- Running through a stormJoe Marshall | August 30, 1976
- Lee BectonWilliam F. Reed | January 10, 1994
- Go FigureAugust 30, 1999
WINGS AT DAWN
As ducks and geese crowd the flyways, another record hunting season is on
From Maine to Oregon, along the great plains and in the swampy lowlands, down rivers and up cornfields, anxious eyes these days are scanning crimson skies, waiting for waterfowl. The annual migration is on. Pushed by winds and rain and the first cold fingers of autumn, myriads of ducks and geese are winging south, some to the lazy warmth of wintering grounds, others to the waiting guns of more than 2 million hunters. And everywhere, as the reports on the following pages show, the 1957 waterfowl season looks good. Whether greeted from a scull boat on the Kennebec or a blind in the Salt Creek marshes of Utah (above), it promises for early-morning enthusiasts like Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Carlisle (left) and Gordon Kirby (right) of Salt Lake City full bags and happy hunting.
There is good reason why the countless millions of ducks now flying south should be getting more irritable by the year. Every fall along the flyways from Canada the ducks find changes have been made, usually for the worse. Guns such as those bristling on the opposite page offer trouble enough, but the ducks also find that familiar ponds bordered by lush greenery and coated with the tasty patina of algae have disappeared. Lovely, boggy acres, once fit only for ducks, are drained by farmers and split-level home builders. The ducks are not consulted about these changes, and some have a hard time finding new bogs.
If instead of flying peaceably south, the incensed ducks decided to retaliate with mass attacks on select U.S. croplands, they would be stopped cold. The Armed Forces have no effective ground-to-duck weapon, but 2� million U.S. duck hunters do. The hunters also have a corking intelligence service that could pinpoint a sneak duck attack before the first wave reached Fargo, North Dakota. This intelligence net includes federal and state wildlife agencies of the U.S. and Canada, university staff men and a number of duck men whose work is supported by hunters. The best-known of the hunter-supported agents are the technicians of Ducks Unlimited who work in Canada.
If there were ever any untoward marshaling of ducks, any early migration of mallards, any lingering of pintails, if there were anything strange doing among the nitwit redheads, the teals, gadwalls or scaups, it very likely would be noted by Biologist Robert Thomas Sterling, who is shown patiently listening to the gabble and chucklings of a molted mallard in the picture above. Sterling's territory, eastern Saskatchewan, is in the heart of the breeding grounds. Sterling works for Ducks Unlimited in Duckland, where he could learn almost everything worth knowing about ducks—if he had the time and 2,000 biologists to help him.
Every year Sterling counts thousands of ducks, bands several thousand, gives duck talks to civic groups, occasionally helps crippled ducks and helps Americans who come hunting ducks. He politely hears out the grumblers who do not like the game laws, though lawmaking is not at all his business. He politely advises distraught women who report that mother ducks and ducklings are walking on the public roads (Leave the ducks alone. Please do not put them in your basement!). People who see him with binoculars think he makes his living counting ducks, and Sterling sometimes finds it better to let it go at that than explain just what the hell he is doing.
Biologist Sterling's job is the one for which Ducks Unlimited was started 20 years ago: in simple terms, to provide homes for ducks that want to raise more ducks. Sterling is physically and academically fit for the problem of providing homes for ducks. He is a solidly built, 5-foot 7-inch man whose age of 34 is betrayed only by a slight molt at the temples. He has five years of university study behind him and, when he is mulling the problems of ducks, his calmness, his spectacles and trim mustache give him the air of a young, understanding psychoanalyst. If the chuckling gossip of the mallard pictured on the preceding page were actually getting through to him, Sterling would have it made. He could work like a psychoanalyst in a well-appointed office. He could ask the ducks in—or have his springer spaniel, Rowdy, usher them in by mouth—and learn firsthand why the teals do not like a slough that they liked two years ago and why the black ducks are shifting west from Ontario. Without leaving his office he could know what the teals prefer to eat, what predators are eating the most duck eggs, how the water stands on all Ducks Unlimited impoundments and who has been swiping stop logs of D.U.'s dams. He could ask the mallards to go easy on the farmers' grain swaths and ask the redheads to stop laying eggs in the nests of other ducks. "I try to think like a duck," Sterling observes, "but I have to remember that I am not a duck, and what we do not know about ducks is still a very great deal."
Groin-deep in water
Sterling has a home, a wife and four children in Saskatoon and an office in the basement of Helgi Olafson's filling station in the small town of Wynyard. He is sometimes home or at his desk, but more often not, for the answers he needs lie in the field. The phrase "in the field" is a euphemism. Sterling often works groin-deep in water and, as he puts it, "up to the eyes in vegetation." After a wet spell, the minor roads of Saskatchewan afford about as much traction as thick minestrone. Sterling can count on spending some time every month mired in his station wagon, hoping Indians will come with horses and pull him out.