Fly Away Home (and Safe) … 2013

//Fly Away Home (and Safe) … 2013

Fly Away Home (and Safe) … 2013

Snow Geese 900


This is my annual re-post — on the first weekend of waterfowl hunting season in both Washington (where I’m living now) and California (my home). I’ve been lightly tweaking the post each year, adding new information or links.

My reason for re-posting this piece is to bring attention to some of the lesser discussed aspects of duck hunting. The most significant issue for me is the enormous injury rate in all wing shooting — a facet rarely brought forth voluntarily, and one that’s inadequately studied. I provide additional details on that subject in this post.

Fly Away Home (and Safe)

Originally posted on October 29, 2010 — with additions

Sandhill Cranes in field

The above photo was one of the more poignant images I’ve taken of wild birds, aesthetic imperfections noted. Hugh and I had a photo excursion planned to an area of the Sacramento Valley that, in the winter, attracts some of the most awesome and vast flocks of birds: Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, Sandhill Cranes. We chose a spot where the Sandhill Cranes dance in courtship rituals and where, according to my research, there was no waterfowl hunting. Although duck hunting season covers some of the most vibrant months of bird migration on the Pacific Flyway, I’ve done my best to avoid the most heavily hunted zones.

As we slowly made our way toward the cranes, hoping not to startle them, I heard the sound that always shatters my serenity like, well, a shotgun. Because it was a shotgun — very close by. In a clearing across the river, just a hop and a skip from where we were, we saw a blind of free-shooting duck hunters, blasting at anything that flew overhead, in range or out. In the ranks, shooters like this are known as “sky busters.” Legions of ducks flew over that slough, and although I couldn’t tell if any got away wounded, the possibility on that day, from that blind was high. My only consolation was that the hunters’ Mallard call sounded like a drunken sheep. Any duck within earshot probably veered right — fast.

The water birds in the nearby no-hunting zone scattered. Even the crack of a twig under our feet sent them skittering into the sky. So, rather than possibly scare them onto the dark side of the hunting zone, we packed it up for the day. As we drove alongside the slough, I spotted these Greater White-fronted Geese behind the reeds in the distance. (Hunters often refer to them as “specks” or “specklebellies”). Using the car as a blind, I looked through my telephoto. They were on high alert, and every shot from the nearby blind sent a ripple of activity through the flock. Standing among the geese were two Sandhill Cranes looking like sentries above the agitated flock. (Cranes are protected in California but are hunted in some other states.)

Crippled Birds in Waterfowl Hunting

I always maintain that those shooting at the birds don’t see the effects beyond the scope of their blind and decoy spread — the effects on the birds themselves, on their social structures and on behaviors which do change significantly in response to being shot at. The science of waterfowl management covers the populations at large. As long as the numbers are level by agency estimates, we non-hunting wildlife observers are supposed to accept the reasonableness of the sport. Some birders and photographers do. But my perspective on waterfowl hunting comes from sharing the field with duck hunters, and grappling with their dirty little secret, as it were — which is the wounding rate inherent in the sport.

Wounding is an aspect of duck hunting that many non-hunters simply do not know about. A lot of ducks and geese fall to the ground or water injured and alive, and must be killed after being retrieved. Those that get away with their injuries are referred to by hunters as “cripples.” Cripples are the ducks or geese that evade capture — or birds that are still able fly away with bird shot in their bodies, succumbing to their injuries later on.

Crippling is a known and accepted aspect of waterfowl hunting, not entirely avoidable even by the most precise marksmen and women. Although hunters are legally obligated to make efforts at retrieving injured birds, even the most practiced hunters have wounded ducks they couldn’t retrieve. Wounded ducks can fly a distance then drop out of sight. Birds sometimes fall into thick reeds or inaccessible areas of the marsh. Some diving ducks have been known to evade capture by dipping below the water surface, grabbing and clinging to a tethered reed, and sometimes drowning in the process rather than risk surfacing to be caught.

