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T. Edward Nickens | Photos by Austin Thomas | 1.29.2020

Silver Bands and Green Timber

  • Pursuit: Waterfowl
  • Environment: Timber

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Dr. Doug Osborne’s project to help save timber duck hunting kicked off in a green timber duck blind. In January of 2015, Osborne was hunting with a couple of pals in the famous big timber of Arkansas when one of the hunters mentioned that he rarely shot a banded duck anymore. He looked at Osborne, an associate professor of wildlife management at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and asked: “What’s up with that? Why can’t we band them here?”

Osborne stroked his goatee and couldn’t think of a reason why not. “Right after hunting season,” he recalls, “I started working on permits and approvals. And six weeks after that we were catching ducks.”

Bird banding is a cornerstone of waterfowl conservation science. Captured birds are outfitted with an aluminum band that bears a unique number and instructions to report the information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When a band is recovered and reported to the Bird Banding Lab—the vast majority of recovered bands are from hunters—scientists glean critical information about that one bird’s movements. How far did it migrate? How long did it take to make the journey? How old was it when it was finally harvested by a hunter?

To capture birds on their wintering grounds in Arkansas, Osborne’s crews set heart-shaped wire fencing nets about 15 feet in diameter deep inside green timber stands and bait the nets with corn or rice. Puddle ducks roosting in the big timber swim into the nets and can’t get out. “But since it’s dark and the areas are undisturbed,” Osborne explains, “they are super calm. We can walk right in with headlamps and pick them up one by one.”

Typically, most banded ducks are captured on their northern prairie breeding grounds. That left a giant hole in the scientific understanding of what birds need in their Southern wintering grounds—most particularly in the iconic timber and rice country of the Mississippi River valley. To date, Osborne and his crews have banded nearly 11,000 mallards and another 2,000 other dabbling ducks in Arkansas. The project covers nearly a dozen sites on Arkansas private and public lands, and this winter Osborne is jumping the border to Mississippi.

Waterfowl face daunting challenges on their wintering grounds, and particularly in green timber. Shifts in temperatures and precipitation patterns are upending long-held norms. Agricultural practices have changed. And alarmingly, the state’s famed green timber stands are suffering too. When water is artificially kept in the woods for months on end to satisfy hunters, the long-term health of the forests is impaired. In the green timber of the 65,000-acre Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, 40 percent of the willow trees have suffered likely irreversible damage from standing in too much water for too long. Red oaks, the favored food source of wintering Mallards, are similarly struggling.

Osborne’s work is teasing apart what it will take to keep birds in the skies and hunters on the ground, for years to come. “We can evaluate how these changes have occurred over the last 30 or 40 years,” Osborne says, “and get a sense of what that might tell us about habitat quality. Duck hunting has huge economic, social, community, and heritage impacts in Arkansas. We want to do all we can to save that.”

Of particular interest to Osborne is sanctuary habitat — quiet, undisturbed places where ducks can loaf, feed, and rest day after day. Last year, through the SITKA Ecosystem Grants program, Osborne purchased 15 satellite transmitters to provide detailed data about duck movements and helped outfit his research crews with waders and other gear. So far, Osborne’s satellite data shows that hunters and land managers should definitely set aside unhunted resting areas for birds. “Let them rest and they’ll stick around,” he explains. “Pressure them everywhere, and they will leave.” Now he’s at work studying what it takes to create a sanctuary and how both wild and agricultural areas can be managed to keep ducks in the area.

“This is one way I can give back to all the hunters that support waterfowl science,” Osborne says. “Hunters pay for licenses, taxes on boat fuel, guns, ammo, clothing, etc. All that money goes back to conservation. I’m a hunter and a scientist, so I understand that relationship deeply.”

He also understands how important it is for the general public to see up close what science can do. “I love to hold a duck,” Osborne says. “I love to feel that heartbeat literally in my hands. But even better than that is seeing someone else hold a duck for the first time. To see the joy in their face as they sense this connection to a wild bird—it gives them a new respect for ducks. A different kind of respect. Because conservation can only really happen when people start to care.”