Some mallard ducks on Lake St. Clair will be sporting an antenna on their backs this fall.

About 30 to 60 female mallard ducks will be fitted with little backpacks to carry solar-powered GPS transmitters so researchers can track where the ducks are hanging out around Lake St. Clair in key and threatened habitats.

“We don’t know really how they’re using the landscape,” University of Western Ontario and Long Point Waterfowl researcher Matt Palumbo said Monday.

Although mallards are a commonly seen duck, Palumbo wants to know more about which habitats the ducks spend the most time in, how that relates to their survival and how long they stay in the Great Lakes.

Palumbo, a 31-year-old PhD student, will catch mallard ducks beginning in the late summer and strap on the 30-gram device to gather the detailed tracking information within 18 to 26 metres.

For $1,000 groups can sponsor and name a GPS-equipped duck and the public will be able to watch the movement of mallards online through the Long Point Waterfowl Mallard Tracker.

“It will be really interesting to see how these ducks move on a daily basis,” Palumbo said.

Palumbo’s professor, Scott Petrie, who is executive director of Long Point Waterfowl which studies waterfowl and wetlands in the Great Lakes, said the research is more about Lake St. Clair than the mallard in particular.

Lake St. Clair is a crucial waterfowl staging area in the spring and fall and is the most threatened wetland complex on the Great Lakes, Petrie said.

“Not only have we lost a lot of habitat that resulted in major changes in the ecosystem there’s certainly a real fear that we could lose a lot more in the future,” Petrie said.

Petrie fears with high farmland prices, more wetlands could be drained for farming.

Wind turbines, invasive species and changing farm practices have likely reduced the chances of mallard ducks finding food in the important migration stopover.
“The one thing were really concerned about is food availability,” Petrie said especially during the spring migration. “We’re getting down possibly to some critical threshold where there’s not enough food.”

If the ducks don’t have enough food to put on body fat, it may decrease their survival and reproduction rates. While some mallard ducks stay year-round, most are arriving now from the United States to rest before they fly to breeding grounds north of the Great Lakes. They will come back to Lake St. Clair from August to October and November before heading south.

Petrie said farming practices have changed so there’s less leftover grain in farm fields for the dabbling ducks that also eat wetland plants and insects. There’s less food when phragmites, an invasive plant, has taken over wetlands.

Tracking the mallards will also help answer questions about the impact of the large number of wind turbines in Essex County and Chatham-Kent near waterfowl habitat, Petrie said.

The mallard study and a Long Point Waterfowl report on the waterfowl and wetlands of the Lake St. Clair region should highlight the importance of protecting habitat, he said.

To name a duck and donate to the Mallard Tracker research, contact Greg Dunn at [email protected].

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