Godfather
Ramsey Russell: And I’ve even seen post, somebody sometimes from somewhere post a brant band and boom, Chris Nicholas says, well, that’s from such and such and I put my hands on it or a technician did or something like that. How did you become the Brant Godfather?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. Well, I definitely give some other guys a lot more credit than myself. Like my major advisor, Jim Sedinger Another guy I worked with a lot David Ward, David well, they both have recently retired. Some other guys like Sean Boyd up in Delta BC, before them, there were guys like Cal Lensing who I got to co-author a paper with and Dirk Dirksen a lot of these guys and there’s people before them. I mean, you can get into, I can’t remember all their names right now. Sig Olson, famous guy, he used to work on the Yukon delta back in the 40s and 30s. I mean, there’s a lot of people that have laid the groundwork for us. It’s just, with the internet and all that, and we’ve talked before too how fewer and fewer biologists are hunters. I can remember but no one’s fault at all, my first week in graduate school and in Fairbanks, I was the new guy and actually a guy that I’ve become very good friends with ever since that first day in 99, phone rings and it’s a brant hunter that hunts San Quetin nearly every weekend. And they’re like, hey, Chris you’re the hunter, you’re going to deal with all the hunting calls. And now it’s like, no problem at all. And that was pre-internet forums and all that stuff. And a lot of us weren’t even hooked up to email yet 99, let alone cell phones and all that. So that’s all just time spent on the phone and getting web tag reports and filling them in and based off the project’s that Jim Sedinger got started. He was kind of the guy that just got it going and you quickly realize we’re talking this morning, the hunters are just drooling for information. So I mean stuff we take for granted, it’s like, band AAA yellow. Oh yeah, I mean I’ve seen her 500 times oh not, 500 times, but 40 times over 18 years. We see her all the time or meets always AAE yellow. You know about that stuff but guys don’t ever know about that, so it’s so easy. I mean I was probably about the 5th PhD student on the brant project under said Sedinger and I was the first one to put all those years of data into one data set. Everybody else did their five years here and there three years here and there four years there and had a hypothesis in a question, but mine brought it all together. So it was the first time where we looked up band AAA yellow, it’s like, well that was actually a 15 year old bird when it was banded in 1984. Instead it entered their sample in 1984 when it first got a plastic band on it. But it’s like no actually Kallen Sick banded that bird way back when. That was pretty cool, all of a sudden my advisor learned holy criminy, we’ve already got 25 and 30 something year old brant, that was huge, and then we had other birds that have gone through three sets of band replacements because they’re plastics wore out and we couldn’t read them with our scopes, which is the purpose of putting the plastics on. If you can’t read it at 5 ft. there’s no way you’re going to read it at 200 ft. with a scope, so replace the thing or they’d lose them, they’d break or, there were some old aluminum bands of cows that we’re gone, but the plastic was still there, so we’d give it a new stainless band, we want to be able to keep, we want to keep reading that license plate year after year after year.
Ramsey Russell: Why?
Chris Nicolai: Just so we can tell who’s still alive. We can get into some of that stuff if you want about banding data. But by putting all that stuff together all of a sudden I had some neat stories and then all of a sudden the hunting forums got big and guys would put this picture up and it’s like, well, actually banded that way back when it’s had 5 mates since then, it’s hatched 10-12 nests accounting for 70 duck or goslings and we web tagged 55 of them, and 6 of those were females that came back and bred later. Guys are like holy crap and they think that’s pretty cool and they’re like, I almost feel guilty for shooting that bird. It’s like, don’t feel guilty, it’s just thanks for reporting your bird. That’s the biggest part is, do what you do, but reporting bands is the biggest, that’s a whole another topic that a lot of us have been talking about. Another podcast as well as, just the co-operation with this kind of data. We’ve got some articles coming out in the next magazine here describing the four different ways we band waterfowl and what it’s all about just because people don’t know. A band is not a band is not a band. Like the brant projects. We’ve used some of it for management purposes, but for the most part this is all general ecology type questions, basic stuff we’re looking at. We’ve been able to help inform harvest management decisions. For the most part, those kind of projects are driven by federal and state agencies and for brant that has not been accomplished for decades. But you make the most of what you can do with.
Ramsey Russell: Why did it seem like so many brants are banded? Especially with markers. I’ve not seen that with other species of waterfowl. It seems like a lot of brant are banded.
Ramsey Russell: True a lot of Canada geese.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. Again, we’re the objectives of these projects it’s hard to understand sometimes.
Ramsey Russell: But as a brant hunter down in Mexico, I just said your odds for shooting a banded brant were 1 in 4 or 1 in 5. That’s just my anecdotal observation. So it seemed like, why was there such an interest in a focus on the colored markers and the leg band, the metal leg bands for black brant.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, at the best that the marked – unmarked ratios probably ever were probably 1:8 to 1:12 birds. And that was probably, I’d say 91 through 98. And that was a big focus of just where do brant go, where do you brant come from? Things like that. I mean there’s some brant wintering in Japan. No one knew where they came from. A lot of impacts of oil and gas development on the north slope. So there’s lot of projects going on up there, colleagues working in Wrangell Island, Alaska. They were marking birds. They’re so and at one I remember when I got started working on brant. I can remember walking through one part of the colony, you’re seeing green bands, red bands, aqua bands, white bands, yellow bands, silver bands, orange bands and black bands with only new colors since I’ve been started. But you’d see all of them, and that was pretty neat. It quickly let people know where they are marked. It was as simple as that. Every place got a different color marker. The YK delta used up a lot of them because we marked so many. But it’s kind of fun. I mean give Jim Sedinger credit, I’ve talked with him about it, but when he suggests that we started torso banding brant, no one had ever done that before, and he says he had stories where people made fun of him like, yeah, right. You’re never going to see those again and all of sudden you’re getting photographs and calls from people reading them themselves, let alone the biologist. I mean, I’ve talked with local brant hunters and figured out the local grit sites where brants will actually come up at a dropping tide and haul out of the water and you talk to these guys, oh yeah, that’s right over here. Just be there to dropping tide. I’ve had days, I’ve read 200, 250 brant bands in a day. And I mean all of a sudden, now, and one of our best papers is in the American naturalists from one of my friends Masters Chapters where it has to be the best mark bird project pushing radio telemetry projects. So here he was following birds on breeding areas looking at clutch size initiation to date nest success. Trapping birds, looking at how heavy they were. And then he could match that up with the prior winters, band reads. We had people at San Quintin, San Ignacio, Magdalena Bay, Obregon. All these places up and down, humble tamales, stuff like that. Based on the prior year’s wintering location, he actually found a lot of variation and clutch size and nest success and body weights, probability of breeding etcetera. That’s one of the most important papers to come out of the brant project. All based out of looking through a spotting scope at a piece of plastic. It didn’t include at the time a $2500 PTT radio that probably changed nearly all behaviors of that brant. It’s a little piece of plastic that doesn’t change their behavior as much. And it’s still a very well cited paper and that probably came out in 11 or so.
