Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

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Are all your ducks in a row? Surveyors take to a plane to know!


CHAMPAIGN, IL You may have noticed small airplanes flying back and forth above your favorite waterfowl hunting grounds along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers and wondered, “What in the world is going on?” Every week during the fall migration, since 1948, a biologist from the Illinois Natural History Survey Forbes Biological Station (FBS) has counted waterfowl from an airplane to help the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) manage waterfowl.


These surveys are vital to ensuring successful hunting seasons for our waterfowl enthusiasts now, and into the future.  The data help IDNR determine hunting season dates and zone boundaries, set regulations, and to evaluate restoration projects and prioritize public land acquisition.


This is the longest running waterfowl survey in North America. It enables IDNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many other agencies and groups to identify when the numbers and locations of waterfowl and waterbirds change over time.  The data help scientists see potential threats to wildlife habitats and populations, improving management efforts.


Recently, FBS launched a new waterfowl survey to keep pace with changing habitat conditions and distributions of waterfowl.  For three years starting this fall, FBS teams will fly both the traditional waterfowl survey routes and a new “grid” survey route every week to test new methods and ensure new habitats are included in the count.


“Traditionally, waterfowl have been counted only at high-density locations, like the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge,” said FBS director Dr. Heath Hagy, “But following habitat restoration initiatives, expansion of the Conservation and Wetland Reserve Programs, and new floodplain restorations like those at Emiquon Preserve and Hennepin and Hopper Lakes, birds may no longer only concentrate on historical sites.”   The new grid survey will include historical waterfowl refuges as well as random areas within the Illinois River floodplain.


“Because the grid surveys include random samples, some areas may be surveyed only once per week or once every several weeks.  Others may be surveyed two or three times in one week, or even twice in one day,” Hagy said.  “We are doing our best to minimize repeated flights near hunting parties and bird watchers by adjusting survey times and locations.”


 “A common question FBS receives is ‘Do the new surveys disturb waterfowl?’  Fortunately, we have been able to conduct ground surveys concurrent with aerial surveys and have found that less than three percent of ducks abandon our survey area during our aerial surveys,” Hagy said, “so disturbance from our surveys is minimal and likely less than what birds experience daily from boaters and eagles.”


If you see the red and white FBS plane flying low across a lake or wetland, feel free to watch and wave.  If you notice the airplane as you are boating or driving near large groups of waterfowl, consider stopping and giving the biologist and pilot a brake as they conduct their counts. After the count is completed, FBS flying biologist Aaron Yetter might even have time to wave to say "thanks!"


For more information or to contact FBS, visit the webpage

Follow FBS on Facebook to find out where the ducks are this week.


Established in 1858, the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) mission is to investigate and document the biological resources of Illinois and other areas, and to acquire and provide natural history information that can be used to promote the common understanding, conservation, and management of these resources.  With a staff of over 200 scientists and technicians, it is recognized as the premier natural history survey in the nation.

The Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the home of the Illinois State Scientific Surveys: Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Archaeological Survey, Illinois State Geological Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, and Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. Established by statute July 1, 2008 it builds on the Surveys' reputations for basic and applied research and service. With 700 employees and a budget of more than $65 million in applied science, the Institute is one of the largest institutes within the University. Prairie Research Institute scientists work to support economic development and natural and cultural resource sustainability for Illinois and beyond.




Heath Hagy

Illinois Natural History Survey

Prairie Research Institute

University of Illinois


Illinois Natural History Survey

1816 South Oak Street, MC 652
Champaign, IL 61820

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