Biodiversity Research Institute
Biodiversity Research Institute
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Waterfowl Program
Waterfowl Program

BRI’s Waterfowl Program primarily focuses its research on conservation needs for waterfowl throughout North America. Waterfowl, such as ducks, geese, and swans, are especially impacted by global changes as they rely on many different habitats throughout their annual migratory routes.  

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.

Program Director: Lucas Savoy
Program Staff: Dustin Meattey

Contaminants Monitoring

Contaminants Monitoring

Waterfowl have long served as indicators of ecological health for a diverse set of ecosystems including coastlines, lakes, rivers, and swamps throughout North America. However, these habitats are sometimes exposed to harmful levels of contaminants deposited by domestic industry practices or transported through the atmosphere from far away. After deposition, fish and waterfowl ingest the contaminants along with their diet. Certain waterfowl species more readily accumulate harmful levels of contaminants. BRI’s waterfowl contaminant research focuses on two approaches: (1) assessments of polluted areas; and (2) contaminant screenings.

Assessments of polluted areas: BRI has been involved with research projects that assess the effects of contaminants on waterfowl from known polluted areas. Polluted areas identified by federal agencies undergo an ecological damage assessment process. BRI’s role has been to implement neutral, third party field studies for federal agencies and responsible parties at these polluted sites. BRI’s findings help determine which species are at most risk for contaminant exposure, as well as provide information needed to make informed conservation decisions for impacted wildlife and their habitats.

Contaminant screenings: The collection of waterfowl blood, feathers, eggs and edible tissue samples provides important information on the overall health of an individual bird, its population, and the North American environment that wildlife and humans share.

The following are representative research projects with a focus on monitoring contaminants in waterfowl:

Movement Studies

Movement Studies

Waterfowl movement studies provide important information on their behavior, ecology, and habitat requirements. The movements of waterfowl throughout their annual life cycle are complex and can be undetectable in observation studies. During their annual migratory route, many species of waterfowl utilize remote geographic locations unreachable to the biologists studying them. Tracking devices provide data otherwise unattainable through other monitoring techniques.

Technological advances in tracking equipment have enabled wildlife biologists at BRI to record detailed locations and movements of individual birds. We typically use two types of tracking devices on waterfowl. Traditional radio telemetry (VHF) is typically used to track birds in close ranges (up to several miles) by boat, plane, vehicle, or foot. Satellite transmitters can track waterfowl globally and can provide information for up to several years.

BRI and our research collaborators have tagged and tracked several species of waterfowl throughout North America. Tagged individuals actively provide detailed locations and movements and data on their natural history and habitat requirements, which provides biologists with information for waterfowl management, conservation, and legislative decisions.

The following are representative research projects with a focus on waterfowl movements:

Avian Health

Avian Health

Waterfowl can be susceptible to various diseases and viruses, such as the West Nile virus, avian influenza, and avian cholera. Federal agencies established wildlife disease monitoring programs to detect geographic locations, species, and even individuals that are of concern for transporting infectious diseases.

Avian influenza is widely endemic in waterfowl populations, as well as many other species of birds. The emergence 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 transfer to North America. Migratory birds are a potential pathway of introduction of Asian H5N1 into North America. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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:

  • Avian Influenza surveillance in migratory shorebirds and wintering waterfowl at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts
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Photo Credits: Header photo © Daniel Poleschook; Portraits: Hooded Merganser, Surf Scoter, and Common Merganser © Ginger Gumm Poleschook; Common Eider © Josh Beuth; iStock; Collecting a blood sample from a White-winged Scoter to test for contaminant residues © BRI-Lucas Savoy; Male Surf Scoter with satellite transmitter © BRI-Lucas Savoy; Collection tissue samples © USDA-Randall Mickley; Mallard Duck with radio transmitter © BRI-Lucas Savoy
Biodiversity Research Institute