Black Brant Migration
Ramsey Russell: Is it just by observation or is it reality that I call them pacific brant because that’s what people call them. But black brant maybe aren’t penetrating down the flyaway towards Mexico in the number that they used to do. Is there a lot more of holding back up in Izembeck Lagoon.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Why? That’s a million dollar question.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And you look at the old numbers and through maybe the early 90s there was a few 100 brant that would overwinter at Izembeck and who knows why? I mean I’d have to guess there’s some cripples, there’s some birds that they’re lucky they made it ties them back and they’re just waiting to die. But then all of a sudden in the early 90s, more and more started coming. You’re staying there, 1000 turned into 1500 turned into 4000. And by 99 there’s actually enough there for a girl named Ellie Mason, now to actually start looking at body condition of these birds. Whether they stayed in Mexico or if they stayed in Izembeck and you go to Mexico, you’ve got, even in the winter, you’ve got 11 hours of daylight. You’re getting parts of two tide cycles to feed during the day with a plant that’s still growing, where if your bird that’s wintering at Izembeck, you’ve got about a four hour window of daylight in which you might have some tide cycles that don’t fall during the daylight. And you’ve got eelgrass bed, that’s finessing because the angle of the sun’s to low, in Alaska, Izembeck, the angle of sun is too low for maybe four months, maybe longer that, those plants can’t even photosynthesize. So it’s like, okay, how are these birds pulling this off and now, as we all know from the midwinter counts, a third of the brant populations overwintering at Izembeck, we’re getting 40,000-50,000 birds overwintering up there. So yeah, I mean when the populations supposedly stayed stable. You got to subtract some birds from somewhere else when you have a known increase. So yeah, not as many brants are going down south as they used to because they’re just staying at Izembeck.
Ramsey Russell: What did, a couple of questions out of this? What did she find in the body conditioning of the birds going to Mexico versus the birds holding back?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, the protein and lipid. So, protein, muscle and fat. It was very different for those birds. But see there’s also a benefit to not migrating is you’re not spending energy. So I mean you can get fat and I don’t know if you’ve shot brant Izembeck in October but there’s not a fat or waterfowl on this planet. And people have shot fat Rossies, fat pin tails, fat blue or fat green-winged teal. I mean I’ve definitely have shot pin tails that have burned the enamel off a cheap $15 grill because they ignited brant or twice as fast as that.
Ramsey Russell: It’s probably why I think the brant at Izembeck are the best tasting waterfowl species on earth. Flavors in the fat, but now they’re very good eating.
Chris Nicolai: They were different because they don’t, they’re not flying 6000 miles round trip by staying in Alaska. So there’s tradeoffs. Okay, we can get really fat maybe over the top fat, maybe so fat, you can’t even migrate. I don’t know. No’s looked that far into it. But yeah, they could store a lot of energy and maybe they just sit there and drain it down all the way until the sun gets up enough in March to start firing up, photosynthesizing that eelgrass and Izembeck. They’re pulling it off. I mean, obviously a lot more brants are choosing to make that decision now.
Ramsey Russell: Izembeck Lagoon has got the largest natural eelgrass bed in the world?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Chris Nicolai: And Brant are highly specific, that’s their chosen food. That’s their deal is eelgrass, is that right?
Chris Nicolai: That’s their preferred food. I mean you look at like the Atlantic brant that had the disease outbreaks and eelgrass in the 30s and they switched, they started eating that algae all of that. You see him in the highway medians and soccer fields now eating terrestrial crabgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, whatever people say, oh, I’ve eaten them there. They don’t taste the same as a black brant for sure. But they want to eat eelgrass for sure.
Black Brant Population
Ramsey Russell: How is the black brant population is doing?
Chris Nicolai: For the most part they’re stable. I mean there’s ups and downs. They’re a tough bird to study. There’s a lot of potential biases associated with counting brant.
Ramsey Russell: Really? Well they’re out in open water, it seems like you bet counting pretty simple.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. But counting birds from an airplane and concentrations is always tricky. And there’s a lot of good people counting them over and over again and you trust these people I mean they know what they’re doing, they’re good at their jobs, but the numbers jump a lot. You know it’d be nice if you counted 187,000 that if you counted tomorrow you might count 184,000. But when you count 150, one day and you count 190 the next day and maybe two days later you count 220. That’s a little bit of variation that there’s no fault of their own. It’s what was the angle of the sun? How much disturbances on the ground that you couldn’t control? Did you miss some birds that already jumped to Mexico? Were did some new birds arrive from the high arctic that you didn’t get? I mean it’s all stuff you can’t control. But counting birds from an airplane is hard and unfortunately we don’t band enough brant or higher driver get enough direct recoveries. Birds that you shoot that were banded that same year. And that stuff to be able to count ducks or count wildlife in a different way called the Lincoln estimator that we do. You have some good really sharp Canadians have gotten a lot of our eastern goose species managed under Lincoln estimators. That’s why people shoot a lot of mid-continent white fronted geese that are banded because they’re managing them off bands. But white fronts are getting shot at probably 4-8%. Where Brant aren’t even getting shot by sport hunters at 1%.
Ramsey Russell: Is that all? I would’ve said higher.
Chris Nicolai: No, there’s a lot of concerns with brant. Rural residents shooting them in Alaska, which is a very different word than subsistence harvest. Rural residents is anybody that can live outside of the three “metro areas of Alaska”. Guys just like yourself. I mean I’ve had rural harvest rates when I’ve lived in bush Alaska in the past. There’s a lot of concerns with that. We’ve got that with emperors and other things as well, they get hunted hard in Alaska. Outside of the sport season.
Ramsey Russell: Shifting gears. How many species of waterfowl have you banded?
