But this mild winter, so helpful to land game, was ruinous to waterfowl. In normal years, accumulated snow and ice provide a major source of water in March, April and May, when wintering birds return north to nest. This year the small amount of snow stored on the barely frozen southern Canadian prairies, where 75% of all American waterfowl is bred, was absorbed during the unusually early spring.
A hot and rainless summer compounded the damage and forced some of the breeders farther north. Others stayed behind to try their luck on inadequate water areas, thus overcrowding those broods that managed to hatch. Many birds that stayed did not nest at all.
"The life of most water areas this year," William G. Leitch, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, reported in early summer, "is almost a week-to-week affair, dependent upon rainfall. The life expectancy of waterfowl broods is similarly dictated."
By August the situation on the prairies had not improved. D.U. Biologist J. R. Caldwell reported from Saskatchewan: "The real waterfowl production line—those thousands of small ponds—has vanished."
In view of these conditions, many sportsmen agitated for closed seasons, hoping that the absence of gunning would eventually cure the absence of ducks. "Any man who thinks it out will be in favor of closing the season for one, two or even three years," said Winston-Salem duck shooter Tom Coppedge. "But," he added, "closing the season is not all the answer. The real problem is drought and lack of breeding grounds."
In essence, Coppedge and the thousands of duck hunters who shared his view were expressing a fundamental concept of game management—that the gun alone is rarely the determining factor in the survival of wildlife.
All wildlife—including waterfowl—is a crop. Like all crops it needs the luck of weather, but beyond this it must be managed as a crop if it is expected to grow. This means improvement and expansion of nesting and breeding areas, of food supplies, of protective cover and disease controls. It also means controlled harvesting, even in bad years.
"The first real step toward any solution to the duck problem," says Albert Hochbaum, director of Manitoba's Delta Waterfowl Research Station, "is to establish firm waterfowl programs not only on state and federal levels, but privately as well. In the U.S. and Canada most waterfowl is produced on private land. It is essential that this land be preserved if we are to preserve ducks and duck hunting."
This year the best breeding conditions for at least part of the duck population were found in man-made lakes and in public and private waterfowl refuges. Without these projects, inadequate as they proved to be in so widespread a drought, 1961 's duck-hunting outlook would be even bleaker. With more of them the waterfowler conceivably could be enjoying as good a season as any other hunter.
Wherever similar management programs have been established for other game, populations have shown remarkable increase. Antelope have been restored to the West, wild turkeys in the South and West. From only 28 pheasants planted in the country less than 100 years ago, more than 7 million will be taken by hunters this year. Comparable success stories can be cited among virtually every big and small land species the hunter will meet this fall. And with the continued expansion of game-improvement programs, the excellent outlook for land game in 1961 may be only an indication of more and better hunting in the years ahead.