A man can try, anyway—when he isn't reporting on waterfowl romances, feeding panhandlers, peering at old gunshot wounds or planting microphones to record the 10th call of the pintail
June 05, 1960

One day late last June, beside a dirt road that runs through the Delta Waterfowl Research Station on Lake Manitoba, Canada, a 2-day-old motherless mallard duckling sat hungry and lonely, cheeping in distress. In front of the duckling stood Gilbert Gottlieb of Durham, N.C. In the two days since the duckling had chipped out of the egg in the Delta Station hatchery it had never seen its mother, nor, for that matter, seen any duck or living thing except Gilbert Gottlieb. Gottlieb was trying to see if this duckling would follow him as if he were its mother.

Gottlieb does not look like a mother duck. He is a 5-foot-10, well-proportioned, brown-eyed, bespectacled 29-year-old student of clinical psychology. As the good musculature of his shoulders suggests, Gottlieb swims well and likes water, but beyond that he has little in common with a mother duck. To get the newly hatched duckling to follow him, Gottlieb bent over and slowly backed away, moving his hands in and out as if playing a small accordion. As he backed down the road, Gottlieb repeated softly, "Come, come, come." The duckling did not come.

Gottlieb then got down on all fours and backed away like a timorous crab, still repeating, "Come, come, come." The duckling took several wandering steps, stopped, cheeped and stared vacantly up at the vast, bewildering dome of summer sky.

Newly hatched ducklings have been known to walk more than a mile following their mothers in the desperate quest for water. Ducklings, for want of a better mother, have been known to attach themselves to Leghorn hens, monkeys, humans and house cats. That being the case, what was wrong with Gilbert Gottlieb?

During the first day of the duckling's life, Gottlieb had placed it on a shielded circular platform for 20 minutes while a motorized papier-m√¢ché model of a mallard drake circled the platform. The duckling began following the fake male mallard. Later, when the duckling was about 27 hours old, Gottlieb tested it again. This time a model of a female mallard, as well as the original male model, circled slowly. The duckling still followed the phony male. The duckling had learned the looks of the male model and had learned to follow it and now preferred the male to the unfamiliar female. As psychologists say in the trade, the duckling was "imprinted" on the fake male. When tested later beside the road, the duckling did not follow Gottlieb because Gottlieb does not look like a fake male mallard.

The duckling was a typical performer among 195 newly hatched mallards and domestic Pekings that Gottlieb tested under identical conditions to find out if a wild species will follow the first moving object it sees more readily and devotedly than will a domestic fowl. Since the first thing it sees usually is its real mother, this trait of following is, logically, a good one for a wild duckling. For a domestic duckling the same trait is not vital and might even be a drawback: in the heavy traffic of the barnyard the duckling that follows too readily might start going around with the wrong crowd. Whatever the logic, in his tests Gottlieb found that, by and large, both wild and domestic ducklings followed and became attached to the same fake "mother" with equal zeal.

Though Gottlieb's findings are not apt to create a stir in the world at large, over the years they will serve a variety of scientists who are trying to find out why humans, as well as ducks, behave as they do. The wild world of ducks is not yet bound for extinction, and the crowded world of men has never yet gone completely off its rocker. But both could bear some watching.

The wild ducklings that Gottlieb used for his tests were subsequently pen-reared at the Delta Station and released, and very likely most of them joined the great armadas of mallards that came down the U.S. flyways last fall from the Canadian prairies and parklands. Chances are about half of them made it safely back to some Canadian marsh this spring. The brief, strange training they experienced under Gilbert Gottlieb will probably have little effect on the fortunes of any of them. To survive, each separately will depend on its instincts, on how much it learns in the special world of ducks, and on luck.

If, in his tests at the Delta Research Station, Gottlieb had led his ducklings down the road while blowing a flute, he would have attracted scant notice. Scientists have been working at Delta for 22 years, and in that time a flute is but one of many logical and illogical tools that have been used in the study of waterfowl (ducklings respond to flutes—E below middle C works well, but the warning cry of an emperor goose works better).