Crippling Rates are Under-Studied

You won’t find a lot of studies done on actual crippling numbers. Most assessments are made through hunter self-reporting. According to a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks paper, hunters generally report an average 18 percent loss rate to USFWS. The same report suggests that if you reconcile hunter and trained observer reports, the wounding rate on ducks is at least 25 percent — which means “approximately 3.4 to 3.7 million ducks and geese go unretrieved each year in the U.S. and Canada combined.” That doesn’t count non-game or non-target species which also fall to poor shots. Already in the first two days of this season, I’ve seen reports on the local boards of a hunter bringing back a shot-and-killed cormorant , some misidentified ducks shot by accident, over-limits taken on species like scaup, and plenty of reports by other hunters, of sky busters wounding but not downing the birds.

You can read a hunter’s take on sky busting here — the practice of shooting irresponsibly and out of range. I also came upon one of many threads at a hunting message board, this one about crippled waterfowl and gulls left to suffer on the ice in Michigan. There’s an old 1980 paper here from the Michigan Department of Resources, where crippling numbers were established by collecting injured birds in the field, after the hunt. In this piece Tony Dean discusses and challenges a Humane Society report — a report which claims wounding rates are much higher than acknowledged. Near the end of that piece there’s an interesting discussion about how duck hunting might prevent the public from learning or caring more about these animals because hunted birds flush easily out of fear — making it difficult for people to observe them more closely. This is definitely true in my photography experience. Birds that are hunted, habitually flush at the slightest movement. Unless I know the birds are protected or reasonably comfortable around me, I generally don’t even lift my lens around wild ducks in flight, since more often than not, that action will frighten them.

Mistaken Identity

Shooting start time in many areas is a half hour before sunrise. End time is often at official sunset. If you’ve been out observing or photographing waterfowl before sunrise or as the sun dips below the horizon, you know how difficult it can be to identify by species when the primary means is through silhouette recognition of a fast-flying bird. Even low morning light can obscure color distinctions. Can some experienced hunters ID birds on the wing in these conditions? Sure, some can, just as experienced birders can. More adept hunters also wait until birds are clearly in range and visible before firing. Is it reasonable, however, to expect that most hunters, young hunters or new hunters included, have the skills and identification chops to make these distinctions in low light mornings? Or in fog, rain and wind — weather conditions often preferred by waterfowl hunters? It is not. Birders and hunters who are able to whip out IDs on the fly come at that skill after much study and experience. At one hunting board, a man had this to say about opening weekend this year: “We let my wife have first shot at birds that came in. She’d never hunted before and wanted to give her the opportunity. She hit birds but didn’t down any.”

Snow Geese at Sunset

Hunter education in the United States does not mandate high proficiency in identification or shooting accuracy skills. Some basic hunter education courses are as short as six hours (Texas) after which a hunter is then licensed for life. Unfortunately, the idea of stricter requirements is arguably impossible, in a political environment where any such restrictions would likely be seen as an intrusion on personal liberty. It would probably take strong advocacy from hunters themselves for this to become a reality.

In the case of animals mistakenly or deliberately shot against regulations, the law mandates that any species taken in error must be reported the game warden, with the possibility of penalties levied. Hiding the evidence of illegal kills is obviously not a practice a truly law-abiding hunter would engage.  But, in many areas, hunting is almost entirely self-policed, and a person would need to have undying faith in human character to believe the reporting is always done. You may be familiar with the colloquial usage of  the term “SSS” — an abbreviation for “shoot, shovel and shut up.” It’s sometimes said in jest, but I often see “SSS” used in anti-wolf settings, where shooters are particularly hateful and violent toward predator species.

In Terry Grosz’s books about his experience as a fish and game warden, he recounts instances of violators covering up or burying the evidence of their illegal kills. His stories can be discouraging in terms of the quantity and nature of these violations. I most recently read his volume, The Thin Green Line where he tells stories of working early teal season in Colorado, busting people for taking other birds out of season. In one case (p. 52) he secretly observed a group of hunters accidentally take “spoonies” or Northern Shovelers. Their response was to “stomp the sons of bitches,” meaning bury them in the mud to avoid notice by the game warden.

