It was a cruel, hard symphony, though its prelude was gentle enough. The first sound was the random tap of dry milkweed pods shaking in the dawn breeze. As the ground fog thinned under the push of the wind, three deer appeared in the soybean field beyond the box blind. The breeze freshened, and the rattle of cornstalks took command of the timpani. Bobwhite quail piped up from a low woodlot that slowly emerged in the glowing light. Blackbirds began moving now, huge, almost pterodactylian in the distorted air, adding their harsh morning song to the chorus. Then, out of the northwest, came the first cries of the geese—a faint, high yapping like that of a beagle pack on fresh scent, growing rapidly into a full-throated clamor, a barking, bellowing crescendo that sent the feeding deer skipping toward the safety of the woodlot. The sky to the west literally grew dark with Canada geese, the skeins and strings and knots of a flapping avian blanket. Finally, the sound of wings overhead....
"All right," whispered Matt Walsh from his corner of the blind. "They're giving us a look. About 12 or 15 of them, they're looking us over. They like us, they like the set. Don't move. Not even an eyeball." The guide put his goose call to his lips and bleated once, twice, comfortingly. The sound of flailing pinions came stronger as the geese circled over the sprawling set of decoys, invisible to the gunners crouched eyes down, cheeks and shoulders to the wet boards of the box blind. It was painfully cramped in there. The only thing that moved was Walsh's bright blue eyes, squinting through the slot between the peak of his camouflage cap and the tip of his nose. Yet even without seeing them, the bodies of the geese overhead were immensely real, almost palpable through sound alone: big birds, hot and wary, social, querulous, hungry and agile for all their size. And they were fooled.
"Take 'em!" said Matt Walsh.
The gunners jumped up. Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!
December 10, 1973
The rise of the guns caught the geese not 10 feet off the ground, pitching in with their feet extended like the landing gear of so many 727s, their wings cupped and clutching at the thick morning air, serpentine necks stretched, heads turning toward the danger, eyes wide and black. The sudden scramble for escape, broad wings lifting those huge bodies with amazing speed—but too slow for three of them. You can hear a goose when it hits the ground. It sounds like your wife with a bulky basket of wet wash falling down the cellar stairs. Two of the three downed birds were head-shot and lay where they fell. The third tried to fly but was stopped by a finishing shot. Tremors, floating feathers, silence.
That scene, or one very much like it, will be repeated thousands of times this year on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the prime wintering ground for Canada geese in North America. With a bumper crop of goslings produced this summer on the breeding grounds of Labrador, Newfoundland and the Ungava Peninsula, there is even better shooting this season than last. A year ago about a million honkers worked the Atlantic flyway (916,100 to be precise, as the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife survey usually is); fully half that total wintered in the tidewater reaches of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia—the region known as the Delmarva Peninsula. This year close to half a million geese will winter in Maryland alone. In an era that has witnessed a tragic and rapid decline in some species of game birds, principally diving ducks like the canvasback, the resurgence of the Canada goose is one of the few hopeful signs for the future of wildfowl shooting in America.
The comeback of the Canadas is doubly heartening in that it serves as another example of how some species of wildlife can adapt to man's often ruinous impact on the planet. Back in 1951, according to the Federal goose census, there were 272,183 Canadas wintering along the Atlantic flyway. That was the flyway's low point in the 23 years that the midwinter survey has been made. The high point came in 1970, apparently a good breeding year, when 775,000 birds wintered on the flyway, and the grand total—which included the season's kill—reached a high of 1,067,200. Thus the kill for that year—292,200 geese—exceeded the entire wintering population (i.e., survivors) of 1951.
The Canada goose once was mainly an aquatic feeder, but lately many of the geese have developed an appetite for "hot foods"—primarily grains like corn, wheat, barley and soybeans. In fact, the best thing that has happened to the Canada goose was the modernization of the mechanical corn picker about 25 years ago, equipment that leaves a lot of leftovers in the form of shattered ears and scattered kernels. The big black-white-and-gray birds have become highly efficient gleaners. Not only has the addition of corn to their diet helped many more birds survive the rigors of winter, but according to some biologists it may have increased the hardiness of the species generally, thus promoting better success in the spring on the northern breeding grounds.
