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WOODS: MSU’s waterfowl research revealing

Waterfowl research being conducted by Mississippi State University professors and graduate students could have important impacts on habitat conservation and duck hunting in the Delta region of Mississippi. Specifically one recent piece of work being conducted and continues deals with a study of mallard duck survival in relation to habitat use. Ultimately a better understanding of these factors could improve waterfowl management and enhance the economic impact of duck hunting in the state.

Gist of the research

Waterfowl research work underway by professor Brian Davis and graduate student Joseph Lancaster of the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture is examining how mallard ducks utilize the South Delta landscape and how that landscape ultimately affects the survival of the ducks.

The duck research is crucial to all, including hunters.

The duck research is crucial to all, including hunters.

“Ultimately, we want to know how mallard survival is influenced by its use of several habitats of the Delta,” stated Dr. Davis. “Survival of birds in relation to hunting seasons is also important.” Davis’ work reports that the ducks’ movements, habitat use and survival reflect landscape quality.

As is the normal case of graduate study, a lead professor directs a graduate masters or doctoral student through a research project. In this case most of the actual work on the ground in the Delta is being done by Joe Lancaster. Joseph is working on his masters of science degree in wildlife.

His thesis study titled “Home Range, Habitat Selection, and Survival of Radiomarked Mallards on Hunted and Refuge Wetlands in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley” is a long research proposal title to simply say he is studying how mallard ducks move about the Delta, selecting and using different habitat types. The hopeful outcome is to determine what types of waterfowl habitats best contribute to duck survival rates.

Davis and his team captured and affixed a sampling of 126 female mallards with backpack-style very high frequency radio transmitters. This was done to track the birds’ locations each day and also to take note of duck mortalities.

“In order to track the ducks we drove around in trucks and chartered a fixed-wing airplane, each fitted with special antennae,” Lancaster noted. “The problem is that you have to be very close to where the ducks are to pick up the signals. That is two miles distance or less.” This is what is called grassroots wildlife research.

Outcomes and impacts

This research continues to be on-going and collected data is still being analyzed. Lancaster has already committed to stay on through a Ph.D. program to move the research forward to examine other issues. With the foundation he has already established, further results are likely to be even more revealing.

Thus far his research has indicated an overall mallard winter survival rate of 76 percent. The highest survival rates came on habitats that consist of seasonally-flooded wetlands, or commonly called moist soil wetlands. Examples of these habitats are shallow flooded wetlands that when drained in the spring and summer will grow up with annual grasses and weeds such as millets and panic grasses. Thus, providing feed for migrating and wintering waterfowl in winter. Other habitats where mallards survived well were agricultural farmlands, forest habitats, and flooded bottomland hardwood forests. Mallards survived least in permanent water habitats.

Curiously enough, hunting impacted mallard survival but not as much as they anticipated. According to Lancaster, “We saw a higher percentage of non-hunting mortalities than hunting mortalities.” It may seem elementary, but this factor seems to indicate that ducks are far more vulnerable to dying from more natural causes than by being shot by duck hunters. Of course, we need high duck survival rates to encourage more hunters to duck hunt thereby spending increased tourism dollars.

“The data being produced might indicate where conservation programs should be focused,” says Davis. “For private landowners we can help them with specific habitat management tools that could enhance mallard duck attraction to their lands.”

Research summary

At the heart of this research is an attempt to determine which habitat types seem to lend themselves to greater survival of female mallards during winter. Ideal habitats increase mallard survivability. It is recognized though that the habitat landscapes change over time, thus another reason why MSU wildlife researchers are conducting this study.

As farming changes, cropland use varies thereby potentially altering the profile of the available waterfowl habitats. This can impact duck survival rates. Davis indicated, “Survival rates may be different in subsequent eras, as farming and conservation practices change. When government programs such as reforestation incentives for landowners come and go or when soybeans come and go, it modifies the landscape.” This could result in fluctuations in survival rates which can impact economic issues related to attracting and retaining interested returning duck hunters each season.

How extensive is the duck flight in the Mississippi Delta? From mid-October through the opening of turkey hunting in March, mallards and other waterfowl species call our Delta their seasonal home grounds. The Mississippi Alluvial Valley extends south along the Mississippi River from the Southeastern “Bootheel” section of Missouri down through the eastern parts of Louisiana and each year supports roughly 40 percent of the entire Mississippi flyway mallard population.

This reinforces Mississippi as being a critical region for provision of waterfowl habitats and in perpetuating our duck hunting traditions. Waterfowl hunter participation results in over $140 million in revenue to local communities and businesses each year in Mississippi.

Moreover, private landowners are critical to waterfowl and other wildlife resources because they control so much of the landscape needed by waterfowl. Thus, scientists conducting this research at MSU are very grateful to Delta landowners and hunters that cooperated with this study by providing access to their lands and offering moral support.

Thanks to the wildlife researchers and grad students at MSU for delivering practical research that can result in economic development, tourism, and dollars being spent in the state for recreational hunting pursuits.

John J. Woods, Ph.D., is vice president in charge of economic development and training, Eagle Ridge Conference and Training Center, the Workforce Development Center and contract training services at Hinds Community College in Raymond.

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