A Guide to Waterfowl Bands

If you had a choice between shooting a nice 8 point whitetail or a banded duck which would you choose?   For me and most avid waterfowl hunters that’s an easy question to answer a banded duck.   Shooting a banded duck is something special that many waterfowl hunters never get to experience in their lifetime.   Only a very small percentage of the waterfowl population is banded and an even smaller percentage of those that are banded get harvested.  This is what makes a banded bird so special.   When most hunters think of banded waterfowl however they immediately think of the shiny silver bands that go around the legs.   This is only one of the many types of bands that are used to mark waterfowl.   Neck collars, nasal markers, colored leg bands, web tags, patagial markers and radio/GPS trackers are other types of  bands  used to mark birds.

​The most common type of band is the silver leg band that most waterfowl hunters are familiar with.   A common misconception with these bands is that the bird was banded in Laurel Maryland because many of the bands say Avise Bird Band Laurel, Maryland. Laurel Maryland is the location of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) headquarters where all of the bird bands are issued from.   From there individuals across the country band the birds and report the data back to the USGS.   In order to get the location of where the bird was banded, how old it is and who banded it you must call the band in at 1-800-327-BAND.   Many hunters, including myself, wear these bands on their call lanyards as a type of trophy just as a deer hunter might ride a nice set of antlers around in his truck.   This type of band is made from aluminum and comes in different sizes depending on the type of bird that is being banded.   The bands range in size from as small as a hummingbird band to as large as a size 14 swan band.   Most hunters are familiar with mallard bands which are a size 7A.   Other common bands are size 5 which are used on blue-wing teal and wood ducks.   Doves, Quail and green-wing teal use a size 4 while Canadian geese use a size 8.   Each year around 350,000 ducks and geese are banded across the United States and Canada.   Of those 350,000 only about 88,000 are recovered each year.   This means that each year less than 0.8% of all ducks and geese are banded and less than 0.2% are recovered.

​The next most familiar band to waterfowl hunters are neck collars.   Neck collars are made of plastic and are normally colored with a series of 3 or 4 letters, numbers or symbols.   The different colored collars typically represent a different region in which the bird was collared.   Orange collars are put on geese that come from the Canadian region of the Mississippi flyway such as Ontario and Manitoba while blue collars are used in the United States portion of the Mississippi flyway.   Other common colors include white (typically Atlantic flyway), green (used in the Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana region) and red (used in the central and pacific flyways).   Collars are used so that researchers can easily see and read the numbers on the collar with a pair of binoculars without capturing or killing the bird.   This makes it easier to track the migration pattern of geese up and down the flyway.


In recent years many studies have been done using various types of radio telemetry and GPS.   These devices are generally attached to neck collars and used in studies where waterfowl travel great distances.   I was fortunate enough to be involved with one of these studies while I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University.   We radio collared several Canadian geese and GPS collared 3 or 4 birds.   The study was used to determine the molt migration patterns of the geese in the spring.   Radio collars are several hundred dollars each while the GPS collars cost thousands of dollars each.   We would track the movements of the geese several times a week both from the ground, by airplane and by satellite.   After several months most of the geese had migrated up towards Hudson Bay in Canada and the graduate student in charge of the study finished his work by airplane in Canada.

​Nasal markers are another type of band used by researchers to mark individual birds.   They are typically made of plastic and are used widely in local breeding surveys.   These markers typically have only two letters or numbers on them since the populations that are being studied are small.   The two pieces of plastic are attached together with a wire or a piece of string through the nasal cavity.   Since many ducks do not have nasal walls this is a non-invasive procedure.   At the end of the study the ducks are recaptured and the bands taken off but obviously not all of them can be captured all of the time.   I personally have not taken a bird with a nasal marker or know of anyone who has taken one.   Since the connection between the plastic is either wire or string it is likely that many of the markers fall out within a year of being put in place.   Now you may ask if these markers effect the survival of the ducks and the answer is no.   Many studies have been done to look at the survival of ducks with these markers and it has been found that the survival rate non-marked ducks is the same as marked ducks.

​Colored leg bands are used much in the same way as neck collars are used.   They are larger than the average metal leg band but smaller than a neck collar.   They have a series of 2 or 3 letters and numbers on them which is read easily from a distance.   They are made of plastic and many times break off after only a few years.   Snow geese are the most common waterfowl that have these types of bands but they are used on ducks and Canadian geese as well.   Since snow geese breed in large numbers in the boreal regions of Canada, colored leg bands are much easier to read than other types of markers.   Red, yellow and black are common colors used for these types of leg bands.

​Web tags are used on waterfowl that are too young to receive traditional leg bands.   Many studies that track growth and survival of ducklings use web tags to track the birds.   Putting a leg band on a duckling can be very dangerous.   Using a band that is to big will increase the chances of the duckling getting caught up in vegetation or debris which will in turn increase the mortality rate.   On the other hand putting a band on that is to small will physically damage the bird when its leg outgrows the band.   For these reasons a small metal clip is put into the webbing of the feet which has a number on one side to identify the bird and initials on the other to identify the bander.   If the bird is recaptured as an adult a metal leg band will be added to accompany the web tag.

​The last type of band used is a patagial tag.   This tag is attached to the wing of a bird usually at the main joint in the wing.   Although most of them are made of plastic there are some that are made of aluminum.   The ones made of plastic are very visible and are commonly used on birds of prey but are also used on swans.   Metal patagial tags are used in some types of waterfowl but are not very common.   Typically only diving ducks are tagged with patagial tags and many studies have shown that these types of tags have a negative effect on ducks.

As you can see there is much more to banding than just the typical metal leg band.   Each type of band has a specific use and therefore is utilized in different situations.   Whatever the type of band they are all very important in studying the movements and migration patterns of waterfowl.   Any time you see a bird with a band on it be sure to report it to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) center by calling 1-800-327-BAND or go to their website at  www.usgs.gov.   The next time you go hunting and the dog brings your duck or goose back, be sure to check not just for a leg band but for all types of markers.