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Migratory Game Bird Banding and Management

Watch a clip about DEC's bird banding program and check out other clips on DEC's YouTube Channel.

Breeding Waterfowl Surveys

Every spring, DEC staff and agency collaborators take to the field and participate in several breeding bird surveys for migratory game birds to track long-term and short-term population trends. The Atlantic Flyway Northeast Plot Survey began in several northeast states in 1989 and became fully operational in 1993. The intent is to collect data that provides the basis for setting waterfowl hunting regulations in the Atlantic Flyway. The survey provides biologists with a reliable index of breeding populations for mallards, wood ducks, Canada geese, and to a lesser extent, American black ducks. Currently, 11 states contribute to the survey effort and over 1,300 1-km2 "plots." This data is combined with aerial surveys in eastern Canada to estimate overall breeding populations of several harvested species of waterfowl. View the USFWS Population Surveys (leaves DEC website).

Migratory Game Bird Banding

Each year, the DEC staff and many enthusiastic volunteers band approximately 8,000 ducks, geese, and other migratory game birds across NYS for a variety of management and research projects. Collectively, 3.4 million ducks and geese have been banded by the states and provinces along the Atlantic Flyway since 1965. The goal for pre-season duck and Canada goose banding is to capture a representative sample of the species that nest in large numbers: Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, and American black ducks.

In 2018, over 2,500 ducks and 3,500 Canada geese were banded prior to the hunting seasons. In addition to pre-season banding, DEC and cooperators also captured/banded another 1,500 ducks, rails, and gallinules as part of various special banding projects throughout the state, including the Black Duck Joint Venture Two-season Banding Study. The objectives of the banding programs are to determine:

  • the distribution of harvest from breeding and wintering areas (harvest distribution and derivation);
  • changes in harvest pressure on various populations of waterfowl (harvest rates); and
  • survival rates for breeding and wintering populations of waterfowl in the Atlantic Flyway.

Read the 2021 New York State Migratory Game Bird Banding Program Update (PDF) for banding updates.

Atlantic Brant and Tundra Swan Productivity Surveys

Atlantic brant juvenile and adult comparison
Two adult Atlantic brant in the center, surrounded by
juvenile brant. Juvenile brant are noted for the white
barring on their wings. They lose this feature as they age.

Atlantic brant are a small goose species that breeds in northern Canada and spend winter in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. About 90% of the entire population winters along the coast of New Jersey and New York! The nesting conditions in northern Canada are highly variable, which can greatly impact breeding productivity. In some years when ice remains until late in the year, productivity can be nearly a complete bust (less than 2% in the fall flight); however, in good years, the fall flight composition can be up to 30+% juveniles. The juvenile brant can be easily identified based on their plumage. They lack a clear, well-defined white "necklace" and have white edging/barring on their wing feathers. Adults have a clear white "necklace" and uniform gray coloring with no barring on their wings.

Each November, staff from cooperating agencies along the Atlantic coast survey areas estimate the proportion of juveniles in the population. In New York, staff in Western Long Island bays assess brant productivity and observe about 15,000 brant in a single day. Overall, the Atlantic Flyway observes about 30,000 brant. Productivity estimates, in conjunction with wintering population estimates, are used annually to set season lengths and bag limits for Atlantic brant. In addition to brant, DEC staff also observe Tundra swans in central New York to assess the age ratios in the fall flight.

Eastern Mallard Full Annual Cycle Research Project

Over the past 20 years, mallard populations in New York and the Northeast United States have declined significantly, leading to reduced bag limits starting in 2018. To understand what factors may be contributing to the decline, DEC, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Ducks Unlimited, SUNY Brockport, and the University of Saskatchewan partnered with 22 state, federal, and non-governmental organizations to start one of the largest telemetry projects ever conducted in North America. Over the next 4 years, states and provinces in the Atlantic Flyway will be putting out over 1,100 GPS transmitters on female mallards to learn more about habitat use and migration timing and how these factors affect breeding success and survival. In the first year, DEC and partners deployed over 300 transmitters. Each transmitter can send tens of thousands of locations for up 2 or 3 years. This project will give biologists and researchers a glimpse of what drives mallard populations and will help better inform mallard management in the Atlantic Flyway for years to come. You can follow along by visiting the Atlantic Flyway Migration Project website (leaves DEC website). It includes an interactive map that is updated periodically so you can follow these birds through migration in near real-time!