The Delta Station sits astride a narrow barrier dune that separates Lake Manitoba from a long, 36,000-acre expanse of marsh. The Delta marsh is an excellent summer range for waterfowl and, accordingly, an ideal place to study them. The rotten ice, vestige of winter, still lies on the open waters of the marsh in early April when the first ducks settle in. Through spring and summer, ducks, geese, coots and scientists come and go. By the time the hard, cold winds of late October sweep the marsh, the last scientist has departed with a bushel of data, and the last lingering mallards, bellies full of grain, are marshaling to take their chances south over the hunters.

Delta is the foremost waterfowl study center of this continent, but to the hasty eye it does not look it. By day the scientists at Delta are busy out of sight, on the marsh, in the hatchery and library, or in mink houses that have been converted into offices. The pens and enclosed ponds holding full-winged and pinioned birds needed for research are hidden from the main road by the hatchery, administration building and a lodge. Often along the road the most obvious sign of life is an old, well-fed Labrador retriever dozing in the sun with a tame magpie perched on its back, irritably fending off the swooping attacks of songbirds. Across the road from the fussing magpie, a small willow is garnished with a hopeless tangle of cellophane kite tail. A hockey goalie's stick lies in the grass beside the road, and the holster of a shoot-'em-up cap pistol hangs from a fence stave—sure signs that not all of Delta's young come out of eggs.


Beyond the labyrinth of the station's pens and fenced-in ponds the vast maze of pristine marsh stretches south, east and west to the horizon—a mosaic of phragmites and bulrush, interlocking bays and isolated sloughs, shining bright in the low sun of the long afternoons. Swatches of cumulus breaking off the cloud banks that rise over the lake dapple the sky, reflecting in the water, casting shadows on the phragmites, adding to the changing colors. As the sun sinks, it gilds the wild trumpeter swans on the ponds, picks up the flights of white pelicans against the darkening sky four miles away, and burnishes the breasts of Franklin's gulls returning after a day of grubbing behind tractors on the prairie grainlands to the south. River ducks jump up from the sloughs, impelled by love, fear or hunger. Terns slowly beat their way windward, then slide back with the wind, again and again. In a small pond behind the lodge a mallard upends, scrounging the lush bottom; a ringneck loafs in the reeds; scaup and canvasback dip and preen and shake their heads, flicking jewels of pond water from their bills. On a nearby bank white-cheeked Canada geese parade singly and two abreast, heads high, stepping slowly like deans and university fellows marching to a Harvard commencement.

The tap water of the Delta lodge comes from shallow drillings under the marsh. The water is potable, but it is the color of weak tea and tastes as if ducks had been walking in it. The station imports better water for table use, but in a number of other ways the rich life of the marsh pervades the lodge itself. The whonk-whonk of geese and swans and the muffled gabble of ducks filter through the walls. When the wind on the marsh is barely strong enough to be felt on the cheek, still in the lodge it finds some crack to whistle through, some door to slam and shutter to bang. The eaves of the lodge are jam-packed with nesting swallows, so that by day in the walls there is a constant murmuring, rustling and thumping as if a guild of Lilliputian carpenters were at work lifting the roof.

