WINGS AT DAWN
As ducks and geese crowd the flyways, another record hunting season is on
From Maine to Oregon, along the great plains and in the swampy lowlands, down rivers and up cornfields, anxious eyes these days are scanning crimson skies, waiting for waterfowl. The annual migration is on. Pushed by winds and rain and the first cold fingers of autumn, myriads of ducks and geese are winging south, some to the lazy warmth of wintering grounds, others to the waiting guns of more than 2 million hunters. And everywhere, as the reports on the following pages show, the 1957 waterfowl season looks good. Whether greeted from a scull boat on the Kennebec or a blind in the Salt Creek marshes of Utah (above), it promises for early-morning enthusiasts like Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Carlisle (left) and Gordon Kirby (right) of Salt Lake City full bags and happy hunting.
There is good reason why the countless millions of ducks now flying south should be getting more irritable by the year. Every fall along the flyways from Canada the ducks find changes have been made, usually for the worse. Guns such as those bristling on the opposite page offer trouble enough, but the ducks also find that familiar ponds bordered by lush greenery and coated with the tasty patina of algae have disappeared. Lovely, boggy acres, once fit only for ducks, are drained by farmers and split-level home builders. The ducks are not consulted about these changes, and some have a hard time finding new bogs.
October 20, 1957
If instead of flying peaceably south, the incensed ducks decided to retaliate with mass attacks on select U.S. croplands, they would be stopped cold. The Armed Forces have no effective ground-to-duck weapon, but 2½ million U.S. duck hunters do. The hunters also have a corking intelligence service that could pinpoint a sneak duck attack before the first wave reached Fargo, North Dakota. This intelligence net includes federal and state wildlife agencies of the U.S. and Canada, university staff men and a number of duck men whose work is supported by hunters. The best-known of the hunter-supported agents are the technicians of Ducks Unlimited who work in Canada.
If there were ever any untoward marshaling of ducks, any early migration of mallards, any lingering of pintails, if there were anything strange doing among the nitwit redheads, the teals, gadwalls or scaups, it very likely would be noted by Biologist Robert Thomas Sterling, who is shown patiently listening to the gabble and chucklings of a molted mallard in the picture above. Sterling's territory, eastern Saskatchewan, is in the heart of the breeding grounds. Sterling works for Ducks Unlimited in Duckland, where he could learn almost everything worth knowing about ducks—if he had the time and 2,000 biologists to help him.
Every year Sterling counts thousands of ducks, bands several thousand, gives duck talks to civic groups, occasionally helps crippled ducks and helps Americans who come hunting ducks. He politely hears out the grumblers who do not like the game laws, though lawmaking is not at all his business. He politely advises distraught women who report that mother ducks and ducklings are walking on the public roads (Leave the ducks alone. Please do not put them in your basement!). People who see him with binoculars think he makes his living counting ducks, and Sterling sometimes finds it better to let it go at that than explain just what the hell he is doing.
Biologist Sterling's job is the one for which Ducks Unlimited was started 20 years ago: in simple terms, to provide homes for ducks that want to raise more ducks. Sterling is physically and academically fit for the problem of providing homes for ducks. He is a solidly built, 5-foot 7-inch man whose age of 34 is betrayed only by a slight molt at the temples. He has five years of university study behind him and, when he is mulling the problems of ducks, his calmness, his spectacles and trim mustache give him the air of a young, understanding psychoanalyst. If the chuckling gossip of the mallard pictured on the preceding page were actually getting through to him, Sterling would have it made. He could work like a psychoanalyst in a well-appointed office. He could ask the ducks in—or have his springer spaniel, Rowdy, usher them in by mouth—and learn firsthand why the teals do not like a slough that they liked two years ago and why the black ducks are shifting west from Ontario. Without leaving his office he could know what the teals prefer to eat, what predators are eating the most duck eggs, how the water stands on all Ducks Unlimited impoundments and who has been swiping stop logs of D.U.'s dams. He could ask the mallards to go easy on the farmers' grain swaths and ask the redheads to stop laying eggs in the nests of other ducks. "I try to think like a duck," Sterling observes, "but I have to remember that I am not a duck, and what we do not know about ducks is still a very great deal."
Groin-deep in water
Sterling has a home, a wife and four children in Saskatoon and an office in the basement of Helgi Olafson's filling station in the small town of Wynyard. He is sometimes home or at his desk, but more often not, for the answers he needs lie in the field. The phrase "in the field" is a euphemism. Sterling often works groin-deep in water and, as he puts it, "up to the eyes in vegetation." After a wet spell, the minor roads of Saskatchewan afford about as much traction as thick minestrone. Sterling can count on spending some time every month mired in his station wagon, hoping Indians will come with horses and pull him out.
