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Studying the mallard migration: Cellphone technology helping to gather new information on ducks

An antenna pokes out of the feathers of a mallard. Courtesy of Cindy Anchor1 / 3
Transmitters were inserted into the ducks in hour-long surgical procedures. Courtesy of Cindy Anchor2 / 3
These lightweight transmitters were inserted into mallards to track their early migration habits. Courtesy of Cindy Anchor3 / 3

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Each day, ducks around the country are phoning home to South Dakota.

As part of a first-of-its-kind study, research is being gathered through cellphone technology to track migrating mallards.

The two-year project is a collaboration among the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department, South Dakota State University and the South Dakota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

“The mallard is one of the most heavily-studied critters,” said Josh Stafford, associate professor at SDSU and principal investigator for the study. “This is kind of the last thing that is almost unstudied, the time when a young duck grows its flight feathers and when it enters the fall flight for migration.”

During a recent morning in Brookings, Stafford and two others shared their excitement about the entire process, which included capturing ducks, surgically implanting GPS transmitters and now following the birds all over the United States.

The data collected will help biologists explain a mystery — after mallards are hatched and can fly, where exactly do they go?

Cindy Anchor, a master’s student at SDSU, said there’s a perception that after mallards grow their flight feathers, they leave the area where they were born. Some people believe the ducks fly north before ultimately making their southern migration.

“Hunters in North and South Dakota are feeling like mallards are leaving before hunting season starts,” Anchor said. “They’re not seeing the birds at the beginning of hunting season that they’re seeing prior to the season.”

Implanting antennae

Duck surgery days were held with Scott Ford in August at about a half dozen undisclosed areas scattered around northeastern and east-central South Dakota.

Ford is an avian specialty veterinarian located in Milwaukee, Wis., who performed start-to-finish hour-long surgeries on 25 South Dakota mallards.

After biologists and research students captured the ducks, they were sedated and cut open. A 1-ounce GPS transmitter was inserted into the abdomen of the duck. The tracking device is shaped like a packing peanut, is about 2 inches long and has an antenna that sticks out the back of the mallard.

Ford said he’s conducted surgery like this on about 300 to 400 birds of several different species in the past decade.

“These were more of the simpler ones to do,” Ford said Friday. “Mallards are just a bit more hardy, and they’re larger birds.”

The surgeries were done inside an RV, and the group traveled to North Dakota — another state involved in the project — to capture and track 32 more mallards.

“I usually stay in touch with the biologists for several years,” Ford said. “My biggest interest is the first 14 to 30 days, because I figure if a bird — short of being predated — if they have a medical problem, they’ll probably perish in the first two weeks to a month.”

All 57 birds survived the first two weeks, and Anchor said 80 percent of the birds were accounted for as recently as late October.

Tracking birds

South Dakota’s duck season began in late September, and some of the mallards have already been shot and harvested.

They’re double-banded, meaning each of the bird’s legs has a silver band. One is the traditional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band, and the other explains to call South Dakota GF&P’s Waterfowl Biologist Rocco Murano.

The 57 birds in this project, as Stafford described it, “phone home” with their location, temperature (to show they’re still alive) and speed. The transmitters, made by a Lithuanian company, then send information through cellphone towers, so whenever the birds are within coverage, that’s when they transmit information to Anchor and the biologists.

The transmitters collect a GPS location every five hours and are set to send data every three days. If a duck is not within coverage of a tower, the data is stored and everything is sent when the bird reaches the network.

The data and the transmitter for each mallard cost roughly $1,300 — totalling about $74,000 for the 57 birds.

This is the first of two years the group will be conducting this research. Next year, the researchers will be capturing birds again and placing transmitters in about the same number of ducks.

While it’s too early to dissect the information already gathered, they hope to find a trend. Anchor said some of the South Dakota mallards did indeed go north to North Dakota, but some of the North Dakota ducks went south, and “some just bounced along the border several times,” she said.

“The bottom line is this has worked better than any of us have expected,” Stafford said.