It was a cruel, hard symphony, though its prelude was gentle enough. The first sound was the random tap of dry milkweed pods shaking in the dawn breeze. As the ground fog thinned under the push of the wind, three deer appeared in the soybean field beyond the box blind. The breeze freshened, and the rattle of cornstalks took command of the timpani. Bobwhite quail piped up from a low woodlot that slowly emerged in the glowing light. Blackbirds began moving now, huge, almost pterodactylian in the distorted air, adding their harsh morning song to the chorus. Then, out of the northwest, came the first cries of the geese—a faint, high yapping like that of a beagle pack on fresh scent, growing rapidly into a full-throated clamor, a barking, bellowing crescendo that sent the feeding deer skipping toward the safety of the woodlot. The sky to the west literally grew dark with Canada geese, the skeins and strings and knots of a flapping avian blanket. Finally, the sound of wings overhead....
"All right," whispered Matt Walsh from his corner of the blind. "They're giving us a look. About 12 or 15 of them, they're looking us over. They like us, they like the set. Don't move. Not even an eyeball." The guide put his goose call to his lips and bleated once, twice, comfortingly. The sound of flailing pinions came stronger as the geese circled over the sprawling set of decoys, invisible to the gunners crouched eyes down, cheeks and shoulders to the wet boards of the box blind. It was painfully cramped in there. The only thing that moved was Walsh's bright blue eyes, squinting through the slot between the peak of his camouflage cap and the tip of his nose. Yet even without seeing them, the bodies of the geese overhead were immensely real, almost palpable through sound alone: big birds, hot and wary, social, querulous, hungry and agile for all their size. And they were fooled.
"Take 'em!" said Matt Walsh.
The gunners jumped up. Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!
The rise of the guns caught the geese not 10 feet off the ground, pitching in with their feet extended like the landing gear of so many 727s, their wings cupped and clutching at the thick morning air, serpentine necks stretched, heads turning toward the danger, eyes wide and black. The sudden scramble for escape, broad wings lifting those huge bodies with amazing speed—but too slow for three of them. You can hear a goose when it hits the ground. It sounds like your wife with a bulky basket of wet wash falling down the cellar stairs. Two of the three downed birds were head-shot and lay where they fell. The third tried to fly but was stopped by a finishing shot. Tremors, floating feathers, silence.
That scene, or one very much like it, will be repeated thousands of times this year on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the prime wintering ground for Canada geese in North America. With a bumper crop of goslings produced this summer on the breeding grounds of Labrador, Newfoundland and the Ungava Peninsula, there is even better shooting this season than last. A year ago about a million honkers worked the Atlantic flyway (916,100 to be precise, as the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife survey usually is); fully half that total wintered in the tidewater reaches of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia—the region known as the Delmarva Peninsula. This year close to half a million geese will winter in Maryland alone. In an era that has witnessed a tragic and rapid decline in some species of game birds, principally diving ducks like the canvasback, the resurgence of the Canada goose is one of the few hopeful signs for the future of wildfowl shooting in America.
The comeback of the Canadas is doubly heartening in that it serves as another example of how some species of wildlife can adapt to man's often ruinous impact on the planet. Back in 1951, according to the Federal goose census, there were 272,183 Canadas wintering along the Atlantic flyway. That was the flyway's low point in the 23 years that the midwinter survey has been made. The high point came in 1970, apparently a good breeding year, when 775,000 birds wintered on the flyway, and the grand total—which included the season's kill—reached a high of 1,067,200. Thus the kill for that year—292,200 geese—exceeded the entire wintering population (i.e., survivors) of 1951.
The Canada goose once was mainly an aquatic feeder, but lately many of the geese have developed an appetite for "hot foods"—primarily grains like corn, wheat, barley and soybeans. In fact, the best thing that has happened to the Canada goose was the modernization of the mechanical corn picker about 25 years ago, equipment that leaves a lot of leftovers in the form of shattered ears and scattered kernels. The big black-white-and-gray birds have become highly efficient gleaners. Not only has the addition of corn to their diet helped many more birds survive the rigors of winter, but according to some biologists it may have increased the hardiness of the species generally, thus promoting better success in the spring on the northern breeding grounds.
Any radical change in a wild creature's habits is bound to cause worry among biologists, and the Canada goose's switch to hot foods is no exception. The availability of corn has been one big factor in altering the distribution of geese over the flyway, particularly during the winter. In the day when the Canada was primarily an aquatic feeder, the birds spread themselves more widely over the wintering grounds. Back then the primary concentration during the winter was in eastern North Carolina in the Currituck Sound area, which in the 19th century was the legendary killing ground for geese, ducks and swans. The robber barons of New York felt that their year was incomplete without a week's shooting in Currituck during which daily bags of 150 canvasbacks, black ducks, sprigtails, brant, Canadas and whistling swans were commonplace. Today it is doubtful that even the most efficient outlaw gunner could kill that many birds in a week of hard work on the Currituck. But he certainly could—and perhaps even does—on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Fully 80% of the wintering goose population, plus the now-protected swans and thousands upon thousands of ducks hold in the waters surrounding the Delmarva Peninsula.
The reason is the food: the peninsula contains about 514,000 acres of corn, plus 86,000 acres of small grain. By contrast, the 13-county area from Currituck Sound to the Pamlico River in North Carolina has only 200,000 acres devoted to corn. What's more, where the Delmarva farmers tend to leave their stubble fields unplowed during the winter, thus offering plenty of feed for the geese, the North Carolinians harvest early and plow for a winter cover crop of less palatable grasses.