Chris Nicolai: I’ve captured and handled all of them. I haven’t banded them all because sometimes you just catch stuff that no one wants you to band or you didn’t have bands with you. But I’ve handled all of them.
Ramsey Russell: Over what period of time? 10, 20 years?
Chris Nicolai: I’d say, well here let’s say I banded my first bird in the summer 93 in Wisconsin first waterfowl. And then model duck was the last one I needed. And I did that two summers ago. So summer of 18. So 20 field seasons no longer than that can’t add there. That would be 25 plus 1. So Yeah, 26 field seasons.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the most interesting places that you’ve banded birds? Like this morning, we were talking about a wood duck banding project in Nevada. But you’ve been to some real far flung remote places doing this stuff.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. No, I’d say, I got to spend, I probably banded 15 seasons on the Yukon Delta, which is just fantastic and so much fun. And I was running the show some years, guys that had more experience than me would join in. But there’s a lot of times, it’s just me and undergraduates doing it. And I’ve got a really neat, I grew up just dreaming about the arctic as a kid. I ran dogsleds through undergrad. My compass is always point north. And like the dogs I had came from a place called Cambridge Bay that I’d seen on a map way back when. So I was always interested in the Canadian arctic. And some of these same Canadian biologists were talking about before. Yeah, hey, Nicolai, you should come up and work with us. It’s like, oh, heck yeah. Boom, next year I used up two weeks of annual leave to go do that and be able to band in the rocky Canadian arctic compared to the mud covered Yukon Delta and it’s so nice. And that’s what’s been really fun, is just getting into banding. I know a couple other banders in the States. A really good friend of mine’s in Louisiana. I mean, it’s so neat to meet these guys that are into banding and you can go hang out with them and go learn what they’re doing and just here, why they’re doing it and the experiences they had. So banding in Louisiana is pretty cool. I’ve got to go down there, rocket netting and bait traps and also with airboats, some of the most incredible airboats I’ve ever seen. But then another time, I got a call from a bunch of biologists in Europe, Hey, you’re that guy that painted all those centerpiece decoys at the goose conference 10 years ago. Hey, can you get us a bunch of those? It’s like, well, no, I don’t have any time for that. Talk a little bit more. Okay, so I made a deal and I paint decoys, I usually carve them and all that, but I wasn’t going to carve what’s needed for rocket netting and next thing you know, I got all these decoys ready to go and we learned quickly, can’t ship anything to Iceland unless it’s overnight. And five boxes of full body brant decoys for rocket netting is going to cost a fortune. When you can fly there for 400 bucks. So next thing you know, I’m flying there with five dozen of my own decoys and hung out with some awesome guys that were some of the craziest, most intense banders have ever worked with. And we’re,
Ramsey Russell: They were Icelandic biologist?
Chris Nicolai: No, we’re with people from all kinds of European countries. I mean all these accents that you just got to hang on each one and is that person talks, you had a switch, just trying to get those heavy accents, but these guys are intense. I mean we’re sleeping in cars we’re eating gas station food occasionally we’d sleep in a hostel and we were catching birds every freaking day. It was the best “vacation” I’ve ever had.
Ramsey Russell: And what were you all banding over there?
Chris Nicolai: They’re called Irish brant, but they’re the Hrota subspecies, the Atlantics. But they’re a neat group of birds. They’re similar to the western high arctic, gray belly brant. But so they’re high latitude nesters but they go east instead of west. So they go over they’re nesting up Ellesmere Island, Axel Heiberg places like that. They fly over Greenland, they stage in Iceland which should be similar to their Izembek and then 98% or 99% of the population winters right in Dublin. And you can get on the internet and see it. I mean there’s brant walking around church lines and up and down streets and these guys are reading bands, they’re just like we send people down to San Quintin in places. That’s really neat project. But what was really neat was I did we caught one Russian brant, the third subspecies of brant. And that was a neat one because as far as I know and I could easily be wrong, but I’m probably the only living person that’s banded at all three subspecies of brant. So that was pretty cool.
Ramsey Russell: What do you call that species?
Chris Nicolai: That’s a Russian brant.
Ramsey Russell: Russian brant.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, so that they’d be Branta Bernicla bernicla phenomenal race. So yeah, really dull bird there.
Ramsey Russell: Is that the, what I’ve heard them called the grey bellies out on the pacific flyway?
Chris Nicolai: No, grey bellies, we’re learning more and more about them. But every time people look at gray bellies there just a hybrid between a Hrota and Atlantic and a black.
Ramsey Russell: Okay, so it’s not its own subspecies of brant?
Chris Nicolai: No, they’re just unique. But those Russian Brants are pretty cool. That’s their necklace is just a faint necklace and then their side flanks almost don’t even exist. I mean they are really dull looking goose. But oh boy, when you know what it is and that dark belly on him with that, because you get a black brant, they got the dark belly but they got that the biggest necklace of them all and the biggest flanks of them all. But also you get a bird with a dark belly in its sides and necklace are like, yeah, it’s like, that’s a cool bird.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all very interesting right there. It really is. I remember seeing your post one time you were camped way up in the arctic and it was like this old civilization encampment, what was that about?
Chris Nicolai: So the rock piles you’re talking about? Yeah, so you get lots of neat things, you get all the, what do people call them? Karen’s. People are building and everyone’s complaining about now that, someone’s going into a national park and building lots of Karen’s, but those neck tux, they build for navigation purposes, especially when you’re in a kayak or down low, you build them on the hills and kind of like beacons out there, back in historical days, there’s a lot of that rock stuff. But I’ve been Queen Maud gulf. I’ve seen it on South Hampton. I don’t think we ever saw him on Baffin. But a lot of these old goose Corrales built out of rocks, where the guys would, and they look exactly like ours a round pot where the birds get captured and then which we make out of netting these days. And then you have wings coming out to funnel them into that pot that we make out of netting. But you can fly over these and they’re 3ft tall made out of rocks, same shape we use now.
Ramsey Russell: How old are some of these structures?
Chris Nicolai: I’d have to guess 1000 to 3000 years.
Ramsey Russell: A 1000 to 3000 years ago. Those people were catching geese or brant when they were in the molting and,
Chris Nicolai: Flightless stages like we do for banding.
Ramsey Russell: To subsist, to eat.