Any radical change in a wild creature's habits is bound to cause worry among biologists, and the Canada goose's switch to hot foods is no exception. The availability of corn has been one big factor in altering the distribution of geese over the flyway, particularly during the winter. In the day when the Canada was primarily an aquatic feeder, the birds spread themselves more widely over the wintering grounds. Back then the primary concentration during the winter was in eastern North Carolina in the Currituck Sound area, which in the 19th century was the legendary killing ground for geese, ducks and swans. The robber barons of New York felt that their year was incomplete without a week's shooting in Currituck during which daily bags of 150 canvasbacks, black ducks, sprigtails, brant, Canadas and whistling swans were commonplace. Today it is doubtful that even the most efficient outlaw gunner could kill that many birds in a week of hard work on the Currituck. But he certainly could—and perhaps even does—on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Fully 80% of the wintering goose population, plus the now-protected swans and thousands upon thousands of ducks hold in the waters surrounding the Delmarva Peninsula.
The reason is the food: the peninsula contains about 514,000 acres of corn, plus 86,000 acres of small grain. By contrast, the 13-county area from Currituck Sound to the Pamlico River in North Carolina has only 200,000 acres devoted to corn. What's more, where the Delmarva farmers tend to leave their stubble fields unplowed during the winter, thus offering plenty of feed for the geese, the North Carolinians harvest early and plow for a winter cover crop of less palatable grasses.
"Without being anthropomorphic about it," says Skip Ladd, a habitat biologist for the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, "you have to wonder what goose would be dumb enough to overfly the cornfields of Delmarva for the empty fields of North Carolina. Any animal is going to stay where the feeding is good. You don't find many white-tailed deer in the deep forest; you find them on the edges of the protective woods and the rich meadows and farmlands."
Ladd and his fellow biologists in the bureau are concerned about this "short-stopping" of the Canada goose population for two reasons. "One of the basic aims of game management is to provide equitable recreation for all concerned," he says. "With most of the Canada geese concentrated in Delmarva, and particularly on the Eastern Shore, the traditional wildfowling states to the south are going relatively gooseless." During the 1969-70 season the bureau encouraged differential regulations between the northern and southern portions of the Atlantic flyway. Indeed, Georgia, Florida and the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina have had, or will have this year, closed seasons on Canada geese, while the rest of the South from North Carolina on down will have much more restrictive bag limits than the Delmarva area.
The second reason for concern is less recreational and far more biological. "A dense population of animals is prone to epidemic diseases," says Ladd. "Take that duck virus, enteritis, that ripped off the waterfowl in South Dakota in the winter of 1972-73. If something like that should hit the goose concentrations on the Chesapeake one of these winters, we could be right back to 1951 in no time."
In addition to the heavy goose gatherings in Delmarva, some smaller concentrations are beginning to winter even farther north. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York have acquired small pockets of Canadas that breed along the lake shores and sounds, raise their broods within sight and sound of highways and motorboats, and delay their fall migration or winter over in the proximity of sloppily harvested farm fields. Some families are even supported by delighted, do-gooding bird watchers. "A really tough winter—with ice followed by heavy snow—could do them in," says Ladd. "Our experience shows that it is almost impossible to drive wintering waterfowl further south once they've settled into an area. Starvation is often the result."
Another potential problem for the more northerly-dwelling goose is the rapid expansion of suburbia into the farmlands surrounding such cities as Baltimore, Philadelphia and the New York-Newark complex. Ladd is most concerned about a proposed bay bridge from Baltimore to Kent County, on the Eastern Shore. "Kent County is one of the heavier 'goose use' areas," he notes, "and the bridge could create a potential for extensive land development on the northern portion of the shore." Once cheap resort housing takes the place of cornfields, so long, honkers.
Still, for today, which the philosophers sometimes say may be all we have to live for, the geese are there in Delmarva. They are present in an abundance and density that few men have ever seen in this lifetime, and perhaps in greater numbers than we shall ever see again. Their presence has changed the life-style of the Eastern Shore for the better. In the old days, the waterfowl of the region were slaughtered out of hand by market gunners and later by their successors, the outlaws, for the rich man's market in the big cities of the Northeast. Hardy watermen of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the Carolinas snuck forth every fall in their sneak boats, armed with huge "duck cannons" capable of firing two pounds of shot, or with the equally lethal "battery guns"—mounting up to seven or 10 barrels loaded with black-powder and heavy shot loads—to mow down as many as 75 birds in a single discharge. These birds, gunned down on the water as they rafted together, or on the rise if the market gunner's luck was really good (rafting ducks tend to have their heads down; rising birds expose their vitals to the shot), were sold unplucked and ungutted to agents for the big city restaurants. A brace of canvasbacks might bring $2.50 to the gunner; a pair of Canada geese $5 at Christmastime.
