The History of Duck Release

by George Reiger


There’s nothing new about sportsmen raising, releasing, and providing improved habitat for game they intend to hunt. It’s called “keeping,” and it reaches back in British history to the reign of Charles II. It’s even possible – since Norman lords are commonly credited with having introduced the ring-necked pheasant to England in the 12th century – that these avid falconers initiated Inner_historyBritish game-keeping 800 years ago. We Americans began our own cultivation of wildlife as soon as a leisure class emerged to do so. In Virginia, George Washington – whose passion was riding to hounds – imported red foxes from England, because the locally more abundant grays prefer climbing trees to running. He and his neighbors also imported ring-necked pheasants and gray partridge. After the Revolution, Lafayette brought Washington a pair of golden pheasants bred in France. However, such fowl were not released for hunting, because there was already an abundance of native game for that purpose.

During the colonial era, Americans mostly subsistence-hunted, but even then, some made a sport of it. Edward Winslow of the Massachusetts Colony advised prospective immigrants to bring hefty smoothbore muskets for the excellent wildfowling near Plymouth.

“Let your piece be long in the barrel,” he wrote, “and fear not the weight of it, for most of our shooting is done from stands” – or what North Carolinians call “stake-blinds.”

Toward the end of the colonial period, patricians shot primarily for sport; secondly, for food. George Washington himself hunted ducks on occasion with a black man named Tom Davis who trained a Newfoundland dog for retrieving. The future President fired a flintlock and probably shot his ducks on the water. Even so, some must have escaped in the split-second between the flash of the primer and the firing of the main charge. Yet, according to his journal, Washington got at least a few ducks most outings, including – and contrary to those who claim this species was historically scarce in the Atlantic Flyway – mallards.

The first serious decline of continental duck numbers began after the War Between the States. While drought may have played a role, the main reasons for the steady decline were burgeoning urban populations, an ever-expanding and wonderfully efficient transportation network that enabled, for example, birds shot in North Carolina to be sold in New York within 24 hours, and – most important of all – unrestrained, day and night, shooting.

By the 1880’s, some market gunners were regularly killing more than 100 birds per morning flight. Once magazine-equipped, slide-action and semi-automatic shotguns were developed, commercial gunners didn’t resist sportsmen’s efforts to ban punt-cannons and multiple-barrel battery guns. After all, such quaint and awkward forms of slaughter didn’t hold a candle to the industrial efficiency of the new shoulder guns.

Although the draining of swamps and the clear-cutting of eastern forests led to the near-extinction of the wood duck, most waterfowl breeding habitat on the North American prairies was still intact in the late 1880s. Early conservationists were convinced they only needed to end over-shooting to restore the flocks.

But the vital question was – and remains – what constitutes “over-shooting?” Is what most hunters consider a “fair limit,” also a biologically sustainable one?

As it turned out, most sportsmen of the time saw only the mote in the commercial gunner’s eye and not the beam in their own. They believed that a recreational hunter who harvested “a reasonable number of ducks” – say, 25 a day – barely impacted the flocks compared to what a market gunner did, who killed and – greatest sin of all – sold 100 ducks a day.

What the sportsmen conveniently ignored was the fact there’ve always been many more of us than market gunners or, their modern equivalent: guides.

And it makes no difference to the population of a given species whether 100 of them are killed by four or 40 recreational hunters, or by only one market gunner. Dead is dead, and dead ducks don’t breed.

As a consequence, the birds didn’t rally as well as was expected after the first federal seasons and limits were instituted in the late 1910s. So the daily bag limit was lowered to 20 birds: later in the 1920s, it was cut to ten.

By 1930, widespread drought compounded the problem. In October, 1931, the cover of Field & Stream magazine asked the question: “Ducks Or No Ducks?” Inside, writers debated whether the season should be closed entirely until the birds recovered. From a biologist’s (or a duck’s!) perspective, this was a logical suggestion. However, politically, it simply wasn’t going to fly.

The U.S. Biological Survey did close the canvasback season when this species’ numbers fell below an estimated one million birds. (Ironically, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now “manages” canvasback on the basis of half that number.) And although bufflehead and goldeneye needed it less than most of the more desirable dabbling species, the government closed their seasons as well, primarily because biologists felt they had to do something more than merely reduce season length and the overall daily limit to four birds.

