Shotgun blasts shatter the dawn silence, sounding for all the world like the opening salvos of a Gettysburg re-enactment.
Swiftly following is the roar of thousands of startled geese or ducks taking wing. Left behind on the water are the wounded birds, some still struggling against the inevitable arrival of the retriever.
For some folks who have pleasurably watched the bay’s fall aerial tide of geese, this is more than a surprise — it’s an outrage. Surely, this noisy, visible, gruesome killing — done for pleasure — must be violating some sort of law? Or at the very least, certainly it violates our environmental ethics in an estuary already imperiled by man’s presence?
In fact, this prominent reaping of waterfowl is not a violation of the environment at all. Despite all appearances to the contrary, these hunters, the licenses they buy for the privilege of harvesting waterfowl, and the preservation organizations they support, represent arguably one of the best-managed, best-funded and oldest conservation programs in North America.
That wasn’t always the case. Prior to 1918, hundreds of bird species, from geese and ducks to owls and egrets, were harvested without limit. Some were destined for ladies’ hats, others eradicated as nuisances. Many were hunted for their flesh. The Chesapeake, in particular, was known for its commercial waterfowl harvest. Each winter, thousands of hunters, armed to the teeth, would take to the Bay’s quiet coves in the efficient and deadly pursuit of waterfowl, ducks in particular. Canvasbacks, blue bills, teals, black ducks — all were killed by the thousands, often on the water or while sleeping, to meet the insatiable East Coast demand for savory wildfowl.
This rampant plunder of birds was no different than other 19th-century Chesapeake harvests—oysters, shad and sturgeon were all pursued to the edge of collapse. Waterfowl, though, were different. Unlike aquatic species, their dwindling flocks were easily observed, something that caused great consternation, not only in emerging conservation clubs like the Audubon Society, but also among affluent private sportsmen. The response was the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act — establishing the unprecedented protection of U.S. and Canadian wildlife on an international scale. It immediately ceased the hunting of waterfowl for the commercial market, establishing in its place a system of restricted sport hunting, managed by states, enforced by wardens and supported by the sale of licenses.
Since then, the harvest of Chesapeake waterfowl has been closely managed by strict bag limits and restrictions on hunting tools, gear, blinds and boats. Some species, like swans in Maryland, have been removed from harvest altogether. Others, like Canada geese, have had long-term protective moratoriums over the years. But all are closely supervised by federal and state agencies that monitor the bird populations and dictate the number that can be taken annually.
This 20th-century transition from market hunting to sport hunting created a new kind of waterfowler—one who never knew a shoot without a bag limit. Reared on hunting for enjoyment rather than volume, these sportsmen found beauty in the challenges of shooting birds on the wing. They learned from older mentors how to how to compose a decoy rig and the glottal symphony of a duck call. They rose for the promise of a glorious hunt when the geese hover, silhouettes against a fiery sky. They ate the few birds they shot with gusto and appreciation.
These experiences inspired both passion and protectiveness. Conservation hunters knew the only way to ensure the joy of a great shoot for future generations was to ensure that waterfowl populations flourished. They established private organizations—most notably Ducks Unlimited—to promote the protection of waterfowl and the creation of wildlife habitat. From the waterfowl nurseries of Canadian prairie sloughs to the Chesapeake’s overwintering marshes, DU used contributions to protect hundreds of thousands of acres and restore thousands more.
In the Chesapeake Bay, DU has joined forces with state and federal agencies. Both Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge and Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, near Dames Quarter, MD, for example, have partnered with DU on restoration initiatives for more than 20 years. As recently as 2013, both conservation areas completed major projects with DU’s help: enhancing a 57-acre portion of the refuge at Blackwater and creating at 2,800-acre impoundment at Deal Island to foster the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation—nature’s perfect waterfowl food.
It seems a contrary notion to congratulate sportsmen for the preservation of the waterfowl they’re shooting. But there isn’t a more vocal or committed community of waterfowl conservationists out there. They know the only way their beloved tradition continues is by waterfowl not merely surviving, but thriving. When you see the great cyclones of geese descending over cornfields at dusk, remember, waterfowlers are partially to thank. For almost a hundred years, those conservation hunters have committed to a sustainable compromise, balancing their shotgun blasts with the clarion call of a million geese, just arrived from Canada.
Kate Livie of Chesterton is the author of “Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future,” and serves as education director of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.