When Eric Heidman saw the pintail sail into his decoy spread all by itself on opening day of waterfowl season at Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, he knew it was going to be a good day. What he didn’t immediately realize was that the bird was banded, or the story behind its travels.
“A buddy of mine, Jared Wolfley, was lucky enough to draw reservation two at Delevan for opening day,” said Heidman. “We chose to hunt blind 24 on the south side and I hit the bird around 10:30 a.m. After it splashed down quite a ways out from the blind my hunting partner took his young lab out there and made the walk to retrieve it.”
It was only after his friend returned with the bird and revealed the band that Heidman was further surprised to find its origin.
“I don’t think he really looked at the info prior to handing it to me because when I read it I told him it was from Japan,” said Eric, whose brother, Brian, is a Ducks Unlimited engineer in Sacramento’s Western Region office. “We were both pretty stoked as we had never seen or heard of one of those before.”
After checking out at noon and mentioning it to the official taking tags at Delevan, word quickly spread, and other hunters began to ask to see and take pictures. A biologist on site looked over the bird and verified the rarity of finding a duck from Japan all the way in California.
But exactly how rare was it?
Heidman returned home and emailed Keiko Yoshiyasu of the Division of Avian Conservation in Konoyama with the data from the tag and was shocked to find out the pintail male was at least 14 years old, having received the band the day after Christmas in 2001 at the Saitama Duck Refuge in Obayashi, more than 8200 kilometers from Delevan. Even more amazing, this was only the 16th recovery of a Japanese band in California since 1977.
According to the North American Waterfowl Hunting Management website, in 1946 an international banding effort was organized to address specific management objectives for ducks, with some of the first uses of banding and recovery location data used to help biologists determine waterfowl migration routes. By banding ducks and geese in the northern breeding areas and then marking the points where hunters and others recovered them, biologists identified the four major migratory pathways, or flyways, that cross North America. To this day, the recovery of banded waterfowl by hunters acts as an important scientific tool to help biologists better understand annual harvest rates and even annual survival rates for some waterfowl species
So what did Eric end up doing with his prized pintail?
“The bird looked in good shape, thin but decent,” said Heidman. “It really didn’t have any tail feathers to make a good mount so I ended up cleaning the duck and eating it. I added the band to my call lanyard with the couple others I have been lucky enough to harvest. I was surprised by the info that came back, because I didn’t know they lived that long. Given his age, I wonder how many miles he flew?”