The Legend of the Million-Dollar Duck Band

The Legend of the Million-Dollar Duck Band

For over a decade, I’ve heard tales of a very special banding project. The rumor holds that there’s $1 million in reward money for the lucky hunter who claims such a band. But the details were always fuzzy. Some versions of this story involve a $250,000 band in each of the four North American Flyways. Some speak of one life-changing duck with a $1 million band. Another version says it was a push by conservation organizations to get people to report their bands, and others said it was a marketing ploy by Budweiser to generate press.

I’ve heard this rumor far and wide across this country, and I love it. It’s a fine example of the bar room banter hunters love to spread. Part of me didn’t want to dig into this story; it’s too fun to daydream about calling in a red-and-white-themed leg band while you plan your $1 million duck property. But my curiosity got the best of me, and it’s time to settle it once and for all.

Was There A $1 Million Reward for a Duck Band? Yes, then no. Digging through old forums, you find the same misconceptions and incorrect information that I heard in duck blinds. Very few people have the story straight, but the fact is, in 2003 there was an advertisement in a national waterfowl magazine for a $1 Million Duck Band Sweepstakes.

Nearly two decades ago, a young organization called the National Waterfowler’s Registry announced that it would be holding a $1 million MegaDuck Challenge. The terms, according to Outdoor News, were pretty straightforward. The band numbers of 64 drake ducks would be randomly picked by the organizers with even distribution among the four flyways in North America. One duck in each flyway would have a band worth $250,000 cash and the remaining 15 bands in each flyway would also carry a prize value. These birds were already banded with the normal government silver leg tags. To randomly pick the band numbers, the organization needed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release that data to them.

While their website is long gone, it seems the organization and their corporate sponsors meant to do good and wanted to motivate waterfowl hunters to report their bands. This is best represented in the Outdoor News article, in which a member of the National Waterfowler’s Registry said their goal was “to augment current programs.”

I’ll be the first to say, on its surface level, that’s something I can get behind. Frankly, I’ve never understood why people don’t report their band information since I so enjoy seeing where my bands come from. But the USFWS was against the contest and would not voluntarily give up the band numbers and data.

Quantum Observation and Band Reporting At first, I was blind to the reason why the USFWS wasn’t excited by the contest. When bands go unreported because of hunter misconceptions, isn’t that bad data? Shouldn’t we want all hunters to report their bands? And the answer is well, not really.

I spoke with John Devney, senior vice president at Delta Waterfowl, to get more insight on the matter.

“The federal opposition to MegaDuck was that the project could influence a publicly-funded and critically important primary data set,” Devney said. “Let’s do a simple math example. We put out 100 bands on mallards, and hunters call in two of them, you say well the harvest rate is 2%. But the big variable in computing harvest rate is, what’s the reporting rate? Your harvest rate was based on 100% reporting rate. But if the reporting rate was only 10%, that means harvest was actually 20 mallards. A 2% or 20% harvest rate is a big difference, and it changes just by the reporting rate.”

Devney also spoke of all the study that’s gone into the method of reporting, federal reward bands, and the value of those reward bands.

“You used to have to send the band in and it was a big pain. Very few people wanted to send away their band. Then we got the 1-800 reporting by phone, and now we can report online. Because of those different methods, you have to assume the behavior of reporters is different,” Devney said. “So as those methods change, you use reward bands to reevaluate the changes in reporting rate. Someone might say they don’t want to tell the feds where they shot a band and they just put it on their lanyard. But they’re much more likely to give that information if they get $500.”

This isn’t short-term information gathering we’re talking about either. The USGS Bird Banding Laboratory was created in 1920. Jack Miner began banding birds even further back in 1904, and as a result we have over 100 years of trends and data that tell us about the band reporting habits of hunters. And for the USFWS, studying these trends is expensive and time-consuming, so keeping their legitimacy intact is important. Any anomaly is bad for the statistics and ultimately impacts management.

I talked to the founder of Waterfowler.com, Darin Sakas, who provided online media coverage of the project in 2003. “We had actually planned to do a single $1 million duck a couple years before the MegaDuck Challenge for our website, but we never got pass the planning,” Sakas said. “Once we talked with the Fish and Wildlife Service, we saw it would destroy the trends and statistics. The top of the pyramid is to protect the normalcy of these trends, otherwise all the math fails. Band data is like a quantum observer, just observing the experiment influences it.”

Certainly the opportunity to shoot a $1 million leg band would motivate people to get their hands on and report any leg band they could find. City park ducks across the United States probably wouldn’t have been safe (I mean they barely are now in some waterfowl-crazy circles).

The Morph Into Legend After the USFWS and multiple conservation organizations spoke out against the initiative, the corporate sponsors dropped their support and the challenge was abandoned. Something that almost happened became primed for legend.

So, how did this story get so distorted in duck camps?

“Yeah, it really has morphed into its own urban legend. I think they got enough press on their launch to put it into a lot of hunter’s minds, but people only remember bits and pieces as time goes on,” Sakas said. “And at the time, our weekly readership was about 100,000 people. In a world of 1 million waterfowlers, 10% of the community reading about the million-dollar duck band lends itself to urban legend pretty quick. Then the fact that reward bands do really exist furthers the idea of a mega reward.”

So how did Budweiser get involved? This isn’t exactly the Mandela Effect but it’s definitely incorrect recall. It’s also pretty easy to explain. In 2002 and 2003, Budweiser did do a $1 million reward for a tagged animal—but it was a fish. In an article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2003, the Busch Brands director gave some insight as to why.

“Beer sales are flat in some markets,” said Tom Wilson of Busch. “We want to increase volume.” The brand tagged 40 fish in 40 bodies of water scattered across the country. Thirty nine of those fish held $1,000 rewards. One of these fish was “Big Jake,” which carried the $1 million reward. Best I can tell, a couple people conflated the two stories along the way, and the Budweiser Million-Dollar Duck Band delusion was born.

Unfortunately, my dreams of picking up a drake mallard to find a King of Beers band are no more. The legend of the million-dollar duck band was equal parts facts, white lies, and beer all mixed together at duck camp.

Please, Respect the Process The last thing the sport needs is skewed banding data. This information is a cornerstone of waterfowl management. So, whatever your opinion on band reporting, don’t change a dang thing based on this article. If you report, keep doing it. If you don’t report, fine. The algorithm accounts for that.

Some incredibly smart people have dedicated their lives to analyzing band reports in order to better manage our waterfowl and make sure we never again repeat the troubled history of the wood duck or canvasback. As beneficiaries of the resource, we need to respect the value of that work.

Feature image via Captured Creative.

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