Taylor Gibson, currently pursuing a master's degree in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture, was raised with curiosity and respect for wildlife and fishing. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, but as he grew older, he realized his true passion is waterfowl.
After graduating from Mississippi State with a wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture bachelor's degree, Gibson went to work. He worked with Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and then with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Ultimately, when given the choice to come back and conduct research with his undergraduate advisor, Dr. Brian Davis, Gibson described his decision as "easy pickings."
Gibson's research project, which is entitled "Nest Box Use and Reproduction of Wood Ducks and Other Cavity-Nesting Ducks In Mississippi," is a collaborative effort with eight states including Mississippi, Maryland, Delaware, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana.
College athletic rivalries with universities such as Louisiana State University, Clemson University, and the University of Delaware are set aside to collaborate on this study to examine wood duckling production and survival in nest boxes.
"We seek to evaluate, in Mississippi specifically, biotic and abiotic characteristics that may influence box use and reproduction in wood ducks, black-bellied whistling ducks, and hooded mergansers," Gibson said. "We do this all with artificial nest boxes."
When gathering data, Gibson and his three undergraduate technicians travel to their two Mississippi research sites: the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, and York Woods in Charleston, Mississippi. At these sites, Gibson and his team monitor the boxes that provide supplemental nesting sites for the three species of cavity-nesting ducks in the area. They then band the hens residing in the nesting boxes and candle the eggs to determine their incubation stage. On the estimated eggs' hatch date, they travel back to the research sites to catch the ducklings and secure a web tag on their foot. Associated information for each web-tagged duckling includes the hatch date, the nesting box from which the duckling hatched, the size of the hen, along with other data such as local habitat conditions.
"Besides the population information we obtain, we can use this data to calculate the actual cost of a female wood duck and duckling based on the cost of the nest box and nest box programs," said Davis, the James C. Kennedy Endowed Associate Professor in Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation and Gibson's major professor. "We know from earlier work that it is pretty efficient and worth the money."
Another benefit to nesting boxes is that they can serve as a unique teaching tool. Students can travel to the boxes and gain firsthand wildlife experience. In addition to the collaborative research program, Gibson is also conducting research testing the eggshell strength of wood ducks, hooded mergansers, and black-bellied whistling ducks, all of which can be found in the nesting boxes. Gibson also works closely with Dr. Pratima Adhikari, an assistant professor in the Department of Poultry Science, to determine the precise pressure needed to force the eggshells to crack.
"I am anxious to compare the data because we have all three of these species nesting in these boxes and a lot of the eggs will get cracked," Gibson said on his eggshell strength study. "When they get cracked, many hens will abandon the nest which leads to complete nest failure."
The research has never been conducted on such a large scale, and Gibson expressed excitement on seeing the data come in over the next few years. With the support of the James C. Kennedy Waterfowl Chair and other partners including the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, Gibson and Davis will be able to continue their research into both wood duckling production and eggshell strength.
"There's been a few studies on eggshell thickness, but no one's really done anything with these three species and their eggshell strength," Davis said. "The multiple years of studying duckling production and recruitment in these really different eight geographical regions will give us very exciting data to analyze."
This research is funded by the James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation, the Nemours Wildlife Foundation, the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center, and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.