Sterling's 12-by-12 office is a repository for his data and field samples and for the equipment he needs to make his way through dust, phragmites, bulrushes, mud, muskeg and water. Beside his desk and on a flanking wall, bookshelves hold the contributory knowledge of many biologists and naturalists—casual reference books like Peterson's Field Guides, annual soil and water reports, a copy of Spillane's I, the Jury, books on ducks, on water, on water plants, on prairies, on prairie ducks, prairie plants and prairie waters. Beside the typewriter stand is a plug-in heater that looks barely large enough to keep itself warm in the middle of a Canadian winter. Against one wall is an automobile tire, its tread spent, and atop the tire, two surplus life vests (Sterling cannot swim). On one wall hangs a map of the province and the early Marilyn Monroe calendar, courtesy of a North Dakota auto agency. There is a single barrel shotgun by the door, and under the stairs a .22 repeater with a scarified fore-piece and stock that seem to have been gnawed by a cougar. A shelf holds bottles of water marked "Goose Lake," "Shoal Lake" and so forth. Since Canada has many Goose Lakes and Shoal Lakes, these are also marked with dates and range numbers. Sterling will pass these water samples on to Canadian Wildlife technicians to test for acidity and nutrients, so Sterling and other field men will have a few more answers to help in evaluation of breeding areas.
When spring breakup starts near the end of March, reducing the province's byways to a black paste, Sterling is afield, inspecting the ditches, the rip-rapping and spillways of D. U. projects. He replaces stop logs and repairs the minor damage wrought by winter; bigger jobs he turns over to D.U.'s Saskatchewan engineer. When the last of the northbound ducks are settling in, Sterling is counting breeding pairs. Later in the season he counts the hatched broods, as a measure of how the waters are producing and what the prospects may be for the hunters down the flyways. In midsummer Sterling often collaborates with other D.U. men in mass bandings of flightless, molting ducks. Sterling skims over the water in an air boat, herding the ducks toward a wire corral. Some ducks break away to the flanks and dive under as the boat bears down on them. At times it is like a mad, fast game of chess. Sterling hires high schoolers and deploys them in the water like giant pawns, dropping them from the boat, picking them up and dropping them again to check the ducks.
Sterling's essential work is the reconnaissance of areas that might be improved for ducks. There are old, drained acres abandoned by farmers that can be restored to duck use. There are waters where some draining may afford shallow habitat for ducks and areas where impoundment will guarantee water through drought. Before changing any water level, Ducks Unlimited must get easements from all shore owners. D.U. thereby relies heavily on good public relations, especially among farmers, a few of whom are beset by visions of mallards stealing their last bushel. That is why Tom Sterling spends some time talking about ducks in farm communities and listening to the plaints of ladies who report walking ducks.
The $525,000 budget with which D.U. works in a year is the equivalent of a 21¢ contribution from every hunter (actually only a surprisingly low number of hunters, less than 30,000, contribute anything). Hunters asked to kick in often boil their doubts down to one naked question: How can 500 grand a year do much for ducks all over Canada? The answer lies behind some geographical and duckological facts. On the average map printed in the U.S., Canada appears as 3,845,000 square miles of uniformly pink void separating the U.S. from the polar ice cap. About 75% of the migrating game ducks are born in the pink Canadian void (the rest come from the northern U.S. and Alaska, with a few slipping in through the Siberian curtain). North from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and northeasterly across Ontario, extends what geologists call the Pre-Cambrian shield, a land of rock intrusions, gored by glaciers and now covered with woods and tundra and pitted with ponds and lakes—a petrified sponge, holding enough water to accommodate all the world's ducks. But the Pre-Cambrian has few ducks. Its duck density is about one hen and drake every rive square miles. The water depths and the acidity inhibiting aquatic plant growth in Pre-Cambrian areas are unfavorable, and much of the shore line is more favorable to predators than ducklings. All of Ducks Unlimited's 428 projects have been built in the prairie provinces, in one-tenth of the country's total area, where the duck density is 100 times greater than in the large, water-pocked Pre-Cambrian. Fifty percent of all North American game ducks are reared in the prairie Duckland shown on the map on page 67.
U.S. names in Duckland
As D.U.'s work continues, Duckland is becoming filled with familiar U.S. names. D.U. smartly names many of its projects after regional groups of contributors. There are now in Duckland a San Francisco, a Fresno, a Texas Panhandle, a Memphis and a Chesapeake. D.U. strategically locates regionally sponsored projects so it can almost guarantee some ducks from the project will fly over the sponsors' heads. (San Franciscans will be grieved to hear that pintail No. 42-634782 from Lake San Francisco, instead of taking the usual pintail route, SSW to California, wound up 2,500 miles east in Labrador.) Arkansas will be pleased to know that this year Biologist Tom Sterling found the dam on Arkansas-Pel Lake in good repair, water level good and broods good. The Arkansans might also like to know that some of the ducks Sterling banded a year ago on Arkansas-Pel are already turning up in Arkansas bags—last fall, R. A. Nelson of North Little Rock got green-wing teal No. 515-92981 and Marvin Bennett got pintail No. 526-94350 on January 7.
