Banding Together to Save the Ducks

Environmental science faculty and students participate in research to uncover the cause of Mallard Ducks’ population decline in recent decades.
Daria Sparks and Jacob Straub banding a duck for research

Over the last 20 years, the population of Mallard Ducks in the Northeast United States and Eastern Canada has been dropping at an unprecedented rate with no sign of the cause. Senior Research Associate of Environmental Science and Ecology Dr. Jacob Straub and Master of Environmental Science and Ecology student Daria Sparks hope to figure out why.

“Specifically, the population of ducks in the US seems to be decreasing at a greater rate than in Canada. This has been evaluated — or attempted to be evaluated — many times,” Straub said. “However, despite all past efforts, no explanation has yet been found.”

SUNY Brockport teamed up with other nearby institutions as part of the Atlantic Flyway Migration Project in hopes of discovering an explanation and finding a solution. Alongside the University, the primary investigators on the project include the New York DEC, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the University of Saskatchewan, and Ducks Unlimited.

The goal of the project is to track the movement and behavior of hen mallards over the course of four years by banding them with backpack-style, solar rechargeable GPS transmitters.

Daria Sparks banding a Mallard

Daria Sparks

“The capturing and banding and releasing is one of the most fun aspects of it,” Straub said. “The project intends to make about 1200 deployments and we’re at over 600 now… Daria spends a lot of her time now monitoring all of our birds.”

The ducks are fitted with tracking devices and released back into the wild. Each transmitter can document a duck’s location. Based on the positioning of the device, researchers can observe the ducks’ activity.

“It allows us to understand not only where a bird is, but what it’s doing where it is. We want to know which habitats are best for a bird that’s trying to forage or rest or mate, so we can link all these things up with movement, timing, and geography,” Straub said.

Straub and Sparks have extended the project to include undergraduate environmental science students who recently visited Corbett Park to help band more ducks.

“Getting this hands-on experience as an undergrad gives you an opportunity to gain experience, be competitive, and advance your career,” Sparks said. “The more involved you are as an undergraduate is definitely correlated to acceptance into a master’s program.”

Straub was hesitant to claim the research will solve the mallard population mystery, but he remains optimistic.

“Science is never a definite thing,” Straub said. “But I think we’ll have a much clearer picture as to the mechanisms for population response after this study, no doubt. So that’s as close as I’ll get to saying yes.”