Length of the Season

The duck and goose hunting season on the west coast generally spans 100 days of the year and is open on many shared public lands including National Wildlife Refuges and state-owned wildlife areas (outside of state parks and national parks). The season begins around the time ducks and geese start migrating to their wintering grounds, and it ends just a short time before the onset of spring migration. In essence, bird hunting season covers the bulk of time during which ducks and geese are resting, feeding, refueling, and bonding with mates during the winter months.

Lifetime pairings in family-oriented species like geese are often split due to death or injury during the season. Given the intensity of hunting pressure which is seven days a week in some areas, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of us are uncomfortable with business-as-usual when it comes to water-fowling practices. One local fish and game warden talked about areas that get “shot out” during the season — meaning the hunting pressure is so intense, the birds simply leave and do not return.

This sign is posted at a state wildlife area. It’s also a listed birding location. Many state-owned wildlife areas are open to hunting in Washington, so it’s common to have this proximity between birders, photographers and hunters. I do not personally enjoy being around that much hunting activity, so we visited again after the hunting season ended. At that time we saw no bird species at all, but I don’t know if it was due to hunting pressure.

Hunting Sign

“Tradition” Isn’t Good Enough

A long tradition of duck hunting as sport does not mean we shouldn’t question the humanity of this practice and how it’s done, in the context of our modern perceptions. Throughout history, practices that were once “traditional” have been deemed inhumane or inappropriate given our ever evolving understanding. Insisting on the validity of tradition in the face of new information is an easily-dismantled logical fallacy.

Science is indeed providing an increasing body of evidence for non-human sentience and intelligence — like this recent report of dog brain activity or Tim Birkhead’s book on the sophisticated sensory perceptions of birds. I think it’s incumbent upon our species to take these revelations into consideration when we determine our ethical and proper role in the grander scheme of ecological balance.

It’s Not a “Harvest”

In the sporting world, euphemistic words like “harvest” mask the true nature of the practice which is, at its core, a violent action toward living wild animals. It is killing and any other term is a transparent effort to veil that truth. Killing for any reason comes with a significant philosophical burden in progressive society.  Having seen so many of the unintended consequences on wildlife from human activity (pollution, development, etc.) — it’s difficult for me to advocate for additional, deliberate harm on wild animals who already suffer tremendous pressure from our expansion and consumption. Philosophically, I also believe that as long as we readily sanction one form of violent act or another, we are condemning ourselves to the chronic cultural affliction of violence in its various forms.

Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory sums up this idea of non-violence in book Callus on My Soul:

“Under the leadership of Dr. King, I became totally committed to nonviolence. I took it a step farther, becoming convinced that nonviolence meant opposition to killing in any form, including the practice of killing animals for food and sport.

Part of my personal commitment is to not turn away from the truth that underlies the most enduring illusions we’re taught to accept in our culture. So, this October 2013, as another hunting season presents itself as our societal norm, I’ll continue to defy the accepted reality by suggesting that bloodsport is an unnecessary, inhumane and outdated methodology for interacting with nature and wildlife in the 21st century.

In tribute to the water birds traveling the flyways this year and into 2014, a gallery of my duck and goose shots . . . the non-lethal kind. Fly safely, my dear friends, and always with strong tailwinds and good fortune under your wings!

Related post: The Cripples … or Why I Hate Wing Shooting

By | 2017-09-24T01:39:07+00:00 October 20th, 2013|Bird Species, Blog, Ducks, Fishing & Hunting, Geese and Swans, Wildlife Ethics|19 Comments


  1. Larry Jordan October 20, 2013 at 6:41 am

    Well stated Ingrid! Hopefully those Sandhill Cranes made it out of the killing fields unscathed. I’m certain that most people that don’t hunt have no idea of this dirty little secret. With such a high percentage of “cripples” that is an unbelievable number of injured and suffering animals. I’m glad you post this piece every year to at least inform the general public of the reality of hunting and its unnecessary consequences.

