SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
June 06, 1960
A man can try, anyway—when he isn't reporting on waterfowl romances, feeding panhandlers, peering at old gunshot wounds or planting microphones to record the 10th call of the pintail
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June 06, 1960

A Man May Be Some Duck's Mother

A man can try, anyway—when he isn't reporting on waterfowl romances, feeding panhandlers, peering at old gunshot wounds or planting microphones to record the 10th call of the pintail

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As Jennifer swats bugs and counts plants, about 60 yards from where Bob Smith is watching pintails, a bearded, lean-faced Canadian zoologist, Neil McArthur, pulls a large handful of grass from the ground. It does not matter to McArthur whether the greenery he pulls is pigweed, gypsywort or the fronds of a banana plant. McArthur is merely on his way to work, and his route takes him through the domain of the young Canada geese which the station raises to replace flocks that have been shot to extinction. With their heads half-cocked and quivering, like adders about to strike, the young Canadas used to hiss distrustfully at McArthur. The Canadas now find him a kind man, good for a handout of grass every time. After feeding the geese, McArthur walks on to a small cabin and settles down to a microscope to look for traces of a blood parasite that attacks ducks, much as malaria attacks men. While McArthur works, the cabin door stands open. It has to. Someone left it open several weeks ago, and a swallow, seeking Lebensraum away from the lodge eaves, built a nest inside. The swallow flicks in and out, barely noticed by McArthur, but a few moments later a shuffling sound catches his attention. The lead geese of the Canada flock have entered looking for him. The rest of the flock stands just outside the door waiting for another handout.

Drought across the vital breeding areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta made last summer a poor one for ducks. The hatching of eggs shipped in from the dry areas, the harboring of geese to replace extinct flocks, the first captive breeding of vanishing wild trumpeter swans on this continent—every year some work of that sort, impelled by crises of the present, goes on at Delta. But it is the particular virtue of the place that most research, whether it involves discovery of a 10th call for the pintail or a hunt for a hostile protozoan on a stained slide, is done with little regard for how the ducks of the present are making out.

The Delta Station was established by James F. Bell of Minneapolis, who is better known outside conservation circles as the founder of General Mills. The station is now managed by the American Wildlife Institute and supported by the North American Wildlife Foundation with donations from interested agencies, gun companies and hunters who feel the work is worth $10 or more a year. The aim of the station has remained constant through the years: to give scientists a chance to study with few strings attached.

In the field of waterfowl, as anywhere, the researcher who enjoys academic freedom and does not wear his blinders too tight often comes upon something bigger than he aimed for. There was never, for example, a good way of getting an unbiased picture of hunting pressures on ducks until 1947 when two aides of the Michigan Department of Conservation, working on a lesser problem, unwittingly found a new method of assessing the impact of the autumn barrage on all types of migratory fowl. The traditional method of measuring hunting pressure, counting bands returned by hunters, is a poor one. Some hunters are conscientious about mailing in bands; some are not. (Studies have shown that the word reward printed on a band will more than double the returns.) Every year there are hunters mad about the shrinking bag limits who conscientiously do not turn in bands. In 1947, while testing the value of a fluoroscope for determining how much lead shot ducks were eating off pond bottoms, the Michigan conservationists, Whitlock and Miller, found a means of bypassing the hunters and getting data on hunting pressure directly from the ducks themselves. As they searched the gizzards and stomachs of 900 live, wild mallards with the fluoroscope, Whit-lock and Miller frequently found shot elsewhere in the bodies, indicating that one out of every four of the birds had been hit by a hunter at least once (19 of the ducks had wing fractures knit well enough to make it back into the air). Prompted by this discovery, in cooperation with Delta, Dr. William Elder of the University of Missouri developed the equipment and techniques for rapidly fluoroscoping ducks in the field. The technique will not solve the whole problem. It will serve to show marked changes in hunting pressure and, in the face of grumbling about seasons and bag limits, will show with utter impartiality whether the hunter is still getting a fair crack at whatever comes down the fly ways.


