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HAGEN: A brilliant morning of bands

(Luke Hagen/Republic) Pictured are the nine bands on Canada geese shot Saturday morning.

The feet can be the sweetest part of a duck or goose.

No, don't jump to conclusions and try boiling up some waterfowl-feet soup at your next convenience. The taste would likely be horrendous.

The sweetness, if you get so lucky, comes from the silver shine of a bird band.

Across the country, biologists band birds to track survival rates, harvest numbers and movement information. The two most popular species of banded birds are waterfowl, the Canada goose and the mallard duck.

Thanks to Saturday morning's brilliant goose hunt, when my partner and I shot nine banded geese, I now have bands of both.

South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department waterfowl biologist Paul Mammenga, based in Aberdeen, has been banding birds for more than 30 years. Since his first day on the job, he's handled Canada geese, making him an expert on the subject.

"(The adult geese) drop their flight feathers during an annual molting when they're flightless, and that's when we band," Mammenga said Tuesday afternoon in a phone conversation about my Saturday hunt. "Mother Nature times it so the adult birds are growing their new feathers out as the baby geese get bigger and feathered, and they're learning how to fly.

"We know when that time is, and we key on that during the first week of July."

South Dakota biologists banded about 1,800 Canada geese this summer with band sites all over in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the state. Hunters were able to start targeting "honkers" on Aug. 4 as a part of an Early August Management Take.

In short, the management take started three years ago to help cut back on an increasing population of birds that are damaging crops in the summer and early fall. In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there are 270,000 resident Canada geese in South Dakota, well over the management plan of 80,000-90,000.

So, each year I've done my duty as a passionate waterfowl hunter to lower the population in August. The early hunts have never been amazing for me. At this time of year, geese are clumped in family groups, usually sticking together in clusters of three to 10 birds. My luck has been OK, but nothing like Saturday's wheat field shoot.

We got a flock of birds to land about 50 yards outside the decoys about 15 minutes after legal shooting time. The morning's bag started with three dead, including one wounded I had to chase about 200 yards.

The third flock came in nicely, where both my partner and I had close-range shots. We dropped five of nine geese and my partner -- an excellent goose caller -- began to honk aggressively and got the final four birds to swing back around. The shooting was great on our part, dumping all four.

It's always a habit for me to look at the feet of a bird as I pick it up.

"No way, silver!" I thought.

I hollered to my partner, explaining that I hauled in a band, pushing my life total to two bands. (My first was a mallard I shot near Detroit Lakes, Minn., when I was in college at Minnesota State University-Moorhead.)

Then, the next goose had a band. And the next. And the next.

Nine geese with bands? Unbelievable.

Mark Grovijahn, a 16-year employee for the GF&P and a waterfowl biologist, said we likely got into two families that were banded together and stuck together.

"Usually, when you encounter something like that, it's a fresh banding," he said.

We finished with 16 geese Saturday, well shy of our two-person limit of 30. Since we weren't exactly sure who knocked down the extra goose in the first volley of shooting, we flipped a coin for the extra band.

I got lucky.

Sunday evening, I called the band information to 1-800-327-BAND, as they're individually numbered. The woman on the phone asked for the species of the birds, where they were shot, my contact information and my email address.

When I shot my mallard and reported the information of the bird, I received a certificate for a keepsake. Today, when I requested the same for the goose bands, the woman said there have been budget cuts and now the certificates are only emailed.

Monday morning, the email I received explained all of the birds were banded July 5 of this year in Sioux Falls, about 40 miles away from the killing field.

The certificate also read Paul Mammenga was the biologist to band the geese. After I read the numbers on the bands, he dug up the information and remembered how he was a part of a group that corralled the geese for banding.

"They were definitely family groups," said Mammenga, who spent Tuesday morning banding mallards. The GF&P hopes to band about 2,000 mallards this year, and Mammenga said the efforts will continue through the middle of September before the Sept. 29 duck opener.

I started hunting when I was 10 years old and didn't get my first taste of a band until I was 20. I remember the day I shot my mallard very well, and I've watched several hunting partners pocket bands more than enough times to get me frustrated as I've waited for my next one.

Instead, it wasn't just one band -- it was nine and likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

When will my next bands come?

I have no idea, but Saturday's hunt will keep me looking at those sweet feet every single hunt.