Meanwhile, the deepening drought meant that reproduction by an ever-diminishing number of hens couldn’t keep pace with the on-going attrition by hunters. At this point, a group of mostly mid-western businessmen began an organization called More Game Birds in America to (among other objectives) raise and release enough mallards to replenish the Mississippi Flyway. However, after a couple of years, the businessmen realized they still knew a lot more about growing money than ducks. So they changed their name to Ducks Unlimited and began raising funds to acquire short-term leases on prairie potholes in Canada.

The great Dust Bowl drought relented shortly before America entered World War II. Once sufficient water was restored to the breeding grounds and most hunters were in foxholes and not marshes, the flocks quickly recovered. After the troops came home and took their sons hunting – I was one of those fortunate boys – we experienced the best wildfowling the continent had seen in over 60 years.

And that’s not mere memory talking. At a Minnesota Waterfowl Association Symposium this past April, state biologist Bob Jessen recalled that in 1950, he and an associate counted more than one million mallards in central Minnesota. By contrast, during the so-called halcyon years of the 1970s, the most mallards they ever found in the same region was 250,000.

By the 1960s, it was evident that supplies of ducks were no longer meeting hunters’ demands, especially in the Atlantic Flyway. Several states began raising and releasing mallards to supplement the mediocre fall flights.

However, envy eventually killed the largest of these programs. After the Pennsylvania Game Commission began publishing maps showing the many areas outside the state where state-raised mallards were being shot, local hunters complained their license money was providing “free recreational lunches” to non-Pennsylvanians. Politicians were quick to pick up on this alleged waste of public money, and the Pennsylvania program was abolished.

Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, Maryland created a state duck stamp specifically to pay for mallard releases. Unfortunately, the state Department of Natural Resources did little more than buy ducklings from Eastern Shore breeders and release the pen-raised birds in roadside wetlands when they were six weeks old. It’s now estimated that 93 percent of these birds died within a week or two. The principal beneficiaries of Maryland’s mallard-release program seem to have been raccoons and – on the plus side – a local breeding population of bald eagles.

Nevertheless, the program continued until 1993 until the duck-stamp law was changed to allow the proceeds to be used for wetlands initiatives. Meanwhile, in 1983, a group of landowners in Dorchester County – a low-lying region of hydric soils inletted by numerous tidal creeks – began what they called the Grand National Waterfowl Association to raise money for the rearing, release, and management of mallards on Regulated Shooting Areas, or RSAs.

Some of these landowners were already spending many thousands of dollars a year on growing crops and flooding fields to attract ducks, but – despite their efforts – were seeing only meager flights from which they were lucky to kill two or three ducks per outing. The landowners wanted to see lots of ducks every day and have the opportunity to kill more than a few.

Over subsequent years, some RSA landowners have been too greedy, and some biologists have put self-righteousness or their fear of losing authority ahead of their objectivity as scientists. Yet, all in all, the RSAs have been successful. During the past 16 years, approximately 2.2 million mallards have been released. Although owners can legally harvest as many of their own birds during the regular hunting season as they like, club managers have found the optimum sport is had by limiting members and guests to seven mallards each. A number of clubs even abide by the federal limit, though relatively few wild birds are shot at any RSA.

Today, more than 7,000 acres of otherwise marginal farmland are enrolled in the RSA program, providing 115 full-time jobs and making the program the third largest employer in Dorchester County. RSAs also add some $75 million annually to the local tax base.

Still, the system has an Achilles’ heel so far as the most ethical sportsmen are concerned. As one skeptic told me recently, “A duck should be wary and want to escape when it sees me. If it doesn’t behave that way, it’s not a fair-chase proposition.”

While a majority of RSA mallards meet the fair-chase standard, not all do. And it only takes one tame bird to ruin the esthetics of the hunt. That’s why the Mallard Release Program has established stringent rules governing the breeding and rearing of every mallard it releases. SCWA’s birds are so satisfyingly wary, some of the best callers I know have been amazed to find the ducks they worked through a dozen or more circlings of the decoys have borne SCWA bands when they were finally brought down.

Considering the disappointing seasons that most Atlantic Flyway duck hunters have known in recent years, despite optimum weather and breeding conditions in the north, avid sportsmen have only two choices: We can either travel outside the flyway for more birds, or we can support a high-quality mallard-release program like the one run by the Mallard Release Program. Since I believe in the once and future greatness of this flyway, I’ve elected to stay and help SCWA and MRP fight the good fight.

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