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World’s largest waterfowl study enters final field season

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Ducks Unlimited researchers are beginning the final field season of the world’s largest waterfowl study.

The study that involves mallard ducks, the most abundant duck species in North America, is designed to assess the effectiveness of habitat conservation programs being delivered by DU on the Prairies.

To date, no other waterfowl studies involved the same resources as those required in the Prairie Habitat Joint Venture Assessment that began in 1993.

Directed by a core of five scientists from DU’s research arm, the Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research, the $8-million study has involved 27 research sites in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba representing 174,000 hectares of land.

This research already has generated international interest in the results to date.

The assessment offered first-time field study experience to many of the 250 entry-level biologists—from Canada and the United States—who participated at some point in the eight-year study.

In total, researchers tracked 3,600 mallard hens, monitored 14,000 nests, and tracked 900 broods.

Assessment information already has provided guidance to DU’s habitat conservation programs on the southern Prairies.

“Research from the assessment has significantly impacted the way we conserve waterfowl habitat on Canada’s Prairies,” said Brian Gray, DU Canada’s director of conservation programs.

“The work of our researchers has provided the scientific basis we need to evaluate our existing programs and direct our resources in the most effective manner,” he added.

Gray also said the research alerted DU to nesting hens’ preference of native habitats—like aspen, shrubs, and grasslands—over planted nesting cover even though ducks that nested in planted cover successfully hatched a greater proportion of their nests.

“We are now working harder to conserve native habitats and complement them with our habitat enhancement programs,” Gray said.

This year, IWWR researchers are living and working at four sites—three in Saskatchewan near Leask, Prince Albert, and Hanley; and one in Manitoba near Killarney.

Researchers will be on site until August.

For the study, wild female mallards are captured, implanted with transmitters, then released. The transmitters emit a signal that allows researchers to track the birds’ movements from a distance ensuring their presence does not alarm the hens.

Researchers also monitor nest success of birds that are flushed up from fields during nest searches.

Hens and ducklings are monitored until the young can fly. Incidents of nest predation and causes of waterfowl death are noted by researchers.

The assessment is being funded by DU and other private and public conservation organizations and agencies.

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