Researchers Study Georgia Ring-necked Ducks

Cutting edge research will mean some Georgia ducks will be wearing jewelry and radio transmitters this winter.

Mark D. McConnell | October 6, 2017

Georgia duck hunters know the sound all too well… the heart-thumping roar of wings slicing through the crisp, winter air followed by the skidding-splash of feathered bottoms landing on water. Some have even described it as sounding like a plane is taking off right above your head. These are the sounds of ring-necked ducks in the winter, and they can drive duck hunters and their dogs crazy with excitement.

Ring-necked ducks (also called blackjacks or just ringnecks) are one of the most popular ducks in Georgia, accounting for 18 percent of duck harvest, according to Georgia DNR. Ring-necked ducks migrate through Georgia every winter, with some going as far south as the southern tip of Mexico before heading back north to the breeding grounds.  We only get them for a few months in Georgia, but regardless of their brief time here, there is a lot we need to know about them while they are here.

Ring-necked duck populations have grown and expanded in the last several decades, which has led to a great deal of interest in their habits and movements in the Atlantic Flyway. Hunters are often most interested in what ducks are doing during hunting season, but decades of research has shown that what happens on the breeding grounds and during migration has a lot to do with how many birds we see in the fall. As a result, Delta Waterfowl Foundation, a non-profit organization and leader in waterfowl conservation, has teamed up with the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia to conduct cutting-edge research on ring-necked duck movements in Georgia.

Researchers will capture ring-necked ducks in southern Georgia this winter and surgically implant small satellite transmitters into their abdominal cavity. This surgical procedure is performed by a trained veterinarian and is very similar to human surgery.  The birds are put under anesthesia and provided with medication to alleviate pain and trauma. These surgeries are highly successful, and birds usually recovery within a few hours before being released. These transmitters will communicate with orbiting satellites to track the duck’s movements for about eight months. The transmitters are programmed to communicate with the satellites every day to pinpoint the ducks’ locations anywhere on the planet. Researchers can then download the locations from the satellite and plot them on a map.

With this technology, researchers can monitor the types of habitats they use during winter, their migration routes in the spring, their breeding locations in the summer and their survival.

Researchers at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia are involved with research on ring-necked duck movements in Georgia.

What does all this mean for Georgia duck hunters? Well, the more we learn about habitat use and movements, the better we can manage for the habitat types these ducks like. The only way to truly know what habitat types they prefer is to track their daily movements and compare the areas they use to the areas available to them. This helps scientists understand the habitat choices ducks are making on the landscape. More quality habitat means more ducks and more opportunities for hunters.

Georgia hunters might be curious about how knowing migration routes and breeding locations benefits them here in Georgia. The answer is simple.  Ring-necked ducks spend more time outside of Georgia than in Georgia each year. Therefore, the more we know about where they go and what they do beyond our state, the more information we can provide to other state wildlife agencies, habitat organizations and the Unites States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), so they can better manage ring-necked ducks across their entire range. The ultimate goal is to conduct better management across the entire landscape to impact the overall population and add birds to the fall flight.  More birds in the fall flight means more birds in the bag.

What If I Shoot A Research Duck?

Shooting one of these birds is completely legal. There is no crime in legally harvesting one of these ducks.

How will Georgia hunters know if they shoot one of these birds? There will be a skinny antenna sticking up out of the tail end of the duck. You can’t miss it. Each duck in the study will also have a USFWS aluminum leg band. So, what should Georgia hunters do if they shoot a bird with a transmitter? Anytime you harvest a banded duck, be sure to report the band number to the USFWS ( This information is important for waterfowl management and is used to estimate survival and movement. Without good information on band returns, setting harvest regulations is more of a guess than a science. After the leg band is reported, the transmitter can easily be extracted when the duck is being cleaned for eating. Contact the number on the transmitter, and you’re done.

These transmitters can be used again, so it is important to call it in so researchers can collect them for future use. By shooting one of these birds and reporting it, Georgia duck hunters are taking part in state-of-the-art research on waterfowl. When scientists and hunters work together, everybody wins.

Editor’s Note: Mark D. McConnell is a wildlife specialist at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources

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