Chris Nicolai: But instead of us, trying to be gentle and banding him and taking measurements and letting them go. They’d get him in there, close it off and it’s basically, club him and rock them and kill as many as you can. And like on the YK Delta they air dry them. I don’t know what they really did and arctic Canada because I’m not as familiar with their food preservation methods, but like on the YK delta, they’d split them, they’ve got them, probably eat the guts fresh and then they split the carcass and air dry them, like they do with salmon and stuff and then I would suppose, they’d make a skin out of seal and dry out the skin and inflate it and get it big puffed up and you can just load it with whatever you wanted and top that whole thing off with seal oil. And you could sow that thing shut and bury it for years, and all that dried meat would be pretty much canned and all that seal oil, it be without touching oxygen and could last a long time. I’ve eaten stuff like that. And I don’t find it by palette, doesn’t find that very palatable.
Ramsey Russell: No gumbo sounds much better.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, but there’s other people to it, that thinks gumbo fires them up to. We’re all used to our own stuff for sure. But I mean, what a way to preserve food. I mean, all of sudden you’re in the land of plenty and put it away, saving for those days where it’s famine, it’s pretty good to find a cache of a seal poke full of seal oiled meat.
Ramsey Russell: If you’ll hear a dog scratching or dog barking, you all got to remember we’re recording at a duck camp. Okay? We were out there this morning, Jeff and I are right there this morning in the blind and we’re not cold, but it was a cold morning and we’re sitting here with state of the art gear on. Can you imagine those people that were living back there are 1000-3000 years ago and canning with seal oil, living in hides and skins and a 1000 years.
Chris Nicolai: Oh yeah, well, I mean we’re talking to about us growing up, I mean I can remember where the best winter clothes or wool pants, no one wears wool pants anymore.
Ramsey Russell: Good bye uninsulated waders.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I mean just yeah, then you go back to all those, especially like the English explorers that had their rules with tweed and leather and those are the guys that failed. That’s why the English were never famous as arctic explorers. It took the Dutch to figure it out. And the Dutch basically just went up and adopted the ways from the intuits. There’s some awesome stories and those are the stories I really like. And the Dutch were the ones that totally explored the arctic with success. Put it that way.
Ramsey Russell: Well, they were really the world, humanity’s greatest navigators.
Chris Nicolai: Well, and they were just open minded, instead of showing up with your wool or your cotton and your leather, they just didn’t even bother with it and just went into total sealskin muck, lux and caribou, caribou garments and living the way that the people that are thriving up there live.
Value of Recreational Hunting to Wildlife Conservation
The fact that game animals have had more funding than non-game animals supports the notion that hunters are conservation, the fact that we’re putting our money that recreates the half amount value, creating an economy.
Ramsey Russell: I know you and I see like we’ve been talking all morning off and on, but as a biologist, how important is recreational hunting to conservation?
Chris Nicolai: It’s huge. And I’ll speak frankly about it. I’m on my own beliefs. You’re not representing anyone I’m working for. I don’t think it’s as important as it used to be. And it’s terrifying for a lot of us. Back in the day people and you look back at save pioneer days, I mean people hunted wild animals for subsistence. As we broke the prairie and moved west, you just had to shoot wildlife to subsist. And that held on, or even up till the signage of the migratory Bird Treaty Act. I mean, people still liked eating ducks at the store. They didn’t have time to go shoot them, but they were up for paying the $5 for a canvasback dinner at a New York restaurant. And we passed laws because the population was still growing and they still had a very, very interconnected connection with nature, which was great. I mean, I wish everybody had that. But then as urban populations grew, that connection just breaks. Rural folks are really good understanding nature, not perfect, but way closer to perfect than urban folks. And that’s just grown and grown over time as cities have gotten bigger and as more people leave farming communities, things are going to change with COVID and internet and everything like that. Things might change. We might keep people more out in the world, but I don’t know yet, but we do know we’ve lost people that even know where their food comes from or that there’s a bird other than a pigeon. I find it terrifying.
Ramsey Russell: Terrifying in what sense? Just as lack of funding?
Chris Nicolai: Lack of funding is one.
Ramsey Russell: Because I’m assuming it’s like my beliefs Chris is that the recreational interest in duck hunting, creates an economy, a commodity value, recreational value in football, which generates billions. And you’re coming from a research level. You’ve talked this morning on this podcast in the duck blind about various and sundry different critical project that are important for monitoring wildlife or modeling other populations, funding decreasing. And man, is that linked to hunting?
Chris Nicolai: Well, in hunting, hunting dollars. We’ve got to think about where they come from and what they get spent on. So when hunters buy licenses, there’s a federal component and a state component. So federal is a federal duck stamp, 98 cents of every dollar goes to habitat conservation. That’s a huge component. But not everyone buys those. Not every member of society buys those. All hunters over the age of 16 have to have them. There were some years or anyone that entered a national wildlife refuge would have to have one to gain entry. But that’s been rescinded at least once. Just push back from the non-hunting community, which I think that’s a failure on two levels. Mainly the non-consumptive users don’t understand what’s going on. It’s a two way street. They didn’t ask and no one told them. Then he gets state licenses and state licenses are good because they can be used for in house stuff. They can be used to generate match pretty small scale stuff. A lot of the stuff we talk about with loss of funding, I would call them more general funds and that’s where the biggest shifts have come from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The operational standard funds that run refuges that run aerial surveys. I mean, no license you’re buying is paying for aerial surveys or duck banding at a federal level could be at some states, but it’s that operational budget cuts that or what we’re feeling. Things have been shifted. Renewable energy is a much bigger thing in the Bird World, endangered species act was only passed in what 75, I get the horse and burro and say backwards. I mean, that’s pretty recent and that’s 40-45 years that ESA has been in place. And they’re taking more and more of a share of the money over the time. And it can be argued, I definitely have enjoyed seeing peregrine falcons come back and Lucien Canada geese were the first delisted ESA listed species. It benefited a lot of stuff. But a lot of these projects are at the reduction of programs that have been important in the past. Aerial surveys, duck banding is probably the biggest cuts we’ve seen in financial resources.
