Offbeat: Counting Ducks

January 14, 2008--Posted at 8:00 a.m.  CST

Manilla, AR--Duck hunters always want to know how many ducks there are in any particular area, but the questions are, who counts them and how do they do it? The short answers are Wildlife Scientist Aaron Mize and an airboat.

Mize is a scientist with the National Fish and Wildlife Service at Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Manilla.  He and other officers run Big Lake once a week on the state's only airboat.  The ride is an effort to count the ducks, geese and even the bald eagles that call Big Lake home. "We do that to monitor trends to see what our resident population is during the winter time, to see how many birds we are providing habitat here," said Mize. "We are a large area for ducks and geese in the Mississippi flyway."

It's a process that's been going on since the 20's and the second week in January is the big count all the way from Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.  "This is the big number that the service uses to determine how many birds wintered along the Mississippi Flyway," said Mize.  "What that does is allows us to monitor trends over time, to compare year to year, to determine if we are providing the proper habitat for the birds, once they get here."

The state does it's monthly waterfowl count by airplane, but big lake scientists have been skimming this route on the big lake waters for years. "The airboat survey allows us to get a bird's eye view of the birds getting up," said Mize.  "If a bird gets up and goes down quickly we can detect that. We have a tough time with the divers and the airplane can see that, but they can't always see the mallards in the timber that we do."

Sounds great, but just how do you accurately count all those birds?  "It takes a little to get used to, but more importantly than total number, we want to know species composition," said Mize. "Rather than know I have 150,000 ducks I want to know 80% of those are mallards and 15% of canvasbacks and so forth.  We really spend a lot of time identifying indivdual species getting up.  Today we counted about 50,000 birds, and most of those mallards."

That number of 50,000 is down from more than 150,000 ducks back in mid-December, right before the big freeze.