As duck season opens in the Eastern Upper Peninsula this weekend - Sept. 22 - a Lake Superior State University student who is doing a study on the diets of diving ducks is asking EUP duck hunters with assistance in gathering samples.
Kyle Point, a wildlife management student from St. Clair Shores, is collecting the gizzards, upper digestive tract (crop and esophagus) liver, and a wing from any diving or sea duck shot in Chippewa and Mackinac counties this fall. The samples will help him with research that is part of his senior project, a requirement for graduation that has students selecting a research topic, gathering data, reporting on what they discover and presenting it to the community at the end of their senior year of studies.
"I believe that diving and sea ducks migrating through the EUP in the fall are utilizing zebra mussels and possibly other non-native bivalves as a food source," said Point, who grew up hunting ducks on Lake St. Clair, Saginaw Bay and the St. Mary's River. "I am interested to see the extent of zebra mussels in the diets of the various species of ducks, and whether the percent of zebra mussels in the diet varies with age and sex classes within species. I am also interested to see if the extent of zebra mussels in the diet varies within species/age/sex classes among locations."
Point recently found that although zebra mussels were noted by the U.S. Geological Survey in the Sault Ste. Marie area as early as 1992, they were not recorded in Raber Bay until 2010 and not until 2011 in Munuscong Bay.
"I believe the ducks may have switched their diet to take advantage of the new food source out in places with far less hunting pressure," he added. "I also believe the larger number of sea ducks in the area in recent years can be linked to the birds feeding on the invasive mussels."
Since wild ducks do not have as much meat on them as domestic birds, many duck hunters simply remove the breast meat and legs/thighs from the birds they shoot. Those who prepare their game in this way should save their duck carcasses in a zip-lock bag with a tag that includes their name, date and approximate time of kill, species and rough location of where the bird was shot. The carcasses should be frozen as soon as possible to help stop digestion.
Hunters who pluck their entire birds for roasting may just put the entrails (including the crop and esophagus) and one wing from the bird in a zip lock bag and freeze it.
"I'm not looking to find out anyone's favorite hunting spots, so I don't need the exact location of where you are hunting," said Point. "But I do need to know the approximate location where the bird was taken because it helps with comparing diets between locations."
Hunters need only include rough locations such as "Brimley Bay," "Lake Nicolet," "Munuscong Bay," or "Les Cheneaux Islands" for open water places. Hunters who send in birds taken from inland locations could name the township where the birds were taken.
Point has bags and tags available for hunters and will have collection buckets at various boat launches throughout the season. He invited hunters who live in or are traveling to the Sault to call him at 586-321-7194. He said he will maintain a collection bucket at the Ashmun Bay boat launch daily, since it is close to campus. He may also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several studies have been conducted on the Lower Great Lakes looking at the diets of diving and sea ducks since zebra mussels were introduced, but few, if any, studies have been done in the EUP.
"The St. Mary's River, eastern Lake Superior, and northern Lake Huron are important migration and wintering areas for thousands of waterfowl," said Point. "My study will help fill in the lack of diet information for this region of the Great Lakes. It should be of interest to waterfowl biologists concerned about diving and sea ducks that winter in the area, as well as those birds that migrate through to the East Coast and more southerly reaches of the Mississippi Flyway."
This isn't the first time that LSSU students have studied EUP ducks. In 2004, Michael J. Budd, now a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studied the diet of buffleheads for his senior research project, and in 2008, Jesse Kamps, now a graduate student at Mississippi State University, collected wings from hunters to look at migration chronology.
For more information on LSSU fisheries and wildlife management degrees, visit lssu.edu. Point is a member of LSSU's chapter of Ducks Unlimited, the only student chapter of DU in the state.