Ramsey Russell: But even as it gets into at the state level, I’ve read reports probably in Delta Waterfowl and other places that hunter drive state funding it’s not just doing elk or deer or waterfowl or whatever in the state. It’s also doing stuff like a pollinator. And I mean so much of the state wildlife conservation beyond just game animals is being driven by hunters.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, that would be. And that one I’m not familiar with exactly how licensed dollars flow, but I would find it, I sure hope very hard that an elk license or a general small game license is going towards a pollinator project. It wouldn’t surprise me. But boy, I think a lot of states have a lot more checks and balances than just that. And you get stuff like Minnesota has the Loon check off. That’s how a lot of their non-game projects get funded as people donating tax return dollars and it’s not a huge pot of money, but there’s more, the recent Act, American Outdoor Act that Trump recently signed is a huge one that’s going to help all wildlife, which I do believe in. I appreciate my other birds as well and other animals and I feel bad that they haven’t had a funding base as successful as we have with game management, but you shouldn’t rob Peter to feed Paul.
Ramsey Russell: I agree with that. But the fact that game animals have had more funding than non-game animals supports the notion that hunters are conservation, the fact that we’re putting our money that recreates the half amount value, creating an economy.
Chris Nicolai: As you’re fully aware of, that’s been declining and declining since the 70s. Just people, hunting’s hard, hunting’s cold hunting’s dirty.
Ramsey Russell: Hunting is expensive.
Chris Nicolai: Big time. Ducks don’t always tastes the best. It’s a lot of work. And I am surprised daily at how little people want to work that hard for stuff to me is just like the funniest ever. I’m out hunting today and I can barely open my hands because of choices I’ve made in the past of taking care of my hands, most of which is probably Chopping firewood at -40 while winter camping to catch a fish through the ice or paddling a boat that the winds so strong, I can’t put my gloves on because I’m going to lose 10 yards crossing this big lake. I love that stuff and I can’t believe everybody doesn’t and just society. I moved to North Dakota to get more back to where I think there’s people that believe in similar things I do and I really like it. People still like to push their own limits and they don’t look for hardships, but they’re the type of people that can deal with hardships.
Ramsey Russell: Like a pioneer spirit. That’s what I see out here at west.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, well I lived out west and it’s really lacking out there.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I consider this a west from Mississippi, I guess it may not be. America and couple of other countries.
Chris Nicolai: But we’re getting there. You get it on the coast. Yeah, you get along the coast and all that other than a few sane normal folks out there, it all but disappears there. The coasts are where it’s really lacking. Yeah, that’s where our biggest population centers are. When you meet kids that honestly cannot tell you where their food comes from, it’s another that terrifying component of life for they have no clue that there’s another animal other than a lot of these introduced species. Can’t identify a fruit that isn’t a banana, orange or apple. It’s just like, wow! My kids aren’t raised that way and these guys take care of me all the time. They know how to shop, they know how to kill, they know how to find stuff, they know how to cook it. It bamboozled me that people don’t want to live like that. I mean, I just am not attracted to an urban taken care of disconnected life.
Ramsey Russell: What I’ve seen? You and I take for granted we were kind of raised by friends at a young age, we were hunting, we were involved. And I’m really not worried too much about the Children of hunters. That’s almost a foregone conclusion that your Children, my Children are going to be raised to think like us, but increasingly I get inboxes or text messages or emails from a different kind of hunter than what you and I may be. Their origins are more recent. Just this morning I was talking to a 40 year old. He’s done some big game hunting. But now this duck hunting seems appealing to him. His younger sons have gone out and shot a few birds, but he wants to get into duck hunting. What words of advice would you give? I mean, I invite and embrace hunters of all, new hunter of all ages to get into this sport for political relevance for the viability and sustainability of it all. But have you got any words of wisdom, words of advice for a 40 year old or 30 year old that that’s considering getting into waterfowl hunting or trying to connect to it like you and I are?
Chris Nicolai: The biggest word of advice is find someone that’s killed enough birds in their life. Like you or I, I mean to me honestly, I’ve killed enough birds. I’ve seen them die, I’ve eaten them, I’ve cleaned them, I’ve fooled them. These pea brain birds, I’ve had tons of fun but I’ll take anybody like the 40 year old you’re mentioning hunting. That’s good fun.
Ramsey Russell: Find someone to learn to ropes with and you can, so get into it and be a little successful.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. Because I mean, I didn’t get someone taking me and my uncle and I learned on our own and we didn’t ever even knew what a decoy was for five years. We knew what belly crawling in the mud was all about. But I can remember belly crawling 200 yards to shoot a brown hooded murg and I probably messed up, I was like the lion, I was successful 10% of the time. And I got over it where now I mean and especially women, I would guess today was different last night was different. Those are probably the only hunts I’ve done this year that didn’t include beginners. It’s actually quite rare that I’d hunt with a guy like you just because I’m busy with others, I’ve been taking a girl from my office that she’s got some experience but she’s learning. When I was in Nevada, I was taking an undergrad students all the time. I’ve taken part in a lot of these undergrad hunt programs and wildlife programs at universities and both in those and when I take people out they don’t always pull the trigger, it’s really neat the state, some states are doing these apprentice licenses right now which I definitely believe in Hunter Ed, I think it’s good, but it is a big time commitment to do Hunter Ed. That could preclude a lot of people from buying a license and giving it a try and I know Nevada for sure and there’s definitely other states, but Nevada allows people to buy an apprentice license for one year and mentor has to sign up with them. And for $5 they can get a license as long as they’re, always with the mentor for the first year, they’re good to go. Then if they want to buy a second license and its subsequent year, they got to go through the whole Hunter Ed, I love programs like that. I mean who wants to go, pre-COVID, I’ve seen Hunter Ed things anywhere from 6 hours to my kid was taken, my other kid was taken at the spring. I think she had to go to 12, 3 hour evening sessions followed by a full day.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a big commitment.
Chris Nicolai: It’s a huge commitment. Is it really worth it? It’s a barrier. So I love these apprentice licenses. But we need to take more people. You need to take, not you, we need to take people that aren’t going to go anyways. My kids were always going to hunt.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot to be said. It’s like, we talk about conservation dollars, we talk about funding that we hunters generate and an 8 year old child, 12 year old child. He’s a decade away from spending meaningful amounts of money to impact controversial spending. Whereas a 30 year old that wants to get into hunting, he needs waiters, he needs shotgun, decoy, shells and he’s got the money to go do because he’s got a job, he settled in life and that’s something worth bearing in mind. At least to me.