Last June, while the swallows were crowding the eaves and Psychologist Gilbert Gottlieb was training ducklings to follow a false mother, the sounds of the marsh were penetrating the lodge with exceptional volume. Across the road from Gottlieb's work cabin, in the reeds behind the lodge, Robert Smith, a Tennesseean educated at Auburn and Utah State, had inserted a crystal microphone in a pintail's nest. The mother pintail was away at the time, but since the eggs were on the verge of pipping—a time when a pintail hen's loyalty runs strong—Bob Smith knew the mother would return. After planting the microphone, Smith retired to a bunk room in the lodge to hear and record whatever might be said between mother and eggs. The microphone was very sensitive. While Smith listened from sundown to near sunup, he picked up much of the night life of the marsh—low grunts, squeals, whirring sounds and all manner of undefinable noises. Several scaup on the pond chuckled softly. A distant goose gave a single, blatant honk, protesting an intruder or, possibly, making noise just for the hell of it. In another moment a Virginia rail sang out, its beautiful, fluted de-crescendo cutting the night, air as clear and clean as a falling star. Farther down the lodge the voices of two apprentice biologists arguing the merits of the Canadian Avro jet fighter drifted out through a window and were returned to Smith via the microphone. Mosquitoes buzzed around the pintail nest, and 20,000 feet up an airliner growled past, bound for somewhere. A bird walked through the water near the nest, its sloshing amplified through the speaker to brontosaurian proportions. The mother pintail moving on the nest, turning the eggs, sounded like a bear breaking through a thicket. The weak but urgent peeping and tap-tapping of the pipping ducklings came through clearly. Except for an occasional sigh, the mother apparently said nothing in return for some time, but as the night passed Smith began to hear a different sound, a series of notes, much like the peeps of the ducklings but lower pitched and muted as if coming from an egg well buried in the clutch. The sound became stronger through the night, resembling more the voice of an adult. By the time Smith cut off the tape recorder in the predawn, there was no doubt this different sound came not from an egg but from the mother.

The vocabulary of the pintail is complex and effective, involving various combinations of nine calls and some two dozen commonplace body movements. Bob Smith's microphone had picked up something new: a 10th call of the pintail. Smith eventually will put the best samples of this call, along with samples of other pintail calls, through an oscilloscope. Oscillographs of duck noises will never be used by game managers in the field, but they are valuable in eliminating the human bias that intrudes on the study of ducks. No two duck experts are alike, and the cacophonic quacks, kuk-kuks, whistles and peeps that one expert emits to imitate a duck often fools ducks but rarely sounds right to another expert. The oscillograph will pin down the 10th call of the pintail exactly.


For Bob Smith, the discovery of the 10th call was only one small advance in a four-year quest to plot and understand the behavior of pintails. In Texas, Utah, Alberta and Manitoba, through courtship, mating, nesting, molting and migrating, Smith has closely watched more than 2,000 pintails, observing them not collectively as a species but as individuals—to couch it in human terms, Smith has been snooping. He cannot say what is going through each pintail mind, but by watching the movement of a duck he can often predict what the duck will do next. In a courting group, he cannot predict which drake will get the girl, but by watching the lateral headshakes, the wing stretching, head pumping, back preening, bill dipping and tail wagging, at any moment he has a fair idea which drake feels sure of himself, which is ill at ease, and which is apt to make the big move and show the back of its head to the female (showing the back of the head is the height of intimacy among unmated pintails).

By midmorning after his long tape recording session Bob Smith is 25 feet up in a tower with binoculars looking for pintails. A lone male stands on a stack of dead reeds. By the combination of colored bands on its legs Smith knows this is the mate of the nesting pintail whose 10th call he picked up the night before. About now this male should be congregating with other males, moving along to safer waters for the postnuptial molt. But instead, the male has been meeting another female on the stack of reeds. Is it true love? Smith doesn't know, but it is worth watching.

