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Training Academy #12: Week 2

Sept. 11-15, 2023

Author: PCO Zackary Cardinal, Mecosta, Michigan

Training Academy #12 spent week two of our 10-week training attending waterfowl school at the Bay City State Park Recreation Center. Waterfowl identification is a vital skill for conservation officers since, in the fall, we often make contact with waterfowl hunters.

TA #11 joined us for the week of training, as they have yet to go through waterfowl school. TA #11 graduated from the 23-week conservation officer academy in December 2022, which was a longer academy because it included certification for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, combined with natural resource training. Waterfowl school is an advanced training that new hires go through after they have been sworn in. By the end of the week, we were all well versed in the common and uncommon ducks and geese in Michigan.

I was assigned as the team lead for the week. My responsibilities included obtaining head counts of my team and making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be with all the correct gear for the day.

people sitting on chairs in a room watching a presentation

Photo caption: Training Academy #12 joined TA #11 (who graduated in December 2022) for a week of waterfowl training in Saginaw. The training started in the classroom where waterfowl instructors (conservation officers who specialize in waterfowl training) introduced themselves and began teaching the group about the different waterfowl species.

Monday began by meeting our 20 waterfowl instructors. We were quickly amazed with their knowledge. By quickly examining a wing of each duck and giving it a look-over, every instructor could identify the species, gender and whether it was mature. The class was told that by the end of the week, we would be able to do the same. All I could think of was how bad I was going to be at identifying the birds, but the instructors reaffirmed that every person in previous training academies who sat in our same seats before us had been able to do it and we would be no different. We then took a pretest to evaluate our knowledge of different ducks. Some of us grew up waterfowl hunting and only got two wrong on the quiz; others had never sat in a duck blind, let alone hunted ducks, and did quite poorly. From there, we began the first lesson, a lengthy slideshow on “puddle ducks,” ranging from Mallards to Gadwall Ducks and Black Ducks to Green and Blue-winged Teals. Note taking was crucial to those of us who had done poorly on the quiz. When we were dismissed for the day, many of us went back to our rooms for study groups and spent the evening quizzing each other on the different wings and pictures of the birds that we learned that day.

duck decoys displayed on a table

Photo caption: Officers begin their training in the classroom learning the different species and characteristics to tell them apart. 

Wednesday morning, we started by learning more waterfowl from the list of “ducks to know.” We dove into presentations and details covering diver ducks that people commonly hunt in our state. We also walked around the room to look at and hold wings that have been taxidermized, which gave us better understanding of the wing sizes and feathers. After dinner, our class drove to the Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area. We went into the marshy areas to view the same ducks that we had learned about in class. Instructors explained and pointed out the different species and characteristics of waterfowl in their natural environment. It was easy to notice the different flight patterns and landings of the ducks, comparing a Pintail to a Mallard or a Northern Shoveler to a Blue-winged Teal. Once again, when the day ended, it consisted of more study groups – sitting together and analyzing different colors, shapes and sizes of both puddle and diver ducks that we covered in class that day. Slowly but surely, we started seeing light at the end of the tunnel and began understanding the identification process of waterfowl – using distinct features like color, shapes and locations of certain feathers as giveaways for the species, gender and age.

The rest of the week followed with different laws and regulations for each species. Our class was also shown different ways that poachers are often caught. Tools and tricks of being a game warden  were shown and explained to help us in our new career. We learned what to look for when it comes to baiting and over limits. We also learned about toxic shot (lead shotgun rounds) and the damage it can do to the ecosystem, which we all swore under oath to protect. We all went through at least three different scenarios. In these scenarios, we checked hunters and while handling their firearms safely, we unloaded the guns to check for correct plug length in the magazine and we tested the rounds in the gun. Additionally, we checked the ducks that the hunters had taken and their licenses, and we searched for any possible violations. Once each scenario was complete, we had a quick debrief and found out whether all the violations had been discovered. We concluded scenario day with a group picture, and then everyone went back to their rooms to study for the final exam the next morning.

conservation officer talks to two duck hunters standing by a canoe in a pond during a scenario

Photo caption: The day before the final waterfowl exam, officers go through real life waterfowl scenarios. Pictured, an officer encounters a scenario with two waterfowl hunters who have several violations. To complete the scenario, the officer must identify all the violations while actors try to distract him.

Friday morning, we had a quick, collective presentation of everything that had been covered that week and a final opportunity to ask questions before our exam. We had one hour to complete the waterfowl exam, which included identifying the species and gender of 30 different waterfowl setup on display, and if the number of birds in a pile were legal. Once completed, the final scores were handed out – everyone passed! The top student was announced and congratulated, with a 100% score. Conservation Officer Steven Sajtar, from TA #11, earned the prestigious student award for the 2023 Waterfowl Academy.  

lead pellet inside a clear bag

Photo caption: During waterfowl school, officers learn everything waterfowl related, ranging from species identification, laws and rules, to performing waterfowl necropsies. Pictured, an officer holds a bag that contains a lead pellet recovered during the waterfowl necropsy.

My perspective of being the team lead during week two of TA #12, while training with TA #11, is that each person displayed exemplary teamwork. When someone excelled at identifying a duck, no secrets were kept in attempt to outsmart the others. Knowledge and tricks were shared along with different experiences. This week’s team building was incredible. We all came together to be a part of the common interest of learning more about Michigan’s natural resources, followed by wanting to protect those same interests. The 2023 conservation officer waterfowl school will forever be a mark in all of our career timelines. Thank you to the instructors who participated in sharing their knowledge and experiences this past week. We are grateful.

Read Week 3.