Chris Nicolai: What I thought was really cool. Delta put together a video, Delta Waterfowl, put a video together about three months ago and I think they had a 19 year old boy in there on his first time hunt. And the part I really liked was because it’s like, jeez, he’s kind of old for this, but and it took a while for him to hit at home, but then they made it clear he’s like, no, I’m going to start driving all my buddies duck hunting with me. We got vehicles now, we can go here, we can go there, we don’t need Uncle Fred that just took us on a hunt here, we can go do it on our own. So I’d say it wouldn’t even be the 30 year old, I’d say it’d be anyone with a driver’s license that can go out and get to places and take more people is good. I mean kids are good, but not all the kids are going to go tomorrow. You’re going to get more of an immediate payoff with someone with the vehicle, you’re going to get even more with a 30 year old with a vehicle and disposable income. Yes, so take them all.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Take them all.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, boycott the 60 year old guy, he’s past his expiration date. Now take everyone, take everyone he can. And I had a lot of fun with my kids. They made friends in Reno with a girl that her grandma and grandpa fished and that was it. And we got this girl shooting stuff and before we left we got a sage grouse she shot mounted for. And I hope, she’ll think about it in the future. But at least she knows where her food comes from. And she can be influential when she’s in a voting booth as well.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. I really, I don’t hold anything against the non-hunter. I can respect if somebody don’t want to pull the trigger on something because of their upbringing or whatever. But it’s important to me that they understand the connections we’re describing connections to the resource, connections to conservation, and if they can just get in a duck blind more than maybe than anything, because you blow a duck call, you throw a decoy out. And all of a sudden as an observer, they can see the interaction between humanity and resources. The importance of connection.
Chris Nicolai: Well, and that’s where, I started more of that traditional. But I’d say, well actually since I had a date over and I made stir fry golden eye and she took two bites and left. I realize the food connection is bigger to me. And there’s a lot of neat programs out there. I mean, you get Hank Shaw, you get Rinella, all those guys, the food security issues. I mean, my family’s meat consumption, it’s not perfect, but I would say it’s at least 75% wild derived between fish and mammals and birds. And that’s huge for us. I mean like during COVID and all that, we heard stories about meat shortages. We never noticed it. I mean, we noticed the toilet paper ones, but luckily I guess we don’t use as much as the average people never hit us. But we heard about the meat shortages. It’s like, that’s the last thing on our minds and if anything while it was all happening we knew how to go right down to the river and catch walleyes. And that’s where I just feel for people. I mean this COVID thing tested a lot of people. People couldn’t go to stores and if they did their stuff was out and this was a pretty mild Armageddon. And I’m not a prepper. I’m not you know encouraging actions like that but just being able to get by for a month on your own. I’ve done it a lot and I just don’t know how people think. I talk with other people too, you watch these futuristic movie Star Wars Star Trek it’s rare you see anything about where their food comes from. Yeah I don’t even see some can Star Wars for example Big Star Wars fan but there is a planet that they bring up a lot Coruscant that it is 100% developed. Can a planet even exists like that? What percentage of our society thinks that is progress? It’s a majority. The definition of progress to me is very different than most people. That’s where society is leaning where it takes us. I don’t know, I’m terrified all these wild places and wild critters we treasure are just going to fall by the wayside. You know of future generations. I try my best but gosh I mean you think of all the things that have been popular in the past that aren’t anymore. Is nature one of those?
Ramsey Russell: That’s a scary thought.
Chris Nicolai: I see it as a very valuable,
Ramsey Russell: Whether they know it or not, I feel like people, humanity needs wild places. Just like knowing the stars up above us. I feel like we all need to know, they’re still wild nature out there among us I mean at least I do.
Chris Nicolai: But people’s definition of wild nature is different. There’s probably some people that take bug spray, face masks and everything in the Central Park, to me it’s just like, oh my dear God, you don’t want to walk in this place, I don’t even want to be here. Whereas I’m camping on the North Slope banding geese that would terrify 95% of people. You’re dropped off with one bare can of food, a tent and a sleeping bag and yeah, good luck. We’ll pick you up in five days. I hope you use all your bands. We’re all different. I get it, but the disconnect is just, it’s what gets me. I just can’t believe everybody doesn’t want to do what you and I do.
Northern Pintail Limits in US
..the whole goal is to enhance the annual survival rate. No one can argue that anyone would be supportive of that. We’ve done it for 30 years with restrictive regs. That annual survival rate has not changed nothing. No response at all. But I don’t get why there isn’t more head scratching of why pintails aren’t responding to restrictive harvest when we’ve save lives of millions of pintails by reduction in harvest. To me, it just makes zero sense.
Ramsey Russell: No, I can’t either. But up, I’m going to change gears because the thing I love about traveling and hunting with a lot of people, I get to meet guys like yourself, I get to share blind and I get to hear very interesting conversations and point in case, if I’m absolutely just needed to have my teeth kicked in or get kicked in the cojones because life is going to good. All I have to do is get in social media and hold up a limit 15 drake northern pintails from down to Mexico. That’s all you need to do. And boy, there’s going to be a lot of hate thrown on me. I mean there’s going to be, that is why there are no pin tail in North America. That’s why they’re on the verge of extinction. That’s why everybody in the lower 48 can only shoot one on the best of days and I know better. I know that’s not the case. I know that hunter harvest is not driving pin tail population. I believe it’s got as much to do with US Department of Agriculture. No teal farming, residual crops. But I heard an interesting conversation, right throughout the gate and we’re sitting in the truck this morning. You just got back from Texas and we’re “selling an idea about pintails in North America”. Could you elaborate on that?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, I mean we can expand a lot of that. The Mexico harvest stuff, that was a masters project by a guy named Gary Kramer back in the 70s who I finally got to meet the summer. He’s a big photographer passing through North Dakota is one of my first guests on my new porch overlooking the river in North Dakota. And yeah, that stuff gets people fired up and it.
Ramsey Russell: Pintails are an iconic species is a very important species for a lot of flyways.