As Smith watches, eight miles east, where the Delta road runs through growths of popple and willow, Jennifer Walker, a fair, brown-eyed graduate of London University, walks in the muck at the marsh edge. Four years ago the water in this area stood three feet higher than the 40-year mean. Now it is dropping again, the drier land going over to grasses and sedge but the emergent plants still inhibited by clotted stalks of dead phragmites. At a fast glance a biologist could deduce that the area is improving for nesting mallards and shovelers but is still not much for canvasback or redheads. To Jennifer Walker, at the moment, it is immaterial whether the lush growth supports mallards or a colony of pterodactyls. Her mission is botanical: to assess the abundance and nature of the growth in varying parts of the marsh. Jennifer carries a knapsack, an aluminum vasculum slung over one shoulder for storage of questionable discoveries, a magnifying glass on a cord around her neck, a knife tied to her belt, a clipboard with a pen tied to it and, wedged in her right wader, a small notebook with another pen tied to it (she loses about a dozen pens in the bogs every season). Thus equipped, last year Jennifer walked 10 or 20 miles a day to and from select spots in the marsh. This year she has a small, asthmatic used car that usually carries her most of the way before burrowing in to the hub caps. To get unbiased samples, Jennifer turns her back on the strip of marsh she is assessing and throws a stick over her shoulder. Then, using the stick point as one corner, with four pegs and string she stakes out a half-meter square (she had a chain for this purpose, but it, too, is lost in the marsh). Every plant stemming out of the square counts in the sample. Jennifer crouches in the growth, begins examining the plants, pushes the vasculum out of her way, opens her clipboard, examines more plants, swats a mosquito on her forehead, swings the vasculum out of the way again, picks up the clipboard that has slid off her knee, swats another mosquito, disentangles her pen string from a thistle, swats another mosquito and starts writing. And so she proceeds, from day to day, recording the prosperity of white-top, cattail, bulrush, stinging nettle, skullcap, duckweed, pigweed, sow thistle, fleabane, gypsywort and cursed crowfoot.

As Jennifer swats bugs and counts plants, about 60 yards from where Bob Smith is watching pintails, a bearded, lean-faced Canadian zoologist, Neil McArthur, pulls a large handful of grass from the ground. It does not matter to McArthur whether the greenery he pulls is pigweed, gypsywort or the fronds of a banana plant. McArthur is merely on his way to work, and his route takes him through the domain of the young Canada geese which the station raises to replace flocks that have been shot to extinction. With their heads half-cocked and quivering, like adders about to strike, the young Canadas used to hiss distrustfully at McArthur. The Canadas now find him a kind man, good for a handout of grass every time. After feeding the geese, McArthur walks on to a small cabin and settles down to a microscope to look for traces of a blood parasite that attacks ducks, much as malaria attacks men. While McArthur works, the cabin door stands open. It has to. Someone left it open several weeks ago, and a swallow, seeking Lebensraum away from the lodge eaves, built a nest inside. The swallow flicks in and out, barely noticed by McArthur, but a few moments later a shuffling sound catches his attention. The lead geese of the Canada flock have entered looking for him. The rest of the flock stands just outside the door waiting for another handout.

Drought across the vital breeding areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta made last summer a poor one for ducks. The hatching of eggs shipped in from the dry areas, the harboring of geese to replace extinct flocks, the first captive breeding of vanishing wild trumpeter swans on this continent—every year some work of that sort, impelled by crises of the present, goes on at Delta. But it is the particular virtue of the place that most research, whether it involves discovery of a 10th call for the pintail or a hunt for a hostile protozoan on a stained slide, is done with little regard for how the ducks of the present are making out.

The Delta Station was established by James F. Bell of Minneapolis, who is better known outside conservation circles as the founder of General Mills. The station is now managed by the American Wildlife Institute and supported by the North American Wildlife Foundation with donations from interested agencies, gun companies and hunters who feel the work is worth $10 or more a year. The aim of the station has remained constant through the years: to give scientists a chance to study with few strings attached.