Filling a void
Biologist Tom Sterling has no precise way of knowing how much his year's work contributes to the flyways in the fall. He can derive some satisfaction from the fact he is partly filling a void that exists by U.S. law. By law no U.S. Fish and Wildlife money can be spent on physical improvement outside U.S. territory. The U.S. share of the job in the vital breeding area must go to somebody like Sterling, who works for some nongovernmental agency like D.U., which is supported by some number of people who care. The men in Duckland can get some satisfaction from the production report and forecast shown on page 67. Over much of the total range, production was down from 1956, but the denser populations over most of Duckland's small area produced as well or better than in 1956—so, except for a slight decrease possible in the Pacific, the flyways should have another year as good as '56.
By the time hunters get their guns out in the northern tier of the U.S., Sterling has forgotten about this year and is starting on the next. This fall, as the 1957 crop goes south, Sterling also sets out from his office, but heads north. He stands for a moment peering intently at a point two feet west of Marilyn Monroe on his office wall. There, 102° 50 minutes west of Greenwich, north of the 53rd parallel, his map shows an Indian reservation hugging a riverbank in a cluster of lakes, 45 miles from the road's end at Carrot River. The lakes look good but, from the air in summer, duck spotters had seen few broods. Why?
Sterling puts his waders and sleeping bag in his car and drives 150 miles straight toward the wavering curtain of northern lights drenching the sky. The washboard road wrings all the familiar groans from his rocket-styled car, but he is delayed only once briefly. An expectant mother, nervously driving alone at night, asks Sterling if she may trail his car to Wadena.
When Sterling reaches Carrot River he feels the ache of flu, and hunts up a doctor for a jab of penicillin. The doctor prescribes, instead, three days in bed and pink pills to promote sweat and sleep. Sterling takes the pills, drinks coffee to offset sleepiness, and contracts a bush pilot to fly him in to the airstrip that a raw fur buyer, Bert Hutton, has cut on the edge of the Indian reserve. Fur Buyer Hutton greets Sterling with the news that flu is epidemic on the reservation. Sterling helps carry Hutton's sick 81-year-old father to a plane. Hutton has lived thereabouts many years, and from him Sterling learns that in the terrible droughts of the '30s, when Duckdom along with many other things was at rock bottom, the area was very dry—you could walk across Redearth Lake. Now, except for the narrow silt banks of the river, all is water, much of it hidden under deceptive, quivering muskeg. The government has put a dam on Jam Creek, impounding water to improve muskrat habitat. There are plenty of ducks, Hutton attests—a good variety of dabblers and divers, in fact, an occasional wood duck. How are the broods? Hutton does not recollect seeing many young. Hutton's mother reports that she sees a few hens and ducklings walking toward the river (women are forever seeing ducks walking). A Cree Indian, Lionel Head, takes Sterling by cart a mile and a half to his canoe. For two days Sterling explores shore lines and presses through the phragmites into side sloughs, from Redearth Lake to Bourassa Lake, then winding 25 miles down the Carrot River to Buffalohead Lake and another unmapped lake, which the Indians call the Water-That-Has-Many-Puddles. Mallards jump up from the sloughs and diving ducks rise from the open water, but these are the ducks of the present—marshaling, feeding and moving south. Sterling is concerned with the future. Over the Carrot River, riding a rising wave of air, hundreds of sand-hill cranes bear to the south, their bugle sound lingering behind. Sterling tosses a chunk of meat to a coyote basking on the riverbank (here is one reason why there would never be duck nests on the narrow, wooded bank). Sterling takes water samples and also samples of milfoil, sago pond weed, bur reed, three-square bulrush and another seemingly tasty aquatic that he does not recognize. Noting Sterling's interest in plant food, Indian Guide Lionel Head suggests the Indians might buy corn and feed the ducks. Sterling smiles and explains. There is plenty of food. He is looking for dry land fit for nesting ducks. Sterling has come quite a distance, helped an expectant mother and a sick man, tossed meat to a coyote, and seen a fine muskrat area. The place has too much water for ducks.
When winter locks him in, Sterling will file a full report on the Carrot River lakes to his head office. The area now has too much water, but some day the muskrat industry may die. Inevitably there will be terrible drought again, and the data will come out of the file and engineers will go to work.
The job of trying to save a wildlife species, Sterling observed recently, while staring at the shrinking wilderness on his office map, usually does not get started until it is too late. It makes some sense, he figures, to be working while there are plenty of ducks still around.