Chris Nicolai: No, and well I’d say around as you fully aware around the northern hemisphere. And yeah, pintails are big, especially the Pacific Flyway and then add in Texas and Louisiana as well. And they’re bird that we have a very high goal of, when we base goals off of historical counts. We’ve got two years in 1954 and 1955 with really high pintail counts and that’s kind of our benchmark for pintail management. And we’ve, Delta has been funding a lot of projects. A lot of this stuff has happened before I started at Delta, but I helped influence some of this stuff while I was in the service before coming here from the major funding source state agency in California. But I mean with pintails, and I got to be careful what I say here. But we as duck hunters, we have been led to believe by more than one agency that annual harvest regulations are going to conserve migratory birds. And I think that was true back in the day when we had more hunters and we sometimes had fewer ducks. And it holds up for geese as well and some other species, but for ducks, non-sea ducks, I think we have to get past this. We’ve had conservative regulations on pintails for example, for 30 years prior to that, way back when we could shoot seven ducks a day plus four bonus pintails and Pacific Flyway when point system was initiated, pin tails were 10 point birds and then we quickly dropped, to a gem like approach which turned into a gem eventually. That is knocked pin tail harvest down. And the whole goal of harvest regulations is to enhance survival rates, the probability of a bird living till next year. Population of birds and we can, several of us, I published a paper in 05 another girl named Mandy Rice published some stuff, some Canadian guys published some pintail stuff recently. Long term data sets. Sure enough hunters did their part. They dropped harvest rates on pintails by 90%. They went from 10% to 1%. And the whole goal is to enhance the annual survival rate. No one can argue that anyone would be supportive of that. We’ve done it for 30 years with restrictive regs. That annual survival rate has not changed nothing. No response at all. And we do this with scaup, we do this with redheads. Canvasbacks, I won’t argue much about because a new harvest strategy was brought up about five years ago. Now that I won’t argue with very different beast. But I don’t get why there isn’t more head scratching of why pintails aren’t responding to restrictive harvest when we’ve save lives of millions of pintails by reduction in harvest. To me, it just makes zero sense.
Ramsey Russell: Well, what do you say? I mean, are those we’re not shooting as many or more eggs being fixed under pursuant to no, teal farming is the population is a population of pin tail on the verge of extinction?
Chris Nicolai: No, pintails are still hovering around 3 to 3.5 million ducks, 2.8-3.5.
Ramsey Russell: How long has it been hovering around that? 30 years?
Chris Nicolai: I’d say since the early 80s was the last time they have not rebounded? And so it begs to ask why haven’t they rebounded? It’s not harvest regs. Harvest regs only deal with survival. And to be honest, survival has not changed over time. Over this whole period, it bounces, but it’s pretty stable, for the most part, it’s recruitment, this is what you’re getting at is, we’re not making ducklings like we used to and there’s a lot, there’s a new paper that was funded by this California state agency through Delta, a great post stock out of Colorado state that analyze these long term data sets we have from pin tails, counts, banding wing, be receipts, you know, looking at recruitment, all that and a big shift, other data as well, other analyses. A big shift happened in the 80s. And the common simplest answer we can come up with is when no teal farming started. So prior to no teal farming in prairie Canada, a lot of fields returned over to dirt at the end of the growing season. This time of year, guys are out busy turning everything to dirt by now. And in the 80s people started realizing, there’s some better things we could do for soil and water conservation. And so like let’s do no teal farming, it’s great. You don’t, it saves you one or two passes over the field, huge savings and wear and tear and gas, diesel costs and everything and it’s almost like a Velcro door matter, those plastic green doormats at your front door, you scrape your feet on them, they put the dirt in there, it’s the same thing. It grabs the snow and holds it there and doesn’t let it drift all over there. It keeps the water out there, keeps the soil from blowing away, a great conservation tool. But guess what happened by accident? All of a sudden you’ve got a bird that is highly at adapted for the short grass prairie or the tundra, a pen tail. They like to see, they like, they don’t want to burrow.
Ramsey Russell: Got them long grass like a periscope.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah there, you just want to sit there and they’ll lay down when trouble comes and guess what wheat stubble looks like in April in the prairies. Kind of looks like decadent short grass prairie or tundra. They’re totally happy settling in there. But research that’s been done by several delta funded projects, students, predation rates nest success is lower due to predation in these stubble fields. And that’s easier to find. You can see feathers, down drifting hundreds of meters downwind to these nests sticking to the end of stubble that attracts the sharp eye of a predator. If the predators don’t get them, the farmer has to come in and make a profit and he has to plant that field again and he’ll have to go right over these pin tail nests he doesn’t know about. So it’s kind of this double whammy. And then you get into this post stack work. We were talking about that just came out the spring where it’s interesting. There’s an awesome figure five in here that heads boundaries of Montana, North and South Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta in it. So you got the 49th parallel right there and pin tail productivity in the US prairies has been okay. It’s highlighted in one color. And then as soon as he crossed that 49th parallel it turns the other end of this scale and it’s just poor. And yeah, you talk to you talked to our policy guy, John Devaney, I mean, it’s just crazy how influential federal policy can be, federal farm policy. I mean, Canada has very little regulations for water or grass protection, etcetera. Compared to what we have, and what we have is not perfect, but we have a lot more, and to be able to protect these places. So currently with this paper, it’s showing the Canadian prairies are not as productive as they used to be. And it really makes you wonder, a bigger analysis, which would be neat. Is the reduction in pin tail populations could it be by the difference simply be by the difference of us versus Canadian foreign policy? I mean, if it was more on an equal level, would we have not experienced this decline that did not rebound, we’ll never know, so it’s neat. We’re seeing the carrying capacity is not what it used to be. This paper shows that it’s likely due to policy efforts. So luckily we’ve got someone vocal and very well trained, with John Deviney. He’s got to be one of our most important policy folks for duck hunters. And it’ll be cool to see it always is what that guy can accomplish, but it helps us get in to start sharing the information that currently we simply cannot get to these 1954-1955, pintail population benchmarks. It’s just not possible anymore.
Is Mexico Harvest Hurting Pintail Populations?
Ramsey Russell: Well, I got a couple questions is, you can shoot limits as I understand them. Eight Pintails at Alaska. Four pintails at Canada. One pintail in the lower 48, 15 – 20 down in Mexico. Is Mexican harvest hurting pintail populations?
Chris Nicolai: No. And just to go back you can go to Fairbanks and shoot 10 pintails. Anyone traveling.
Ramsey Russell: You hear that people? I am right here in USA
Chris Nicolai: I went to college there for two years
Ramsey Russell: I just wanted yes or no question on that Mexico issue because it’s a delicate subject with some people and you explained it very well. All of these changes and all these foreign policies and all the way we’re conservative topsoil and everything else. But that hens don’t lay eggs. And right now in the lower 48 I can shoot a pin tail a day. Either sex. Is there, does the data or does the population trends as you see them? Does it support an alternative to one pin tail a day? Is there any other ideas out there for how we could shoot pin tails and not hurt them or?
