Norm Saake described a dead duck’s wing last week with an appreciation akin to an art lover pondering a favorite painting.
“When this duckling hatches, he’s just all full of down. And these feathers start growing out,” said Saake, 73, a retired waterfowl biologist for the state of Nevada.
He traced the iridescent patterns of the wing feathers with his finger.
“That feather grows out so far, and there will be a white bar there. There will be this green bar here. All these colors will be in exactly the right place,” he said.
Moments later, Saake nonchalantly tossed the wing into a garbage can filled with dozens of other severed duck wings. He picked another off a table and began a new study, noting feather coloration, density and length. The process would repeat itself thousands of times for Saake and nearly 50 other biologists who spent four days in Anderson last week tabulating characteristics of duck and goose parts that hunters had mailed in weeks earlier.
So goes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “wing bee” for the Pacific Flyway, held each spring at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in rural Shasta County. It’s one of four bees held annually at four locations across the United States.
While their task may seem macabre to outsiders, wing bee biologists consider it a labor of love, one they say provides a critical benefit to the birds. These annual duck- and goose-part inspections – formally known as the Cooperative Waterfowl Parts-Collection Survey – were started 55 years ago as part of a complex continental system regulating North American waterfowl hunters.
The data collected at wing bees, along with other types of hunter-generated harvest reports and waterfowl breeding estimates, are used to set the hunting season duration and bag limits enforced by state wildlife officers across the continent. Biologists such as Saake can glean species, age and gender information from the wing and tail feathers they inspect. These data are used, in part, to help determine how many migrating ducks and geese the nation’s waterfowl hunters can kill without decimating the species.
Wing bees, so named because they’re the waterfowl biologist’s equivalent of a cooperative quilting bee, began in 1961. They are part of a regulatory system whose roots date back a century, when many waterfowl species faced extinction from unregulated commercial hunting. The federal government long ago banned the sale of wild game, but recreational hunting is legal within limits that change annually. The harvest data from recreational hunting have become critical to setting those regulations.
Across the United States, about 1.4 million people are licensed to hunt waterfowl, including an estimated 55,000 in California. Every year, a few thousand of these duck and goose hunters are selected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and invited to mail in wing and tail feathers of the ducks and geese they shoot.
The hunters are picked at random across the four federally recognized North American migratory waterfowl flyways: the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic. The bird parts they send in are considered a representative sample of a flyway’s total duck and goose harvest. In 2014, hunters killed an estimated 16.5 million ducks and geese in the United States.
The hunters who volunteer for the survey receive postage-paid envelopes to mail in the wings and feathers. Hunters note the location and date of the kill on each envelope. The parts are sent to freezers to await a flyway’s wing bee each spring.
Biologists can determine the species, gender and age of each bird based on the unique characteristics of various species’ feather patterns. Hunters send in duck wings whole. Goose hunters send in feathers from both the wing and tail.
At the recent Coleman hatchery wing bee, biologists set up at large portable tables under sunny skies. Boxes of envelopes containing the wings and feathers sat at the end of each table. The scientists worked through the boxes, one envelope at a time, poring over the contents and noting the telltale characteristics.
Over the course of four days, they had inspected and tabulated more than 25,000 different ducks and geese. When the wing bee concludes, the feathers are sent to a Native American tribe in New Mexico for ceremonial purposes.
The biologists feed their wing bee data into mathematical models of species populations. Those data are combined with hunter-survey results and reports from specialized programs that capture and release birds. Fish and Wildlife Service pilots also play a role. They perform flyover bird-count surveys across the vast prairies, tundra and boreal forests where millions of ducks and geese breed.
Brad Schults, an Alaska pilot attending the Anderson wing bee for his third year, described how just a few months earlier he had spent three weeks flying over rural Alaska in a series of 60-mile transecting flights, his plane buzzing a mere 125 feet off the ground. He said it was intriguing to consider that he might be handling a wing from one of the tens of thousands of ducks he counted in his flights.
“I’m sure there are some. I’m sure some show up in the envelopes,” Schults said, looking up from the wing of a northern shoveler. “There’s a lot of birds up there, but you never know. It may be possible.”
If the cumulative data from all the various waterfowl and harvest estimates show a certain duck or goose species isn’t thriving, its hunting season can be curtailed. For instance, California hunters have shortened seasons for a type of duck called a scaup and can bag no more than three a day. Because mallard populations have been doing relatively well, hunters can shoot up to seven males a day throughout the entirety of the season, which runs from October to January.
Wildlife officials credit species management for record numbers of duck and goose populations across the continent. Last year, officials estimated there were 49.5 million breeding ducks, about 43 percent above the long-term average. Snow goose populations have exploded so much in the past 25 years that regulators have expanded hunting season to try to knock down their numbers.
Federal waterfowl managers say there are so many millions of the large, white birds that they threaten to overwhelm their fragile breeding grounds on the tundra. That’s a remarkable contrast to where the birds were before hunting was regulated. In 1900, commercial hunting had decimated the snow goose population to just 3,000 birds in North America.
Most of the biologists counting wings and feathers at the Coleman wing bee are also hunters, so they view these figures as a point of pride. They devote at least one day’s lunch break to a wild-duck barbecue. Saake, the retired Nevada biologist, is their chef.
This spring marked Saake’s 50th year attending wing bees. He is considered a master wing inspector, and the less-experienced biologists listened in quiet reverence as he proffered his detailed analysis of the feather characteristics common to the northern shoveler.
For Saake, it’s easy to reconcile the seeming incongruity between killing birds and wanting their populations to thrive. He said he has been fascinated with ducks and geese since childhood. He speaks in awe about their migrations, and how they’re so at home on both land and water. He’s also hunted them a few months every year for much of his life. These wing bees help ensure that cycle can continue.
Saake said that in a half-century of wing bees, he’s never lost his appreciation for the feather patterns that are nature’s works of art.
“To me,” he said, “it looks like the feathers all came out and somebody painted them.”