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"This isn't going to be pretty," Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager Steve Knode warns me as I step into an air-boat on the waters of a federal marsh northeast of Bismarck. "The dead ones we'll put in the container. The sick ones I'll hand you." We'll take those birds back to the Long Lake Duck Hospital, a wire-cage facility that Knode's colleague Mike Goos describes as "the only bright spot in this whole operation."
As Goos pilots the airboat in a kind of water ballet around the rushes of the marsh, we startle whole families of ducks dabbling in the grasses. Flightless because the adults are molting and the young are still unable to fly, they flail comically over the water ahead of the oncoming boat. I think that the birds look sort of cute and that the boat ride is fun. The good time lasts about 20 seconds. Suddenly Knode points and Goos skirts back over a clump of reeds. Knode dips his homemade wire scoop into the muck and brings up a rotting blue-winged teal. Point, scoop, a mallard. Another teal. A muskrat. A black-crowned night heron. A tern. When we come across the perfect, downy, still-warm body of a baby eared grebe, I lose every ounce of tough I have. I'm glad my sunglasses are hiding my tears. Then I notice the faces of the men in the boat. They're not doing much better.
Every hour or so, we find a duck sick enough to catch, well enough to make it to the hospital. "Pintail!" Knode shouts over the motor, handing me a sick but living form. It's only one duck, but under the circumstances, we're all rooting for it. I think how strange it is that because of the drought, I'm now holding on my lap a pintail duck, a species I have seen only one time before.
At the end of a five-hour run we have 119 dead ducks and shorebirds, and the muskrat. We have four patients for the hospital. Three survive the trip back. One of the patients picked up yesterday, a hen teal, has responded to the antitoxin and rehydration and is now protesting to be released. "I guess it seems small in the scheme of things," Knode says, giving the duck a toss that launches her on her way toward the lake, "but it keeps us going."
Another tiny bright spot in this catastrophic situation is an egg-salvage program, organized by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which created the duck orphanage, of sorts, at a private hatchery in Valley City. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture released more than 50 million acres of set-aside and conservation-program land—more than five million acres in North Dakota alone—ducks found their nest sites, and sometimes themselves, mowed and baled along with the hay. This spring the Dakota Wildlife Trust, the Fish and Wildlife Service and a few farmers launched the egg-saving project: Farmers gathered up orphaned eggs, and wildlife workers drove them to the hatchery, where stainless-steel incubators acted as mother ducks. The program produced 553 ducklings and one remarkably ornery ring-billed gull. "It's a wonderful project," says the service's duck stepfather, Steve Donovan, "but I sure hope this isn't what the world is coming to."
The bright spots are few and far between. Just a couple of days after I saw Knode's dead ducks and Donovan's orphans, I saw, staring out from a newspaper box, a front-page picture of a man holding a dead white-faced ibis in his left hand, a dead avocet in his right. Botulism. They weren't ducks in North Dakota but shorebirds at the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge in western Nevada.
Stillwater, in its second year of drought, is running out of water. A refuge biologist, Steve Thompson, has sad statistics on Stillwater's breeding population. In 1986, 10,000 pairs of white pelicans raised 10,000 young on nearby Anaho Island. In 1987, 6,000 raised 6,000. This year 200 pairs raised 15. Last year 560 pairs of great blue herons nested there. This year 10 pairs nested. None bred successfully. "Where are all the birds if they're not here?" I asked Thompson. "I don't know," he said. "I hope they're off somewhere doing the best they can."
But where is somewhere else? At such major waterfowl sites as the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in central Kansas, the story is the same. Approximately 45% of all North American shorebirds—up to 750,000 migrants—and a third of a million ducks are resting at Cheyenne on any given day in the spring. In the middle of August only two of five pools in the 20,000-acre marshland held water, and refuge manager Karl Grover said that he was losing one of those fast. Cheyenne's main problem is that farmers, in irrigating cropland, have lowered the water table 10 feet, leaving the streams that recharged Cheyenne high, dry and dependent on rainwater.
Stillwater and Cheyenne Bottoms are like the waist of the hourglass on migration routes. Without them, says Thompson, "it would be like our getting on a plane in San Francisco bound for New York. Then the pilot notices we're out of gas. so we have to stop in Denver. But when we get to Denver, there is no gas."
August in Illinois, and the drought is worse. It's pretty much all over now for the corn, which under the stress could not pollinate correctly or produce normal ears. The soybean plants hang on but drop their blossoms.