Local biologist breaks long-standing record

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TRAINING STUDENTS – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Clayton Ferrell works to band wood ducks while training a group of wildlife biology students from UTM. Photo by Joan Howe.

Far away from population centers in West Tennessee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Clayton Ferrell quietly broke a long-standing record this year. His wood duck banding team tagged enough ducks to beat the single season banding record set back in 1991.

Amidst the 51,000-acre TNWR wildlife conservation area sits one of the most productive bird banding stations for wood ducks in the nation. Under Ferrell’s guidance, each July and August TNWR staff and volunteers strive to put a numbered metal band on as many wood ducks as they can. Several hundred wood ducks usually are banded as an annual quota. 

With the number of banded wood ducks already running high this summer, that annual quota was reached early in the season. On the last day of August, Ferrell’s banding team pushed to break the all-time record of 1,588 wood ducks banded in a single season. 

Ferrell checked the baited banding site using a powerful spotting scope and could see the trap was extremely full of birds. All was ready with an assembled team that included refuge staff, a TWRA waterfowl biologist, Ducks Unlimited members, and trained volunteers. They set to work. 

The evening of Aug. 31 ended with a catch of over 1,100 wood ducks, which was a single day catch record. Of those, exactly 216 new birds were banded that evening to bring the team’s single season total to exactly 1,600 banded wood ducks – more than any banded before at one location in the nation.

Ferrell has explained to many over the years that biologists have been banding migratory birds for decades in order to gather valuable information about population health and migration. Banding also provides clues about waterfowl harvest levels and birds’ longevity.

Because each band has a unique number assigned only to that bird, a band on the leg turns a generic bird into an individual that can be tracked. All information such as age, sex, and condition of the bird is recorded along with the band number in a national database managed by the “Bird Banding Lab.” If anyone harvests or finds a banded bird, they can report the band number at www.reportband.gov to receive a certificate with that specific bird’s information.

TNWR has a long history of banding waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds for wildlife research since 1949. Over the years many different U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, students, interns, and volunteers have contributed to TNWR’s banding effort. The refuge has banded many different species of birds. 

Looking back over his 30 years of working at TNWR and volunteering at Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge, Ferrell’s 2022 wood duck banding record seems a bit of a crown jewel on his life’s work focused on waterfowl conservation and habitat management. 

Over the last 30 years under Ferrell’s direction, TNWR has banded more than 25,000 wood ducks, which is more than any other banding station in the country. For many years in the past Ferrell also conducted a M.A.P.S. station (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship), which operated during the spring breeding season to capture songbirds with a mist net and band them.

“Clayton has mentored and trained hundreds of volunteers and interns over the span of his career,” said Troy Littrell, TNWR Deputy Manager. “He is one the most experienced waterfowl biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and after 30 years on the job he continues to bring a passion and love for his work that is evident. Each summer he shares this passion and love for the resource with a new generation of future wildlife biologists and managers.” 

TNWR celebrates all conservation biologists who work so hard for the welfare of our nation’s wildlife species, but this month we especially celebrate the huge success of Clayton Ferrell and his record-setting wood duck banding program. Congratulations on a job well done!

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