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Just Winging It

Pacific Flyway Wing Bee identifies over 20,000 waterfowl Wings

After the Wing Bee the wings are given to the Zuni Tribe of New Mexico to use for various ceremonies.<br />(Cindy Sandoval/USFWS photo) After the Wing Bee the wings are given to the Zuni Tribe of New Mexico to use for various ceremonies.
(Cindy Sandoval/USFWS photo)

By: Cindy Sandoval, External Affairs (USFWS)

Permitted use provided by: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Every February biologists, birders and hunters meet at Coleman National Fish Hatchery to “read” thousands of waterfowl wings sent in by hunters on the Pacific Flyway. The Pacific Flyway Wing Bee, a name derived from a gathering like a quilting bee or spelling bee, allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to exam wings from over seven states in just five days.

Wing readers and experts determine the species, sex and age composition of the harvest of Pacific Flyway waterfowl using detached wings mailed in by hunters. This marathon of science is made possible by bringing together volunteers from federal agencies, state wildlife agencies and hunting groups. Collaborating together at the Wing Bee and year round helps ensure a healthy waterfowl population for American hunters and naturalists.

The Wing Bee provides biologists, birders and hunters a place to gather and share their knowledge. Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS

The Wing Bee provides biologists, birders and
hunters a place to gather and share their knowledge.
(Cindy Sandoval/USFWS photo)

“This year the Pacific Flyway Wing Bee received nearly 22,500 wings and some years have seen upwards of 40,000 wings” said Paul Walfoort, a Service biological science technician, as he sorted through piles of envelopes submitted by hunters.

The Service relies on state wildlife agencies to provide the addresses of those with waterfowl hunting permits. Starting in the summer, the Service will send a letter to hunters and ask if they would participate in the survey. If the hunters answer the letter the Service will then send them a prepaid manila envelope to mail in the wings of collected ducks or the tail and primary feathers of geese.

“We ask hunters if they will submit wings by letter first and if they want to help we then send out the envelopes," Khristi Wilkins with the Harvest Surveys Branch of the Service said. "This helps us keep our cost down. Our volunteers also help keep costs of the bee down, we ask Service programs like refuges and migratory birds and state agencies to help us process the wings.”

A quick glance at the sign-in sheet shows wing readers from California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Arizona Game and Fish, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife Services, California Waterfowl and many Service employees are among the experts gathered around four tables identifying birds.

Reading the wings does require practice, and wing reading experts take a “tune-up” test where they are required to receive a 95 percent score on identifying wings by species and age. Identifying the species of duck from the wing is based on the visual appearance and coloration of the wing.

The wing readers are also able to identify a wing as belonging to an immature bird or an adult. Subtle differences in feather color and feather texture are used to distinguish young duck wings, one difference is the feathers of a young duck will appear frayed or faded and will usually lack the shine seen in adult birds.

While the colorations of the wings and the skill level needed to identify the species it belonged to are impressive, the Wing Bee serves a much larger purpose than just brushing up on waterfowl identification. The data collected is combined with data from Wing Bees in the Atlantic, Mississippi and Central Flyways to provide the Service with information on duck harvest across the nation.

Volunteers sort through thousands of waterfowl wings in one week. Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS.

Volunteers sort through thousands of waterfowl wings in
one week. (Cindy Sandoval/USFWS photo)

The survey became nationwide in 1962 and has helped biologists acquire more accurate information than previous surveys. One reason the identifying of wings by experts is important is that many regions in the United States have varying common names for waterfowl. Names like sprig, chocolate head, spike, and spiketail are all used as common names for the pintail duck (Anas acuta). A group of readers identifying a species by the same name ensures that biologists know what species are harvested in certain areas and certain times of year.

Wilkins also points out that, “the wings can be an early indication of a breeding problem, if we are seeing no immature wings from a specific species in the envelopes we need to look at breeding success of that duck.”

Armed with this information, wildlife agencies can make changes in hunting regulations like take limits or vary the time of hunting season to protect waterfowl and ensure species continuation for the American people.

"Hunters understand the importance of their contribution and many hunters will ask if they can volunteer their harvested wings, but to keep the survey as accurate as possible hunters must be drawn at random," Wilkins said as he entered wing data into a computer.

The Wing Bee gives biologists and project managers at the Service and experts from other organizations a unique chance to sit down at the same table and share knowledge about waterfowl species. With this close partnership, the Wing Bee takes a job that would require one person a year, and allows 35 people to finish the identification in one week.

After the data is recorded and the partners head home to their states, the wings are picked up by the Zuni Tribe of New Mexico to use are various ceremonies. The Wing Bee is another example of the Service working through partnerships with states, nonprofits, and tribes to conserve and manage wildlife for current and future generations.

Cindy Sandoval is a Pathways intern in external affairs at the Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Sacramento, California. Contact her at 916-978-6159, cynthia_d_sandoval@fws.gov

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