Waterfowl Wing Bee

A sample of waterfowl hunters have been asked each year since 1961 to send a wing from each duck and the tail and tips of the outermost primary feathers from each goose killed to a central location in each flyway. That location in the Central Flyway is currently the Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge near Emporia, KS. When the wings and goose feathers arrive at the refuge, they are separated by species and stored in a large freezer.

In February, about 40 biologists and others from state wildlife agencies in the Flyway, the USFWS and universities assemble for three to five days to "read" the duck wings and goose feathers. For ducks, they can determine the species, age and sex of each duck harvested. Each table of people working on duck wings has a "checker" assigned to it - this is an experienced person who has received special training in the reading of duck wings and whose accuracy has been carefully checked. The checker looks at the "call" made by workers at the table regarding age and sex of every duck wing. This allows workers to continually improve their skills as the Wing Bee progresses since feedback is instantaneous. Many copies of Sam Carney's book, Species, Age and Sex Identification of Ducks Using Wing Plumage (available online), can be found open to one page or another throughout the work area.

The sex of geese cannot be determined at the Wing Bee like it can for ducks, but feather wear and other characteristics are used to determine if the goose was a "young of the year" (hatched the previous spring) or an adult. In addition, the length of the central tail feather of Canada geese is obtained to place it in the "large" or "small" category, which is used to determine to which management population it came from. Similar to the situation for ducks, a “checker” reviews the species and age determinations of other workers at the tables to ensure accuracy.

Recently, about 14,000 duck wings and 3,000 goose tails have been read annually by workers at the Central Flyway Wing Bee.

Each bird’s data are entered together with the information provided by the hunter (i.e., date, time, state and county of kill). Some of this information is entered into a computer using a bar code reader at the Wing Bee allowing its immediate availability to managers. Ultimately, the data is combined with that from other flyways and becomes part of the national, USFWS' Parts Collection Survey database.

The Wing Bee provides the data used to compute the species composition of the duck (e.g., the percent of the total duck harvest that was mallards) and goose harvest, and therefore information on the harvest pressure exerted on each species. That alone would justify the survey. But the data also provides:

  • The age and sex of duck species in the harvest and age of goose species, which when combined with information from recoveries of banded birds, allows an estimate of the success of the previous year's reproduction
  • The temporal and geographic distribution of the harvest of ducks and geese
  • The assignment of Canada goose harvest to one of the three populations in the Flyway
  • Educational and training opportunities