In the field of waterfowl, as anywhere, the researcher who enjoys academic freedom and does not wear his blinders too tight often comes upon something bigger than he aimed for. There was never, for example, a good way of getting an unbiased picture of hunting pressures on ducks until 1947 when two aides of the Michigan Department of Conservation, working on a lesser problem, unwittingly found a new method of assessing the impact of the autumn barrage on all types of migratory fowl. The traditional method of measuring hunting pressure, counting bands returned by hunters, is a poor one. Some hunters are conscientious about mailing in bands; some are not. (Studies have shown that the word reward printed on a band will more than double the returns.) Every year there are hunters mad about the shrinking bag limits who conscientiously do not turn in bands. In 1947, while testing the value of a fluoroscope for determining how much lead shot ducks were eating off pond bottoms, the Michigan conservationists, Whitlock and Miller, found a means of bypassing the hunters and getting data on hunting pressure directly from the ducks themselves. As they searched the gizzards and stomachs of 900 live, wild mallards with the fluoroscope, Whit-lock and Miller frequently found shot elsewhere in the bodies, indicating that one out of every four of the birds had been hit by a hunter at least once (19 of the ducks had wing fractures knit well enough to make it back into the air). Prompted by this discovery, in cooperation with Delta, Dr. William Elder of the University of Missouri developed the equipment and techniques for rapidly fluoroscoping ducks in the field. The technique will not solve the whole problem. It will serve to show marked changes in hunting pressure and, in the face of grumbling about seasons and bag limits, will show with utter impartiality whether the hunter is still getting a fair crack at whatever comes down the fly ways.


The foremost service, in effect, of the Delta Station has been to broaden the scope of waterfowl research. Thirty years ago European zoologists were doing the most advanced thinking. They were learning for the sake of learning, while here the experts were devoted to practical problems, dealing with ducks as annual crops, which, if planted under certain conditions, should produce certain yields. In popular writing a duck was represented as an object of wonder, super-humanly infallible, consistent in its ways, impelled along an undeviating track by miraculous instincts. From the hunter's limited point of view that is a fairly honest picture, for the hunter in the flyways sees only a small part of the total spectrum of duck behavior. The biologists who today pry into the lives of waterfowl the year round know that ducks and geese are often bewilderingly devious in their ways and prone to error. A female duck of any species can recognize her mate among a thousand males, but loyal as she is to her young, she usually cannot tell her own eggs from a nestful of 25-watt light bulbs. The navigational skill of Canada geese is very good; still, flocks have been seen gyrating wildly, aimlessly, for hours. No one has fired a gun, but the flocks suddenly seem leaderless. The weather is fair, visibility unlimited, yet the flocks seem to have lost their way. No one knows why mother ducks at times forsake cover to lead their ducklings down the middle of a paved highway, and no one knows why two Canada geese tried to walk into St. James Church in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, at the start of Sunday service. Ducks sometimes land on airport runways by mistake, get lost in fog, are beaten out of the sky by hail and storm. Sometimes they fly east when they should go north, and west instead of south.

Science no longer considers a flock of 100 ducks to be one duck multiplied by 100, but a society of individuals, decidedly similar but not identical, each playing many parts through the shifting seasons. It obtains that any ideas for helping waterfowl must stem from the truth that ducks and geese are not miracles of nature but mortal products of it, not altogether consistent and often blundering.

