alfalfa island on the brown stubbled earth had been a flag to predators. If
Becky hadn't mowed, they might not have noticed the nest. But the alfalfa field
was looking like the only source of income on the farm. "I did the best I
could," Becky said later.
bad," I told her, feeling pretty bad myself. "It was only one
I was wrong.
The Duck stops
here says the sign on the wall of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in
Bismarck when I arrive there in late July. Most years, this sparsely populated
state is the hatchplace of 50% of ducks produced in the continental U.S. The
semiarid, windswept plains, with summer temperatures to 110° and winters to 44
below, are, surprisingly, laden with water in normal years. When the great
glaciers receded 10,000 years ago, huge chunks of ice settled below the silt
and melted slowly, sinking the land into potholes geologists call coteaus.
Traditionally, these potholes, which stretch far into prairie Canada, fill
during spring snow melts. The sparkling water nurtures marsh grasses and
aquatic life just at the time millions of wild ducks arrive from southern
North Dakota is
proud of its ducks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service looks after them. So
does the state Game and Fish Department. Private groups—the National Wildlife
Federation, Ducks Unlimited and the Dakota Wildlife Trust—all work here toward
a better life for ducks. North Dakota has about everything any duck could want.
But this year, it doesn't have much water. The drought is here, too.
began drying a decade ago. Part of this is attributable to dry seasons, and
part of it can be laid to farmers' having drained marshes to add to cropland.
The fact is, man has drained about half of North America's wetlands since the
continent was settled, and in doing so he has badly upset the ecological
applecart. Bring up the word drainage anywhere in pothole country and blood
pressures rise 10 points.
Unaware of the
arguments that rage, all the ducks knew when they flew north to find breeding
ponds this spring was that sites were few and far between. An aerial survey of
330 prairie potholes in one area of Canada showed only seven holding water.
Parts of North Dakota were 90% dry.
breeding grounds without water, ducks this spring faced bleak options. The
strongest of the early arrivals staked a claim, mated and tried to raise a
clutch in rapidly dwindling waters, surrounded by predators who congregated
nearby, anticipating a summer-long feast. Some ducks just took a pass at
attempts to reproduce and gathered into huge flocks on larger bodies of water,
ones in normal times too deep and devoid of cover to foster ducklings. Some
ducks flew far north into Canada and Alaska and arrived at usable habitat too
weak and protein-starved to mate and produce eggs.
Ducks were not
doing well this spring to start with. Only 29 million birds flew up
midcontinent flyways, down from a high of 45 million in 1956, the best year for
ducks since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started counting, in 1955.
This summer, when
it seemed things couldn't get worse for ducks, they did. As pockets of water
continued to dry up, whole families of ducks were forced to move into what
marshes remained. Warm, shallow, stagnant water and dense bird populations
caused the toxin-producing bacterium called botulinum to spread throughout the
marshes. This year's botulism infection is particularly frightening because it
started in early June rather than July. And it hit ducks in record numbers
because so many were crowding onto so little water. Since botulism begets
botulism—ducks feed on the toxin-concentrating maggots that infest the rotting
carcasses of the birds—wildlife workers began spending as much as 14 hours a
day combing marshes to scoop up the dead and dying.