UR Student Spends Life in the Wild

What are you doing at 4:30 a.m. on a school day? For most undergraduates, an average morning involves sleeping, or perhaps some last minute work on a paper or project. For Tyler Breen ‘16, it is the start of his workday during waterfowl season. In New York State, the waterfowl season consists of a 60-day period in the fall, a season that sends Breen out to the field and in position before sunrise. “Legal sunrise takes place at about 7:07 a.m.,” says Breen, who serves as a local guide for hunters, “which means that the heaviest flights times for ducks are at 6:37 a.m.”

Breen, an ecology and evolutionary biology major at the University of Rochester, became interested in hunting at an early age. Breen’s grandfather was the president of the New York State Chapter of the National Turkey Federation, an organization which focused on raising turkeys and bringing their population back to New York during his tenure. Breen went on his first youth hunt at age 12 with a family friend. He then began to hunt mallard ducks for the next two years, teaching himself the tactics and calls as he went along. This past summer, Breen passed the exam to become a New York State Licensed Outdoor Guide, a position which allows him to serve as an escort for hunting groups.

While to some, Breen’s hobby of hunting might seem at odds with his major, to Breen these interests are perfectly aligned. “I like to think of myself as both a conservationist and a sportsman,” says Breen, “A lot of experienced hunters are environmentally active, and we try to put two ducks in the sky for every one that we take.”

Licensed guides in New York are hired by groups or individuals looking to hunt waterfowl. Breen currently works as a guide at Fish and Frontier Outfitters in Farmington, N.Y., where his responsibilities extend way beyond simply taking people out hunting. Guides are responsible for scouting locations and negotiate with landowners for permission to hunt on their property. Another key element of the guide’s job is placing decoys before taking their clients out in the field. Decoys are incredibly detailed “fake” birds that are placed in clearings to attract live birds flying over to land in range of the hunting group. These decoys are specific to each different species of duck, and are made with extremely detailed materials in order to successfully fool the live birds, who can be notoriously difficult to trick. “Geese and ducks are a lot smarter than most people think,” says Breen, “To hunt a duck, you have to be a duck.” In addition to the day to day tasks, as a guide Breen is also responsible for knowing every Federal regulation surrounding different species of waterfowl and flyway locations. In an average season, Breen hunts a large number of different species of both geese and duck. Regulations surrounding “Daily Bag Limits,” or how many birds you can take during a single trip, differ for each type of waterfowl, and differ further depending on if the bird is a hen (female) or drake (male). As a guide, Breen must be able to identify the species of duck and its sex while the bird is flying above him, or risk breaking federal regulation; this is an extraordinarily impressive skill given the differences between the species are often very minute.

Tyler-Breen-2Environmental conservation is an important subject for Breen, and he is currently on the board of directors for two local waterfowl organizations, the Canandaigua Lake Duck Hunters and the Lima chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Both organizations focus on fundraising and conservation efforts, including building nesting boxes to help increase the local waterfowl population. Taking part in these conservation activities led Breen to his academic interest in ecology and evolutionary biology. As a Rochester undergraduate, Breen has pursued research focusing on the genetic makeup of common ducks, which can often be hard to differentiate. Two common species of ducks in the Western New York region are mallard and black ducks. “The hybridization process has begun fairly recently and lead to a sharp decline in black duck populations due to migration of mallards into historically black duck specific breeding grounds,” says Breen. “The future survival of the American Black Duck is in serious question as mallard genetics are rapidly polluting the gene pool of black ducks.”

Breen is examining the underlying cause of why black duck hens prefer drake mallards over drake blacks on the breeding grounds, specifically how the hybridization is a function of mallard genetic dominance that overcomes the recessive alleles in the black duck which have gone to fixation due to genetic drift. During his research, Breen connected with a fellow ecology student in Beverly Hills, Calif., studying a similar topic. Breen helped the student by sending him information and samples of the mallard/black hybridization. “Understanding the process of hybridization is important to increasing our understanding of these species, this information is very important to conservation efforts and to preventing the inevitable loss of the species,” says Breen, who hopes to continue to work outdoors, both as a guide and a conservationist, as well as possibly pursuing a doctorate in ornithology.

In addition to being a licensed guide and full-time student, Breen also is an accomplished Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America organization. He views the outdoors as almost a second home, and scouting was an excellent introduction into the world of camping and outdoor adventure. Breen served for two summers as a counselor for an Ohio Scout camp, where he taught wilderness survival and other skill courses. Another element of hunting that Breen is passionate about is the trust and bonding that hunting with the same group can build over time. During summer 2013, Breen was encouraged by one of the members of his hunting group to pursue volunteer firefighting. Breen had been trained in First-Aid during his time as a scout, so he embarked on the application process, where he was required to learn and pass tests on necessary skills and situational responses. Last summer, he took a firefighting course at the Public Safety Training Facility of Monroe County, which consisted of learning the skills necessary to successfully fight fires both indoors and outdoors, including how to navigate burning buildings safely, and use the respiratory and protective equipment properly. The course involved nights of real fire training, which Breen describes as “intense.”

While Breen has many interests, his main passion is the outdoors: “I love the sense that I’m alone in the outdoors,” explains Breen,  “When I take a trip into the remote wilderness I’m seeing and experiencing things that most people don’t get to.”