Where once such natural foods as cattails and bulrushes, sedges and spikeweeds grew in wild abundance, barley and millet, milo and Sudan now lure wintering birds down into what are still the largest watery flatlands in the Pacific Flyway. And now there is rice—a grain unknown there when the Spaniards came to California.
Rice was not planted in the valley until 1910. Today it produces 23% of all the rice in the U.S. Economically, rice is a major crop in the region. But more significant to sportsmen, it is the state's single most important attraction to waterfowl. "The growing of rice," says a distinguished wildlife authority, "is one of the few activities which can be added to the credit side of the ledger in man's relation to waterfowl." So irresistible is its appeal, in fact, that some 50% of all the ducks and more than 80% of all the geese in the Pacific Flyway stop to feed and rest each season in the rice fields of the Central Valley. At times it is possible to see as many as two million birds concentrated in a single area. This is a spectacle that still inspires awe.
But almost as astonishing as the concentrations of birds in the Central Valley is the fact that the area has survived as a major waterfowl wintering ground during an era in which the state's population, industry and shooters have multiplied almost too rapidly to record. That the wintering facilities which the area offers waterfowl have actually improved during this population explosion is something of a modern miracle. It was wrought by two rather improbable bedfellows.
Part of the credit belongs to the California Department of Fish and Game and its dynamic director, Walter T. Shannon. Under Shannon's lead, his department has earned a reputation as one of the most progressive, productive and practical in the nation. A waterfowler, outdoorsman and naturalist as well as an administrator, Shannon has proved himself a man who not only knows what waterfowl need in his state, but also knows how to get it for them with minimum delay and red tape. In a bureaucratic society this is a feat matched only by Shannon's even more impressive ability to win the respect, confidence and unprecedented cooperation of California's almost 1,000 private shooting clubs.
At first glance, this may not seem a major accomplishment. But while it is true in theory that state game departments and private gun clubs have the same goals, in practice they seldom seem to agree on how to achieve them. Club members often look upon game officials with the distrust small boys reserve for dogcatchers, and game officials are not entirely free of blame for this attitude. Not a few have been guilty of trying just a little bit harder to "get something on one of the rich guys." Whatever the subtle and not-so-subtle reasons for the antagonisms, the result is that many state game agencies and private clubs work at cross-purposes when, with a little understanding, each might help the other considerably.
It did not take Shannon long to realize that the most important people in the state of California as far as the future of its waterfowl is concerned are the members of private shooting clubs. Together they personally own or control some 90% of all the waterfowl habitat in the state. Considering that this is close to 30% of all the wetlands in the entire Pacific Flyway and that it accommodates more than 70% of all its wintering birds, it is clear that private shooting clubs in California—as in most parts of the U.S.—are very important indeed. In the Central Valley they deserve the major share of credit for making that area the most outstanding waterfowl wintering ground in the country.
The most obvious contribution of such clubs is in preserving and protecting the land they own for the use of waterfowl. Even with federal assistance, few states could raise the money required to purchase and maintain a small portion of such lands. Most private citizens could not raise the money either, let alone afford to invest it in wildfowl habitat instead of in housing developments.
Needless to say, philanthropy was hardly the reason behind turning most of the Central Valley over to waterfowl. But the public, whether it realizes it or not, has profited considerably because this has happened. Every shooter who brings down a duck or goose on public shooting land in California this season can be pretty sure that there is a 9-to-1 chance it dined last at one of the private clubs. He can also figure that if those clubs did not exist the likelihood of there being any birds at all would be extremely slim.
But besides providing waterfowl with wintering grounds, the private clubs also have proved their strongest guardians. Federal migratory regulations, for example, permit waterfowl shooting seven days a week. Few clubs do. Many limit shooting to three days a week, others only to weekends. Most stop all shooting at noon. By limiting guest privileges, regulating shooting, rotating blinds and resting sections of land, clubs put considerably less hunting pressure on birds than the public does.
They also cripple fewer birds. Not surprisingly, shooting-club members are usually good shots, but there is more to the story than this. Like the birds on their land, the shooters, too, are under less pressure. A public shooter often has to contend with game hogs behind every bulrush firing at their own and everybody else's birds. Most flights are bombarded by magnum loads before they get within 150 yards of the gun. Occasionally a bird is hit and falls where it can be recovered. More often than not it comes down a mile away, a double loss both to the gun and to conservation.