Of all the alibis with which a duck hunter soothes his soul, none is more heartfelt than "I know I hit him," muttered as the bird flies blithely on. For their comfort, it now appears that many a disappointed gunner is right. Dr. William H. Elder, professor of zoology at the University of Missouri, has been examining live ducks with a fluoroscope, and he has found that an impressive number of them have been shot and carry the proof in their bodies.
Wildlife scientists have long been dissatisfied with their attempts to measure hunting pressure. How many ducks are killed? How many die later of wounds? The answers to these questions would provide an ideal yardstick for suggesting better hunting regulations. Accordingly in 1948, believing that the answers to these questions should always be proportionate to the number of birds which survive gunshot wounds, Dr. Elder began an investigation which in seven summers and two winters has taken him to wildfowl concentrations in western states and provinces, and to Holland and England.
A HOMEMADE FLUOROSCOPE
With the help of the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba, he bought a secondhand X-ray outfit for $350 and built a homemade, portable fluoroscope. With it Dr. Elder has X-rayed more than 20,000 live ducks and geese, mainly in the Mississippi Flyway.
Two of every five of the outwardly healthy geese he X-rayed carried lead souvenirs. Three out of 10 mallard drakes had bits of shot in their flesh, bones, or internal organs; one in five pintail drakes showed the same; one in five mallard hens; one in 10 bluewing teal drakes; and so on down through every species of duck he examined.
How did he go about getting so many of these lively birds to examine? Mainly by seeking out every large-scale banding operation within reach of his jeep or truck every summer. Since banding work always can use another pair of hands he was always welcome.
Many oddities have turned up under his fluoroscope. Of three ducks he found with shot lodged in the brain, one acted so strangely that he kept it under observation at the Delta Station for a few weeks. The duck beat itself against fences and ran around madly, obviously deranged, until it died. In England last year, he found one goose carrying a rifle bullet; another bearing what appeared to be fragments of a land mine. He also shook the English by finding that approximately the same proportion of their wild geese carry body shot as ours.
An offshoot of his work was an attempt to find something significant in the sizes of shot carried by ducks he examined. But no one size dominated the field.
Dr. Elder feels it's too early to give much more meaning to his findings than is obvious from the figures. There is no way to determine in what year a bird was shot, and therefore year-by-year fluctuations in hunting pressure really cannot be measured accurately except in an extreme jump from one year to the next. Although year-by-year fluctuations have not shown significance so far, a measure for the future has been provided. By comparing what Dr. Elder now has found with the figures for, say, 1960, we will know whether hunting pressure has gone up or down. "One thing is sure," he says. "A lot of gunners are shooting at ducks too far away to kill."