The waterfowl world is occupied by a group of birds to include ducks, geese, and swans. The list of waterfowl species is extensive and their habitat throughout their life cycle is diverse.
BRI’s Waterfowl Program primarily focuses its research on conservation needs for waterfowl throughout North America. Waterfowl are faced with an ever-changing world. BRI has partnered with other conservation focused organizations, as well as state and federal agencies interested in waterfowl conservation goals. BRI is actively conducting research within three broad areas: (1) contaminants monitoring; (2) movement studies; and (3) avian health.
In North America and Europe, some waterfowl species have long served as important indicators of ecological health. Waterfowl encompass a vastly diverse ecosystem both between species, and different times throughout their annual cycle among species. Waterfowl can be found most anywhere in North America. From the remote northern reaches of Canada, along the busy marine ports and our coastlines, to the lakes, rivers, and swamps across all of North America. These varying habitats are sometimes exposed to potentially harmful types and levels of contaminants. The sources of contamination deposited among these habitats are produced through certain domestic industry practices, as well as transported from other countries from afar through atmospheric deposition. Contaminants are deposited into the environment, and then consumed by fish and wildlife from polluted food sources. Certain waterfowl species are susceptible to accumulating harmful levels of contaminants. BRI’s waterfowl contaminant research has focused on two varying approaches: (1) assessment of polluted areas; and (2) contaminant screening.
Assessment of polluted areas: BRI has been involved with contaminant research projects aimed at assessing the effects of contaminants on waterfowl from known polluted areas. Areas identified by federal agencies as polluted eventually go through a legal, ecological damage assessment process. BRI’s role has been to implement and provide neutral, third party field studies and results to federal agencies and responsible parties at these designated polluted sites. BRI’s findings help determine which species are at most risk to contaminant exposure from polluted sites. BRI’s studies and findings provide federal agencies and responsible parties information needed to make informed conservation decisions on impacted wildlife and their habitats.
Contaminant screening: The process of collecting samples, such as blood, feathers, eggs, or edible portions of waterfowl, provides important information on the overall health of a individual bird, a population, or the health of our continent’s environment that wildlife and humans share and rely on for survival. BRI has collected and facilitated waterfowl sample collections throughout North America to evaluate what species and what geographic areas are at risk of potentially unhealthy contaminant exposure.
Studying the movements of waterfowl provides important information on their behavior, ecology, and habitat requirements. The movements of waterfowl throughout their annual life cycle are complex and can be undetectable through observation studies. Many species of waterfowl utilize remote geographic locations at some point of their annual life cycle and are unreachable by biologists studying them. The use of tracking devices placed on an animal, provide important information otherwise unattainable through other monitoring techniques.
Technological advances in tracking equipment have enabled wildlife biologists to record detailed locations and movements of individual birds. For example, when studying species that have little information known about them, such as sea ducks, tracking devices have provided valuable insight into their movements and habitat requirements.
We typically use two types of tracking devices on waterfowl. Traditional radio telemetry (VHF) is typically used when we want to track birds in relatively close ranges (up to several miles) by boat, plane, vehicle, or foot. Waterfowl equipped with satellite transmitters can be tracked remotely and on a global scale and up to several years. Satellite transmitters use global satellites to relay detailed locations to us via the internet.
BRI and our research collaborators have tagged and tracked several species of waterfowl throughout North America. Tagged individuals are actively providing detailed locations, movements, habitat requirements, and information on natural history. This information is filling knowledge gaps about these species and providing biologists important information for waterfowl management, conservation, and legislative decisions.
Birds can be susceptible to various diseases and viruses, such as the West Nile virus, avian influenza, and avian cholera. Federal agencies have established wildlife disease monitoring programs in order to detect individuals, species of birds, or geographic locations that are of concern in transporting infectious diseases.
Avian influenza is widely endemic in wild populations of waterfowl, as well as many other species of birds. The emergence and spread of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (HPAI within the H5N1 subtype) in Asia and its subsequent spread to Europe and Africa, has elevated concerns about potential transport of this virus to North America. Migratory birds have been identified as a potential source for introduction of Asian H5N1 into North America. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has conducted a surveillance effort to detect Asian HPAI H5N1 in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways.
BRI assisted in the surveillance program by live-capture and tissue sampling of waterfowl species in the Atlantic Flyway.
Newly published in Marine Pollution Bulletin:
Lead Investigator: Dustin E. Meattey