Wetlands essential for migrating mallards, MU researchers find

The U.S. has lost approximately 53 percent of its natural wetlands since the 1780s.

A recent study involving MU researchers found that wetland sanctuaries, including many Missouri wetlands, are seeing plenty of use from migratory waterfowl.

Researchers captured 20 female mallards in their breeding grounds in Saskatchewan, Canada, and 20 more in their wintering grounds in northern Arkansas. They attached satellite harnesses to the ducks and let them fly, tracking their flight patterns for about two years. Data was collected from 2010 to 2012 and band analysis was completed earlier this year.

The study is the first of its kind, in that satellite technology allowed researchers to track birds across their entire North American migration route. The satellite technology showed how the waterfowl used wetland sanctuaries with unprecedented accuracy. Researchers were able to see the ducks’ exact position, within 18 meters, on a computer screen as they made their way north and south.

The study involved a number of agencies, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Missouri Department of Conservation, Ducks Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Bill Beatty, a postdoctoral fellow with the Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at MU, was one of the researchers involved with the study.

“What we were interested in … was looking at how waterfowl use protected areas,” Beatty said. “And when we say protected areas, we mean those areas that are managed by public agencies, like the Fish and Wildlife Service (and) Missouri Department of Conservation — those areas that are managed for wetland conservation and associated wildlife.”

Dylan Kesler, assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife sciences at MU, said the study reaffirmed the importance of wetlands conservation.

“What this study does is let us actually figure out what it is the birds need and where they need it as they move, and really verify that they’re using those federal acres as well,” said Kesler.

Lisa Webb, an assistant unit leader for the Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and cooperative assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife sciences at MU, said the team closely followed the birds’ migration through different regions of North America.

“The satellite transmitters allowed us to track the birds throughout the year so we could watch them move, from where they wintered in Arkansas all the way north through the spring migration into the prairie pothole region of the United States and prairie Canada where they nested,” Webb said.

Beatty said the study shows wetlands are providing conservation benefits to mallards, especially in Missouri.

The U.S. has lost approximately 53 percent of its natural wetlands since the 1780s, Beatty said. The statistic for wetland loss in Missouri is even more vast, at a staggering 87 percent loss since the arrival of European settlers.

Beatty said there are ways Columbia residents can help protect wetlands and the waterfowl that use them.

One is by purchasing a Federal Migratory Hunting and Conservation Stamp, also known as the Duck Stamp. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, 98 cents of every dollar generated by Federal Duck Stamp sales directly fund the purchase or lease of wetland habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Beatty also encourages Columbia residents to visit the local wildlife areas.

“If you’re not a land owner, you can simply go out and enjoy waterfowl and wetlands and ducks,” said Beatty. “Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is a really great place to start. Grab a pair of binoculars, head down there and see what you can see.”

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