Note to the midway mob at the Nebraska State Fair: Don’t get into an arcade shooting competition with duck hunter Steve Freese.
He gets lucky. The Omahan recently learned that a mallard he shot in December was a rarity.
The bird was born last spring in Alaska, where wildlife biologists marked it with a tiny aluminum leg band. More than 200,000 ducks, 100,000 geese and 1,000 swans from Arctic breeding grounds to the Dakota plains and Louisiana coast are banded each year. Mallards are the most commonly banded species.
Hunters who retrieve a duck with a leg band are encouraged to report the number to a database maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland.
That’s what Freese did when one of two mallards he shot at the Meridith Family Hunting Lodge near Mound City, Mo., had a leg band. A month later, Freese received a letter asking him to confirm the number. He replied with an email.
“I pretty much forgot about it until I received another letter in June, asking me to confirm the number and either mail it in or take a picture and email to them,” Freese said.
The email fell through the cracks at the Geological Survey. Freese heard nothing. Last week, he called the agency’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and sent another email. A few phone calls later, he learned why the leg band number got the attention of the bird banding office.
The mallard was born and banded 40 miles west of Fairbanks, Alaska, in the Minto Lakes region. The site is about 3,000 miles — as the duck flies — from northwest Missouri.
Since the start of the federal banding program in 1903, 20,537 mallards have been banded in Alaska, according to USGS records. Of those, 2,266 have been later encountered and reported, said Jo Anna Lutmerding, a biologist at the banding lab.
“We have only a total of 17 mallards banded in Alaska and encountered in Missouri, including the one from Steve Freese,” she said.
Most Alaska-born and banded mallards are later encountered in Alaska, the Pacific Flyway or in Canada, not a few miles from the Central Flyway in northwest Missouri.
Said Freese: “Pretty amazing.”