The foremost service, in effect, of the Delta Station has been to broaden the scope of waterfowl research. Thirty years ago European zoologists were doing the most advanced thinking. They were learning for the sake of learning, while here the experts were devoted to practical problems, dealing with ducks as annual crops, which, if planted under certain conditions, should produce certain yields. In popular writing a duck was represented as an object of wonder, super-humanly infallible, consistent in its ways, impelled along an undeviating track by miraculous instincts. From the hunter's limited point of view that is a fairly honest picture, for the hunter in the flyways sees only a small part of the total spectrum of duck behavior. The biologists who today pry into the lives of waterfowl the year round know that ducks and geese are often bewilderingly devious in their ways and prone to error. A female duck of any species can recognize her mate among a thousand males, but loyal as she is to her young, she usually cannot tell her own eggs from a nestful of 25-watt light bulbs. The navigational skill of Canada geese is very good; still, flocks have been seen gyrating wildly, aimlessly, for hours. No one has fired a gun, but the flocks suddenly seem leaderless. The weather is fair, visibility unlimited, yet the flocks seem to have lost their way. No one knows why mother ducks at times forsake cover to lead their ducklings down the middle of a paved highway, and no one knows why two Canada geese tried to walk into St. James Church in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, at the start of Sunday service. Ducks sometimes land on airport runways by mistake, get lost in fog, are beaten out of the sky by hail and storm. Sometimes they fly east when they should go north, and west instead of south.

Science no longer considers a flock of 100 ducks to be one duck multiplied by 100, but a society of individuals, decidedly similar but not identical, each playing many parts through the shifting seasons. It obtains that any ideas for helping waterfowl must stem from the truth that ducks and geese are not miracles of nature but mortal products of it, not altogether consistent and often blundering.

The change in the approach to learning did not come suddenly but was, rather, the result of a cautious revolution that has been going on for a good while. Some of the most notable advances in waterfowl study were effected by the most familiar researcher at Delta, a man named Albert Hochbaum, who has served as director of the station since its start. Hochbaum's summers are largely consumed in running the station and filling the needs of ducks and duck-minded men. The winter is given over more to his own projects. Hochbaum is a large man who speaks in a soft, husky voice and walks with a shuffling step, his arms swinging loosely from broad, slack shoulders. As he moves down the station road pondering his next problem his general mien is that of some ancient man heading out to grapple with a bear. His hands would reach a fair way around a bear's neck and could possibly do the job, but they are also graced with a lighter touch. Hochbaum was educated as an ornithologist and game manager; he is also an artist and writer. His reports are written to satisfy the scientific mind, yet a layman with a taste for wildfowling is seldom lost reading them and is, in fact, rewarded by a quality of writing seldom found this side of Thoreau. In his reports, specifically his two major works, Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh and Travels and Traditions of Waterfowl, Hochbaum goes a long way toward explaining many facets of duck behavior that previously had been conveniently tucked away under the old cover-all, instinct. In vital processes such as migration, the part of instinct is considerable, but it is the sure opinion today that any southbound duck counting solely on instinct would never make it past St. Louis. As Hochbaum maintains in his reports, "The act of migration may be inherent, but the world in which it takes place is learned." The waterfowl inherits the ability to fly, the urge to mate and an appetite, but it learns where to fly, the looks of its mate and what and where to eat. The ducklings that Gilbert Gottlieb put on a shielded platform followed instinctively, but they learned to follow the dummy drake. The young geese of the Delta flock grazed naturally, but they learned that Zoologist McArthur was a soft touch. The ducks in migration are no longer the mystical wonder they were when Audubon and Bonaparte were looking skyward. For a point-to-point flight of 2,000 miles, with good visibility at 2,000 feet, a duck needs only about 30 landmarks, no more or less than a plane pilot. Like any proper novice, juvenile ducks learn traditional highways carved in the wind by their elders. Tests at Delta show that a duck can orientate itself, in effect plot its position and direction, by the slanting sun and wheeling stars—remarkable, but no more so for a duck than for the old Polynesians. When clouds hide the celestial cues and fog covers the land, the ducks stay put. Those that chance it often stray off course.


The waterfowl are better understood, but none of the men who understand them best feel that this alone will secure any species of wild duck or goose for the future. It is not the hunter but the whole human race that is the major threat to waterfowl today. As most wildfowlers know, the best North American ducklands lie not in wildernesses but in U.S. and Canadian areas now used heavily for farming and industry. The ducks now live virtually underfoot, hard by the drainage ditches, victims of the bulldozer's tread and the sharp bite of the plow—since they cannot talk back, much less shoot back, for waterfowl this is a precarious sort of coexistence.

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