Pavlov's ducks fly to a last supper

January 19, 1970

The Meadow View Wildlife Preserve—"a perfect retreat for hunters who want sure action," reads a brochure circulated by its proprietors—is a 50-acre reach of red clay and marshland situated in the scrubby western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, about an hour's drive northeast of Sacramento. The nearby towns of Marysville and Yuba City wear the faded blue-denim look of working California ranch centers: feed stores and John Deere showrooms and guys in stained straw cowboy hats picking their teeth on the stools of all-night coffeepots. The jukes play Johnny Cash, and the carhops who serve you plastic cheeseburgers chew their Doublemint with a slight smacking sound. This is the Heartland West, and the Meadow View Wildlife Preserve is part and parcel of it.

The preserve is actually a sheep farm—a barn, some weathered pens, rank upon rank of dismantled feeding troughs, a couple of house trailers. From the first one, a pink and white job surrounded by neatly tended flower beds, a woman emerges. She is pale and plump, with windowpane eyeglasses and a few teeth. She tells the two of us to wait by the second trailer, the blue and white one, and Dan oughta be along shortly. We wait at the second trailer. A thin gray drizzle is falling, and high overhead a wavering line of geese creaks past. Ducks are talking nearby—that mumbling, querulous babbledy-gabble that never ceases, day or night, in duck country. The duck talk comes from a converted sheep pen in which a captive army of mallards waddles and worries. At one end of the pen is a gallowslike tower with a ramp leading up to the platform on top from the pen below. A couple of hundred yards east of the tower stands a scraggly rank of olive trees, and an equal distance beyond the trees lies a muddy pond, obviously bulldozed out of the clay only recently.

A pickup truck wheels in and disgorges a grinning black Labrador named Ace and the MVWP's junior partner, Dan Nevis. A heavy-shouldered, tobacco-chewing rice farmer of 33, Nevis has a bluff, disarming manner and a cast to his left eye—a combination of characteristics that makes him appear both cagey and honest at the same time. (Oh, California!) Dan explains the operation: "We've got 5,000 ducks in the feeding and holding pen, there where the tower is. We release them a few at a time, and they fly straight for the pond, over those trees. You take them as they come past—high shots, side shots, overhead shots, all kinds shots, as we say in our brochure. Some of the birds are weaker fliers, and we try to weed them out, the sick birds. All these birds have been trained to split their lives between the resting pond and the feeding pen. We got the birds from Dundee, Ill. for a dollar apiece at an age of one day, and ever since they've been going from the pen to the pond and back every day. We call them back at night with a klaxon—they've been conditioned to associate it with feeding. Pavlov's ducks, you might say, haw haw haw. O.K., grab your guns and follow me!"

We move into a portable blind about midway between the pond and the pens. "Remember, there's no limit," says Nevis with a twinkle in his cocked eye. "Hell, you don't even need a hunting license or a duck stamp. All you need is $5 for every bird you kill—that's our introductory offer; later we're going up to $10." He turns and yells toward the pens: "O.K., Joe, you can start letting 'em fly." The first flight—five birds—barely clears the 20-foot brush tops ahead of the guns, then flares right and left as the lead duck spots the swinging gun barrels. Blam, blam! "Drat it, missed the booger!" "There's more a-comin!" Another flight strung out to the left—kerwhump!—and the lead duck crazily crashes out of control near the wire fence just short of the pond. "Fetch, Ace!" The Lab bounds out and snags the duck, then worries it briefly. "Ace, you nogoodsonuvagun, I said FETCH!" Back he comes, and the duck is laid out on an overturned milk case. The scene is repeated five times. Some of the birds are indeed fast—though not with the ripped-silk speed of wild ducks. Others are feeble and just about able to fly. They crash into the wire fence or hang up noisily in the treetops. My shooting companion actually reaches out and snatches a passing duck from the air.

"Had enough?" asks Nevis. "Well, come on by the trailer and we'll have a snort before you head back." On the way to the trailer we pause at the holding pens. A hard-eyed farmer in mucky boots and a two-toned beard is working among the murmuring ducks. "Dammit, Nevis," he yells, "you gotta clean this sheep crud out of here. These birds are going blind. There's a couple in there now with both their eyes out." Nevis reassures the irate farmer, then adds: "We had 7,000 birds, originally, but 2,000 of 'em died. You get 7,000 of anything—men, elephants—2,000 of 'em is going to die."

In the trailer Nevis kicks aside a pair of old boots and a stack of publicity releases, then mixes the drinks. His partner, Clyde McRunnels, 45, joins us. McRunnels is a shy, ruddy-cheeked feed and egg dealer from Marysville. Over bourbon and water he talks about the preserve concept. "They used to laugh at guys who shot pheasants on stocked preserves, but now it's perfectly acceptable," he says. "It'll be the same thing with ducks 10 years from now. We've gotten some pretty strong reactions to this place from your usual antihunting types. One letter I got, it was two solid pages of cuss words. I've heard some pretty mean language in my day, but that took the cake for dirty. Guy ended up saying he was coming out here—the letter was postmarked New Jersey—to kill me. Got my wife shook up, I'll tell you. Actually, I never had much feeling for the duck, as an animal, I mean. You know what my favorite animal is? The pig. You know why? He's smart and he's tough and"—McRunnels blushes a bit—"well, he's kinda folksy."

Meadow View has been open for business only since Nov. 25, and the picking room is not quite ready for operation yet. So we have to pluck and clean our mallards ourselves. That gives it a real, duck-hunting finale, at least. Bidding farewell to Nevis and McRunnels, we wheel out onto the highway. The captive mallards are still gabbling on the pond. Overhead, a flight of wild mallards circles the scene, trying to make up its mind whether or not to join the mass of ducks below. Wisely, the leader declines.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)