Current Atlantic Brant Research Project

During the winter of 2018, the DEC kicked-off a 5-year collaborative Atlantic brant migration and breeding ecology study with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Canadian Wildlife Service, Niskamoon Corporation, University of Delaware and the University of Saskatchewan. Over the next five years, crews will be marking brant with GPS backpack transmitters and tiny geolocators on both the wintering grounds in New Jersey/New York and breeding grounds in Nunavut, Canada.

Atlantic brant with double tarsal bands
Atlantic brant with a red geolocator band.

Marked birds will provide insight into the following Atlantic brant questions:

  • During winter, are brant distributed in the same areas as the Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey (MWS)? If so, the survey is representative of the wintering population; if not, adjustments to the geographic coverage of the MWS need to be made.
  • How faithful are brant to wintering areas within and among years?
  • What is the breeding propensity (probability an adult will breed) of Atlantic brant?
  • What are the key staging areas used during spring and fall migration and is there annual variation in these stopover sites?
  • How faithful are brant to breeding areas among years?
  • Do brant molting at the locations currently marked during the summer period use the same wintering and/or migration areas?
  • Do they have the same migration timing?

What To Do If You Encounter a Marked Atlantic Brant

  1. Colored leg band with geolocator. The geolocators are clear, plastic electronic devices about the size of a "fat nickel" and are attached to a red and white plastic leg band with a plastic cable lock tie. If you see a live brant with a red and white band and geolocator, please report these observations to the US Bird Banding Lab (leaves DEC website). These bands have three codes; the first is a letter, followed by two numbers.
  2. If you shoot or find a dead brant with a backpack transmitter or geolocator. Please contact Josh Stiller at 518-402-8861 or by email to return the device(s). In order to obtain any previous location data from a geolocator, we need to get the device in hand. Hunters who want to retain a geolocator or transmitter as a "keepsake" will be given the unit back or provided with a "dummy" unit.
  3. Colored plastic leg bands. Over 1,000 brant are marked with various colored bands with black or white letters and numbers with only one letter or number on each band. These birds have a band on each leg. Bands on each leg may be the same or different colors. If you see a live brant with a colored leg band: note that there is one band on each leg and it is critical in the report that you differentiate which marker color and code is on which leg (left or right). Please report these observations to the US Bird Banding Lab.

American Woodcock Migration Ecology in the Eastern Management Unit

The American woodcock is a migratory forest bird that has experienced population declines of 0.8 percent per year for the past 50 years. Relatively little is known about woodcock migration compared to other life phases, but recent advances in satellite and GPS tracking technology have facilitated the ability to track individuals during migration at a level not previously possible.

During the fall of 2018, DEC began a multi-year study with several state wildlife agencies in the Eastern Management Unit, including the University of Maine, SUNY Cobleskill, and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Over the past 4 years years, more than 500 American woodcock were marked with small GPS transmitters that are capable of sending one location per day with an accuracy of within 20m of the bird's true location! The overall goal of the project is to describe the migratory ecology of American woodcock in the Eastern Management Region.

In the Spring of 2022, DEC began a second phase of this research project that focuses on female habitat selection during the breeding and brood rearing season. Understanding the patterns, timing, and habitat use during the breeding season is very important for a state like New York and will help managers decide on the best habitat management options to promote this valued gamebird.

For more information on the multi-agency research project and near real-time location information for marked birds, please visit the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative (leaves the DEC website). DEC also created a video to explain how we capture these birds. Please visit the DEC youtube page.