Chris Nicolai: Yeah. And go back if you don’t mind the deadheads, don’t lay eggs. Phrase. Not all living hens lay eggs either.
Ramsey Russell: Good point.
The Pintail Problem
Chris Nicolai: So, I hear that one a lot. It drives me nuts. A lot of us have written a lot of articles in popular magazines. Delta, DU take your pick. People aren’t reading enough. There are stuff, there is data information out there to people if and nothing against your stating that comment at all. If people are still making that comment, you’re not helping. Some of our causes we’re arguing about, we’ve tried helping please contact us to learn more. But yeah, okay, so let’s move forward here. So harvest regulations now, like California Waterfowl Association has been banded in a lot of pin tails for everyone lately, they’ve spent a lot of money on this. They’ve got some biologists that are really good at catching pintails in the spring and fall. They have to band 100 pintails to get a direct band recovery and that’s one out of 100. And that’s all reported bands, you can adjust that, I’d say, if you adjust that for crippling loss and band reporting rate, that’s still one in, they have to band 75 to get one still. That’s a lot. There’s some alternatives here. I mean some things, some other projects Deltas funded with friends of mine both in Reno and another professor in Minneapolis. They’ve been using a lot of the existing data that we mentioned, banding data, survey data, wing-bee data etcetera. Where they can use that data to estimate. And that’s what we’re talking about the Canadian biologists as well, estimating numbers of birds with bands. So when you fly over ducks for the most part, we’re estimating a population size with bands, let alone estimate how many ducks there are. But when we band them, we keep track of their species, age and sex. So with age and sex you can get four categories on the normal duck. You’ve got adults, juveniles, you got males, females two times two equals’ four. Pigeonholes, you can put that data into. We can actually estimate the population sizes of all four of those age sex cohorts. So then you start getting into some neat stuff. You can start looking at age ratios. How many ducklings were produced per females? An independent assessment rather than the wing B receipts we used to use. You can also start looking at sex ratios. And the data we’re showing lately is as expected. When eggs hatch, Oh and eggs are laid there late at about a 50-50 sex ratio. And they hatch, they still are. And sure enough during banding they still are. But once you enter one breeding season, especially with a ground nesting open nesting pin tail, that sex ratio starts to change as soon as those hens, those one or nine month old hens start laying eggs and all of a sudden they start getting hammered, let alone their eggs getting eaten. But they’re also getting hammered. And that sex ratio starts to change, happens in all ducks. But it’s really strong and in some other postured species and pintails. And that adds up over time. So some of the neat stuff that’s coming out of Minnesota is the age ratio or sex ratio on pin tails has been changing for a long time. It’s been changing for a lot of ducks for a long time and that’s most likely to do. I would have to think, the simplest answer is nest failure due to predation. Less people are trapping. We’ve had a history of predator populations expanding north for numerous manmade reasons. And with pin tails now and back in the 50s using these long term data sets. Sex ratio used to be around 1.5 now it’s around 3.9. So we’ve had programs in the past to save hens, as you mentioned, deadheads don’t lay eggs, so save the hens, don’t shoot them. Let’s have restrictive hen mallard limits. I don’t know. I never really bought that. The data hasn’t suggested it and 98% of the times it’s been looked at, there are some exceptions. But what we’re looking at now and this comes out of Thomas Ricky stuff at the University of Nevada Reno. Where he started looking at harvest effects on survival and recruitment. And sure enough as this sex ratio has increased towards males, recruitment is simultaneously going down. So what the simplest answer there is these too many males are harassing the too few hens to the point where it’s impacting how many offspring they can produce. So that’s interesting. It’s a way to think about, well how can we increase male harvest rather than the alternative dead hens. Don’t lay eggs. How can we decrease hens’ harvest? It’s basically the same thing.
Ramsey Russell: How to get sex ratio more balanced.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, exactly. And it’s not to save hens directly what it is as to how to make the hens more productive. So this is where we’ve, we’re sharing information and talking with people about how can we help get that sex ratio back to normal? And it could be hard. We’ve had a lot of arguments about harvest doesn’t impact duck populations and but at the same time what it does is, it provides some information that there’s a bunch of surplus worthless males flying around.
Ramsey Russell: The big pretty ones.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, the big pretty ones that, we want to figure out the exact dates.
Ramsey Russell: So, could we incentivize the hunter to shoot more drakes.
Chris Nicolai: That’s what we’re hoping or at least give them the opportunity to shoot more drakes. I mean, it might not meet the goal of knocking down the sex ratio, but we know there’s too many out there. They’re kind of this harvestable surplus that does nothing for the population. If anything, they’re hurting it. So we’re putting together, project big five step project where the ultimate goal is to hopefully help increase pin tail limits, perhaps after a certain date where drakes are very easy to identify and allow a one hen bag, basically for mistakes or the duck hunter that just gets to shoot one duck a day. So yeah, we’re doing a lot of neat things there. We want to get a lot of hunter input. We want to make sure there’s buy in and we just want to elevate this topic. I don’t think what we’re doing with the continuation of encouraging hunters to conserve ducks by being more restrictive is helping anybody. It’s not helping license sales, it’s not helping the ducks, it’s not helping the club members in California that are turning pintail wintering habitat into other duck mallard wintering habitat because they can only shoot one pintail. There’s a lot of costs.
Ramsey Russell: Never even thought about that.
Chris Nicolai: Yeah, there’s a lot of costs associated with the continuation of the idea that annual harvest regulations can serve ducks. We need to move away from that. There’s very little data that suggests that.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all very good information Chris. I mean that’s I’m proud to see people working on this kind of problem solving a really I’m. Chris we’re kind of running out of time. But let me ask you this, if anybody listening had more questions for you on this topic or wanted to contact you, what’s the best way they could get in touch with you?
Chris Nicolai: Best way where you don’t spell my name wrong or right down a phone number wrong. Get on the Delta Waterfowl web page and you can easily find a tab for who we are and staff scroll through it. I’m the guy, hugging a bunch of geese. So easy to find emails on their phone numbers on there.
Ramsey Russell: I enjoyed the hunt this morning. I certainly enjoyed our conversation in the blind. And also here at Duck Season Somewhere. Folks, you’ve been listening to Chris Nicolai with Delta Waterfowl. Thank you all for listening to this episode. Look forward to seeing you next time.