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Wing survey helps wildlife agency track waterfowl

Of the one million waterfowl in this country, the federal government is so convinced of my skills as a duck hunter that they regularly recruit me to participate in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s waterfowl coin collection survey, and I am happy to answer the call.

Also known as the Wing Survey, the USFWS asks a sample of hunters each season to submit a wing from every duck they shoot. The wings are carefully cut from the bird and sent to Laurel, Maryland for further examination. If this all sounds like a stunt similar to kidnappers dispatching a severed little toe to extort a ransom from a wealthy benefactor, well, we’re getting stamped manila envelopes but no financial compensation for our efforts.

That’s fine, though, because it has broader purposes, beyond my humor wondering if our postman realizes what he’s carrying in his satchel after whistling away from my door. Once safely in Maryland, the wing feathers are examined by state and federal biologists where they determine the species, sex and age of the submitted specimens. This data helps the agency to estimate the number of birds of different species during the year’s harvest and to show the trend of harvests over time and place.

Why just the wings? In many species of waterfowl, the clearest differences between species, sex and age are in the color of the feathers covering the middle of the wing, also called the speculum. For example, mallards sport purple specula; pintails sport iridescent green specula while hens have a dull bronze specula. Or I’m told I don’t really believe pintails exist since I can never find them, but I digress.

The duck’s age is also assessed based on variations in the shape, color, pattern, wear and/or replacement of wing feathers. According to the USFWS, this analysis allows the agency to calculate an age ratio (the number of young-of-the-year birds harvested per adult) for each species. These ratios are important because they are used to estimate reproduction during the previous breeding season. In a year of high waterfowl production, hunters will capture more young birds than adults. This information helps establish and justify bag limits for future hunting seasons.

For 2021-22, I submitted 15 wings: two wood ducks, three marbled ducks, six black-bellied whistling ducks, three blue-winged teals and one wild mallard. Of these, the wild mallard and a whistling duck were considered adults. So much for that duck-hunting talent I used to boast about. And as any mean-spirited observer would point out, my small sample size isn’t large enough to extrapolate concrete conclusions, but it’s another piece of the complicated mosaic that is waterfowl conservation.

No, the reason I have probably been asked to continue participating in this survey is my reliability in doing so. For three years I faithfully sent wings to Maryland before

duration limit. I guess they needed submissions from duck hunting meccas other than Polk County, Florida to keep their statistical models unbiased.

But, those manila wraps have arrived again for the 2020-21 season, and I was thrilled to be back in the game. This is another small example of how sportsmen can fulfill their role as citizen-scientists who are essential to sustaining the country’s wildlife and establishing hunting seasons, topics I never tire of yelping about. .

So if the Feds come knocking on your door with a stash of envelopes asking you to ship waterfowl parts down I-95, don’t worry. You were simply selected for the Wing Survey because you belong to the top echelon of duck hunters in the country and the country needs your help.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself. It’s no more a fantasy than a pintail.

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