DNR going high-tech in mallard monitoring

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

Bemidji, Minn. — Privacy has become a thing of the past for
three mallards trapped last week in northern Minnesota.

Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist in Bemidji, trapped the
drake and two hens between Thief Lake and Roseau. Later, Rich
Malecki, of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at
Cornell University in New York, fitted the birds with
state-of-the-art satellite transmitters so researchers can follow
their movements year-round.

The backpack, solar-powered radios make use of Global
Positioning System technology and relay precise information about
the ducks’ location. It’s the first time they’ve been used in the

“We’re kind of eavesdropping on them,” Cordts said. “That’s
essentially what we are doing.”

Except the time it took Cordts to trap three ducks, there was no
cost to the DNR for the project. Each transmitter, which weighs 30
grams, costs up to $5,000, he said.

Malecki, who’s used satellites on birds like pintails and
wigeons in the Atlantic Flyway, has been assisting Arkansas and
Mississippi with the use of satellites on ducks. Those states have
put out a total of 80 radios.

But those are battery-operated units, whereas the ones used on
the Minnesota birds were solar-powered. Malecki planned to fit
birds in Mississippi, then Missouri, with the solar-powered radios,
but the mallards had migrated north by the time the radios were

So Malecki called Cordts and asked if he could obtain three
mallards. Cordts was happy to do it.

“A whole bunch of really interesting data is potentially out
there,” Cordts said.

The transmitters collect location data for 10 days at a time,
after which it’s available for researchers to download. People can
track on the web the birds that were radioed in the South, but that
feature won’t be available for those radioed in Minnesota.

That’s because the primary reason for putting the radios on the
three birds is to test the equipment, rather than actually monitor
what the mallards are doing, Cordts said.

“It’s the right way to do it – put out a few and look to see how
they do, see how they function, and if you can get the data,” he
said. “Hopefully the birds stay alive for a while.”

The practice of using radios on ducks isn’t new. The downfall is
regular telemetry studies typically only look at birds during one
part of their annual cycle. Plus, they have to be tracked by hand,
from a car or plane.

“If the bird were to take off (from the study site) and get even
a mile or two away, you would never know,” Cordts said.

Regular telemetry also doesn’t provide precise locations, while
the satellite radios can tell researchers the particular wetland or
refuge ducks are in.

They may be able to determine nest success based on the number
of days a hen stays in one particular area during the nesting

“Theoretically, we could see where a bird is nesting right now,
or we could look at the wetland she goes to to molt,” Cordts said.
“This is a huge step up as far as potential information gained, but
it comes at a pretty high cost.”

Though the $5,000 price tag may seem staggering – given that a
regular radio costs between $200 and $300 – the cost difference
between the two may not be as great as it seems, Cordts said.

That’s because regular telemetry involves the manual gathering
of data, like driving or flying, and hiring technicians to go out
and collect information.

“It’s a sticker shock up front,” Cordts said. “But it shouldn’t
be quite as daunting as it seems.”

The plan is to make sure the technology works on mallards, and
then develop additional plans and determine specific objectives.
Representatives from the Mississippi Flyway have discussed
larger-scale projects using satellite radios, and Cordts expects
more interest in such projects in the future.

“The potential certainly is there to make use of (satellite
transmitters),” Cordts said.

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