Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center

Photo: Tagging Ducks

Arboretum Duck Project

Researchers have been rounding up ducks on campus as part of a study, directed by veterinarian Walter Boyce, co-director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. The researchers are examining the mallards' health and attaching identification bands as part of a long-term study of waterfowl and ecosystem health.

The research, funded largely by the National Institutes of Health, is intended to help human and wildlife health specialists better understand the flow of disease-causing organisms through wild and urban ecosystems. This understanding should help improve the health of the ducks, other wild and domestic animals, and people.

Veterinarian Walter Boyce, co-director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, leads the study. He is an expert on animal pathogens, particularly those carried by wildlife that can cause diseases in domestic animals and people. A key collaborator is Dr. John Eadie of the Department of Wildlife, Fish, & Conservation Biology.

The researchers use grain to lure the ducks into traps or under nets, then putting the birds in waterfowl carriers, to be taken a short distance away for the examinations. Researchers take blood and fecal samples, weigh and measure the birds, assess their general health, and attach tags to the leg or webbing between toes. The birds are then released near where they were caught.

Fact Sheet

Who are we and what are we doing with the ducks in the Arboretum?
We are researchers from the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center (WHC) the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology. We are studying the population structure and health of the Mallards in the Arboretum here on campus. We are collecting samples from the ducks to be sent to the laboratory for analysis, as well as collecting physiological measurements from the individual ducks. All birds are released back into the Arboretum.
What are we trying to find out?
We are studying whether and how urban waterfowl populations might act as a disease reservoir for wild bird populations. In addition to improving the health of the birds, monitoring disease prevalence in urban bird communities can be valuable for detecting and preventing possible human health risks. We are also researching Mallard survival and movements in the Arboretum and throughout other parts of campus. We want to know how Mallards use the UC Davis campus and how their survival and reproductive rates compare to those found in wild Mallard populations.
Why do we want to study urban waterfowl?
Other research has shown that waterfowl, and especially Mallards, are important hosts for viruses and other pathogens. In particular, avian influenza viruses have been found in ducks at the Arboretum, as well as in wild waterfowl. Wild Mallards are one of the most intensively studied of these waterfowl hosts, and the UC Davis Arboretum provides us with a population of Mallards that can be easily studied. This sort of “living laboratory” is an opportunity that would be very hard to find in a more natural habitat. We can closely study the birds’ movement and survival because the resident Mallard population here is relatively small.
Why are we putting colored bands and tags on the ducks’ legs and feet?
These colored bands and web tags also have individual numbers on them, which will allow us to monitor specific birds over time. By observing ducks with individual numbers, we can determine where these birds go on the UC Davis campus as well as determine how long these birds live and stay on our campus. Putting bands and tags on birds is a very common practice in wildlife biology and is considered completely safe and non-harmful to the animals.  Also all procedures that we utilize have been reviewed and approved by the University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, the body that oversees all research procedures conducted on animals by University personnel. Because the birds here at the Arboretum are watched by so many people, we have the opportunity to make changes if we suspect that any of our procedures have inadvertently harmed an individual animal in any way.   
How important is this study?
This study will provide much-needed information on virus prevalence, bird movement, and survival rates among urban waterfowl and their interaction with wild populations. The results of this research will allow for improved future waterfowl management and also for reducing potential human health risks. We are interested in improving the health of our resident UC Davis ducks.
Why catch ducklings?
Young ducks are particularly susceptible to disease and predators, including the river otters that moved in to the UC Davis Arboretum about two years ago. We need to catch the ducklings and sample and tag them in order to find out which ones are infected and which ones survive.