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
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."
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.
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
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."
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.