The change in the approach to learning did not come suddenly but was, rather, the result of a cautious revolution that has been going on for a good while. Some of the most notable advances in waterfowl study were effected by the most familiar researcher at Delta, a man named Albert Hochbaum, who has served as director of the station since its start. Hochbaum's summers are largely consumed in running the station and filling the needs of ducks and duck-minded men. The winter is given over more to his own projects. Hochbaum is a large man who speaks in a soft, husky voice and walks with a shuffling step, his arms swinging loosely from broad, slack shoulders. As he moves down the station road pondering his next problem his general mien is that of some ancient man heading out to grapple with a bear. His hands would reach a fair way around a bear's neck and could possibly do the job, but they are also graced with a lighter touch. Hochbaum was educated as an ornithologist and game manager; he is also an artist and writer. His reports are written to satisfy the scientific mind, yet a layman with a taste for wildfowling is seldom lost reading them and is, in fact, rewarded by a quality of writing seldom found this side of Thoreau. In his reports, specifically his two major works, Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh and Travels and Traditions of Waterfowl, Hochbaum goes a long way toward explaining many facets of duck behavior that previously had been conveniently tucked away under the old cover-all, instinct. In vital processes such as migration, the part of instinct is considerable, but it is the sure opinion today that any southbound duck counting solely on instinct would never make it past St. Louis. As Hochbaum maintains in his reports, "The act of migration may be inherent, but the world in which it takes place is learned." The waterfowl inherits the ability to fly, the urge to mate and an appetite, but it learns where to fly, the looks of its mate and what and where to eat. The ducklings that Gilbert Gottlieb put on a shielded platform followed instinctively, but they learned to follow the dummy drake. The young geese of the Delta flock grazed naturally, but they learned that Zoologist McArthur was a soft touch. The ducks in migration are no longer the mystical wonder they were when Audubon and Bonaparte were looking skyward. For a point-to-point flight of 2,000 miles, with good visibility at 2,000 feet, a duck needs only about 30 landmarks, no more or less than a plane pilot. Like any proper novice, juvenile ducks learn traditional highways carved in the wind by their elders. Tests at Delta show that a duck can orientate itself, in effect plot its position and direction, by the slanting sun and wheeling stars—remarkable, but no more so for a duck than for the old Polynesians. When clouds hide the celestial cues and fog covers the land, the ducks stay put. Those that chance it often stray off course.


The waterfowl are better understood, but none of the men who understand them best feel that this alone will secure any species of wild duck or goose for the future. It is not the hunter but the whole human race that is the major threat to waterfowl today. As most wildfowlers know, the best North American ducklands lie not in wildernesses but in U.S. and Canadian areas now used heavily for farming and industry. The ducks now live virtually underfoot, hard by the drainage ditches, victims of the bulldozer's tread and the sharp bite of the plow—since they cannot talk back, much less shoot back, for waterfowl this is a precarious sort of coexistence.

In his reports, written and oral, Albert Hochbaum of Delta deals usually with the advances of research. But Hochbaum is both a technician and a hunter, and in one address he had this to say: "My grandfather, native of Chicago, did his wildfowling on the great Kankakee Marsh of Illinois—as fine a place surely as the Delta and Libau marshes. When my grandfather told me of the Kankakee, his arms would spread wide, and he would hesitate again and again as he searched for words to describe the wonder of the place. He could try to tell me of Kankakee, but he could not show me, for it had long since been destroyed.... It used to be that part of the sport was getting there. Now the cars crowd to the very edge of the good marshes, where the litter of careless hunters gives this border of wild country, this rim of adventure, the aspect of a vacant lot near the city dump.... When we have used this Manitoba marsh so badly," Hochbaum concluded, "that our companion species have lost their hold, then it will be time to wonder how much longer we ourselves may stay."

PHOTOCOLES PHINIZYPANHANDLING GEESE, searching for food at edge of marsh, invade the cabin of their zoologist friend Neil McArthur as he studies parasite hostile to waterfowl. PHOTOCOLES PHINIZYBOTANIST Jennifer Walker crouches in marsh to make careful examination of plant life that is ideal for mallards and other ground-nesting ducks. PHOTOCOLES PHINIZYPSYCHOLOGIST Gilbert Gottlieb looks into mirror at shielded platform where duckling he trained waddles devotedly alongside a rotating dummy drake. PHOTOCOLES PHINIZYSAFE FOR THE SUMMER on the Delta marsh, a canvasback drake, prize of eastern gunners, floats lazily through liquid colors reflecting from the sky and reeds. PHOTOCOLES PHINIZYBIOLOGIST Robert Smith records distress peeps of newborn duckling as part of a four-year study he is doing on the complex behavior of pintails. PHOTOCOLES PHINIZYHATCHERY EXPERT Peter Ward feeds cygnets of the rare wild trumpeter swan. PHOTOCOLES PHINIZYDELTA DIRECTOR Albert Hochbaum is dedicated to waterfowl on four counts—as hunter, scientist, artist and writer.

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