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An autumn dawn on the Canadian prairies may be clear, with frost dull white on the roadside weeds and the tall rushes of farm sloughs, and along the swaths waiting for the combine. Or a dawn may be windy, with rain or sleet driving in on the wind like flung shot; or it may be calm with gently falling snow. But on any autumn dawn at all across the 900 miles of flat or gently rolling water-speckled land from eastern Manitoba west through Saskatchewan and Alberta to the foothills, and north to the Peace River country and beyond, ducks and geese by the millions are on the move. Sometimes in a quiet dawn a man miles from the nearest great marsh can hear like low thunder across those miles the beat of wings as the big birds take off on their morning flight.
WHERE VAST FLOCKS GATHER
It is long before dawn in autumn when the hunting really begins in this area, one of the last of the world's great concentrations of waterfowl. Three-quarters of the continent's ducks and geese nest and raise broods here every year, gathering in vast flocks before they scatter in migration along all main flyways from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A man in a city apartment rolls away from the warmth of his wife and tiptoes to the kitchen to make his breakfast, counting miles and shells and the prospects of mallards in his head from the moment he wakes. A country banker hears a tap on the door and leaps guiltily out of bed because the gang is here already and he has overslept and yesterday the canvas-backs came in on the lake. A wiry old toolpush from a wildcat drilling rig hunts goose droppings with a flashlight in a field where he saw geese yesterday, and when he finds the fringe of where they were he takes his spade and begins digging a pit waist high.
In country hotels hunters from cities in Canada or the United States gulp breakfast and hurry to their cars. In the big commercial camps the guides and camp operators plan coolly and efficiently for the kills that will justify their tariffs of $25 a day and up. In a village kitchen a boy's teeth clench with excitement on his porridge spoon because he's going out with dad to see if they can connect with those big Canadas they saw last night in a wet field south of town.
Cars carry them along the black, rough roads, or boats over the sloughs and lakes. Some in waders cross shallow water to rush beds, some go to piles of sheaves in grain fields, some to points of land that birds cross when leaving their roosts. They hide and quieten, load and wait.
There are sights so magnificent, some of those dawns, that guns hot from the opening barrage all across the great hunting grounds are stilled with a kind of awe and a man will tell you later, "Jim and I just quit shooting and sat there and watched them go over by the hundreds of thousands, ducks and geese and swans..."
Those unforgettable sights are really old on this continent, commonplace to the men and women who pushed the first plows into the plains, to the men who shot the last of the passenger pigeons, even to the men who fought their first automobiles or their last buggies over mud roads to shoot a couple of hundred ducks. But there are not many sights of that era which are with us almost unchanged today. This one is, in the flatlands of the Canadian West, for your son or mine, holding his first gun on his first shoot, to see and always remember.
A VICTORY OF MAN
In a sense, this is a victory of man over himself. The other great waterfowl-breeding grounds of the continent? Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, for instance?declined in ratio to the increase in human population. There are duckless marshes in Wisconsin superior to many of the busy breeding places across western Canada's 10 million ponds, potholes, sloughs and lakes. But partly because of enlightened hunting and conservation laws, partly because humans now allow themselves to tolerate the untamed, in those prairie sloughs and potholes the Roman-nosed lady canvasbacks scarcely bother to get their young out of sight when a car goes by. Mallards take gizzard gravel on country roads and sometimes exercise the right of the enceinte so close to farm buildings that a clumsy cow is as dangerous to a nest as a fox or skunk. Blue-winged teal, shovelers, mallards and pintails breed among the wild roses and tiger lilies in ditches beside highways; gadwalls, bluebills and the tiny green-winged teal rise in the sun and settle again like blackbirds; and pretty little ruddy-duck drakes guarding nearby nests stick up their tails like wrens and pull in their heads, chittering at an intruding human before diving out of sight.
In the late summer and fall they flock up. One wildlife scientist will report seeing a flight of 50,000 to 100,000 mallards and pintails pass in an hour and a half. Another will report that the bluebill density of a certain northern lake is 25,000 per shoreline mile. By mid-September when Canadian prairie hunting begins, if there are more than 100,000,000 ducks in North America (as may reasonably be assumed in view of their huge population increase and the lack of any estimates within the last decade), probably more than 60,000,000 of them are in the Canadian West, and most of that 60,000,000 are mallards.