CADILLAC — Duck and run. Escape most fowl. However you want to pun it, the duck was gone.

With a squirm, the bird slipped from wildlife biologist Vern Richardson's grasp, then waddled back toward Lake Cadillac.

"Well, that was a female mallard," Richardson said ruefully.

It happens every year. Richardson traps and bands ducks as part of an international effort to track migratory birds. The birds are trapped on the lake, then brought to shore in an orange crate. Richardson and wildlife assistant Meghan Miller place a band around the duck's leg, record data (sex, species and whether they think it hatched this year or earlier) and then release the duck.

Every year, some ducks escape. Some are let go without getting their little metal ankle bracelets.

Richardson says he deliberately handles the birds gently.

"A bird getting away is still better than injuring it," Richardson said.

The trapping and banding is part of a mark and recapture survey, an international effort between the U.S. and Canada to track migratory birds.

In the U.S., the Bird Banding Laboratory, a unit of the United States Geological Survey, oversees the permitting process. The lab issues the bands and collects the data people like Richardson gather in the field. Canada has a separate permitting process through the Bird Banding Office of the Canadian Wildlife Service, but uses the same bands and sends the data to the U.S.

Waterfowl banding is "highly coordinated" along what biologists call "flyways," according to Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory, which is based in Baltimore. 

Flyways are the regional corridors along which birds fly; Michigan is in the Mississippi flyway.

States within flyways work together on the banding efforts, collecting data that helps wildlife biologists estimate how many birds survived and how many were harvested by hunters, Peterjohn explained.

The work helps biologists set hunting seasons and regulations.

Hunters report banded birds when they harvest them, Richardson said. Other reports of where the birds wound up and when might come from bird watchers using binnoculars, if they can get a glimpse of the bird's band, which biologists clamp around a leg on the bird.

Richardson bands birds on Lake Cadillac because there's no hunting. Lake Mitchell does have duck hunters and baiting the birds for trapping and banding would lead to hunters not being able to hunt the area for 10 days, according joint state and federal waterfowl regulations. (Duck hunting season in Michigan's "middle zone," where Wexford County is, doesn't start until Oct. 5, but geese open Sept.1, according to the Michigan Waterfowl Digest).

When they band the bird, biologists (most people who do bird banding for the survey are state or federal natural resource officers, like Richardson, according to Peterjohn) record whether the bird is a "hatch-year" or not (born this year or earlier), its sex and species.

Sometimes the answer is "I don't know."

Checking duck anatomy is invasive.

"'Unknown' is a perfectly acceptable answer," Richardson told Miller as they worked to identify the sex of one duck.

Species can also be hard to parse.

Black ducks and mallards hybridize frequently, which can make identifying bird species on Lake Cadillac, where there are mostly black ducks and mallards, a little tricky. (If he caught one, Richardson would have put a band on a wood duck, too, but he's never got one on Lake Cadillac).

While the mallard hen mentioned above slipped away before Richardson and Miller could band her, Richardson simply let other ducks go. Some were so young that it was hard to say whether they were black ducks or mallards.

One was a possible hybrid.

As Richardson explained to the Cadillac News, mallards have a thick stripe of white both above and below blue feathers on their wings. Black ducks don't. 

This duck had the thinnest of white stripes above and below.

Miller snapped a couple of photos of it so they could get a second opinion. Then Richardson let the bird go.

"Come back tomorrow," he told the bird.

Cadillac News