Today, a single gunner hunting with a guide on the Eastern Shore—and one had better hunt with a guide if any shooting is to be possible at all—will probably pay $50 a day for the chance to shoot at a Canada goose. And if the shot comes, the kill cannot be guaranteed. Despite its barn-door size and relative slowness in the air compared to a duck in flight, the Canada is deceptively agile and very hard to kill. Geese shot in the body can lumber off, obviously "sick" but still flying hard, to die in some quiet swamp corner and make a meal only for foxes. One should shoot for the head and the neck, and only when the birds are so close that it seems they are perched on the shotgun's muzzle.
The key to Canada hunting is a good cornfield coupled with a tremendous display of decoys. In recent years the guides, who usually lease the fields from farmers eager for a winter crop of dollars (up to $10,000 per location) rather than legumes, have taken to using outsized silhouette decoys to draw the circling skeins of geese into the corn gleanings. Interspersed with the giant silhouettes are the more traditional goose decoys, most of them built neck-down as if feeding, with a few standing in the guard position: head erect, bill aloft and probing for danger. A guide like Matt Walsh, who works out of Chestertown, Md., will lease perhaps six fields and set out as many as 3,000 decoys. In each field he builds a blind or a pit, which is located with its back to the prevailing winds so that when the geese come in to land they will usually be moving toward the gunners.
"They are clever birds," says Walsh, a short, wide, infinitely hopeful man whose family has gunned wildfowl on the peninsula since time immemorial. "Sometimes I think they're as smart as a dog. You can see them looking over the decoy set and just shaking their heads. The old gander, the guy that leads the pack, he just flat don't like it. But you get a kick out of that anyway, even though a good look is mighty thin soup."
"Goozin' " with Matt Walsh or with one of his several assistants is a long day, but inevitably exciting. The rendezvous occurs before dawn in Bud's Restaurant and Raw Bar on the outskirts of Chestertown. Matt circulates around the tables, hearty and hopeful, stopping to meet his customers (as many as 40 a day), filling out license forms, introducing his assistants and talking with each party about their blind sites and the prospects for their day.
"Oh yeah, looks like they'll be movin' today. Ain't gonna be no bluebird weather this week; nothin' to keep 'em out of the corn. Not much moon, you notice. No sir. They didn't feed last night. They'll be flyin' all right. Sure, I'll have a cup of coffee."
The ride out to the setup is spooky, with the flat, fog-ridden terrain broken here and there by the sudden irruption of an antebellum plantation caught in the headlights, like the South rising again to haunt the American conscience. Tall, gaunt houses set in the middle of nowhere, weathered by salt winds and history, a single yellow light glowing in the middle of that harsh darkness—Miss Rosemary recalling dead loves? Now and then a fox crosses the road, his eyes like tiny boils of swamp fire. One recalls the slaughters on the peninsula. Big Ben Butler, and so many dead, to no avail.
The walk to the blind is quiet with dew and dead grass. The air tastes sweet. The weight of the gun over the shoulder adds to the weight of early-morning legs. The gun barrel is oily, cold, beaded with the sweat of the chilly salt air, dead now in the end of the night, but the foresight catches against the edge of one's palm and the bite of it—and its promise, the big honker hung there sometime in the near future, fear in its eyes—eases the cold, indeed sends a shiver of heat clear down to those clammy toes that now are eager to rest in the mud of the goose blind.
Damned cold in the blind. Only the looming shapes of the decoys to lend hope to the day. Then, again, the first light. The rattle of the dry milkweed pods. The distant clamor of the waking, hungry geese. The beagle-pack rise of their voices, and Matt Walsh this time hunkered against the far end of the blind, his eyes sweeping the sky for a tolling flock. The bark of the swirling goose voices turns into a roar, and Matt tenses. He can hear individual wings.
"They're giving us a look," he whispers. A good look. Long seconds pass, as if time itself is frozen. Then....
Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!
Long live Branta canadensis.