    I love your bird photos. Going through this gallery it was difficult to pick a favorite but the dueling Coots is absolutely magnificent!

    • ingrid October 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      Larry, I agree, it does need to be known. When I started to learn about actual field practices, it changed my perspective entirely. You do not have to be a crack shot or an ethical person to have the legal right to shoot at wild birds.

      People who hunt with dogs reduce the loss rate of injured birds. (This blog post is one of many describing the challenges of “dogless” hunting and retrieval of birds:

      Of course, hunt dog training often involves using live birds like pigeons or quail. The whole practice involves a degree of wildlife usage and utilitarianism that’s very difficult for me to wrap my head around sometimes.

  2. Annette October 20, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Thank you for this enlightenment – I had no idea….I’ll need to research this here in Canada…..hopefully something could be done to change this harmful behavior??

    • ingrid October 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      Annette, it’s a tough thing to change, particularly since hunters and hunting groups have a lot of political clout. Education and illumination might be the slow path toward changing cultural perspectives on wild animals and the suffering they endure.

  3. Louisd October 20, 2013 at 8:13 am

    A considered post, balanced and nuanced. The animals have such a voice in your advocacy.

    • ingrid October 20, 2013 at 1:10 pm

      Thank you, Louise. The more I see, the more difficult it becomes for me to refrain from my own truth about it.

  4. Mia McPherson October 20, 2013 at 10:32 am

    So very well written and from the heart it resonates loudly with me. Just this morning a shotgun rang out near the entrance to Antelope Island State Park and it rattled me knowing full well that not only do some birds die that some are left crippled for the rest of their lives, no matter how long that might be.

    • ingrid October 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      Mia, that idea also struck me as I watched an injured crow trying to manage his life with a damaged leg that seriously compromised his ground foraging ability. I’m not sure how he injured the leg, they often get entangled as you know. But in that moment, I thought the very same thing: people do such reckless things to animals, especially birds, and sometimes for a laugh or a lark — taking potshots, throwing things, etc. I’ve seen kids do this. Then they move on from their little joke, but the animal is left with a lifetime of pain, injury and debilitation, however long that life may be after the incident.

  5. M. Firpi October 20, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Henry Beston wrote in “The Outermost House”:

    ‘We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.’

    • ingrid October 21, 2013 at 12:18 am

      Maria, I only recently read “The Outermost House” on the recommendation of another person here. Thanks very much for reminding me of that beautiful, full quote. “They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

      Before I ever heard this quote I used to refer to the huge flocks of shorebirds migrating to San Francisco Bay as “shorebird nation” or sometimes, “the quiet nation” — as they perched on rocks and probed the mud for food, voices barely bubbling above the sound of the tide. I think “other nations” is a most apt description of our coexistence, even if our understanding of nations tends to be unfortunately bombastic.

  6. John Raymond October 21, 2013 at 5:07 am

    This one is a very difficult one. Change is hard. It has it’s casualties, it has it’s price. I ponder writing this but it is just my opinion and it is thoughts in the wind against an established mountain of cold hard rock.

    Hunting needs to stop. This is not 1820 anymore.


    Stopping hunting…sport killing, is turning the child against the family. It is asking the dumb to get wise. It is basically asking 75% plus of one political party to lay down the only reason they affiliate with that party-no questions asked. Is there any chance that the NRA is not 95% made up of one party?
    Ignorance is a hard thing to overcome. I grew up in a forward-thinking environment and moved to redneck brainwashed rural. I have seen the difference.

    There is so much money created by hunting and so little by birders who mean well. Hunters spend hundreds to thousands a year plus send in their check to the NRA or Ducks Unlimited, and those biggies buy the land and people to keep the cycle going. Even Clinton signed away the sanctity of the wildlife refuges for what? Oh yeah, politics. Must have owed someone a big favor.

    I find it so hard to be optimistic when you fight against people killing when they have the very thing you despise. Guns.
    Thing is, it is getting worse. Farmers no longer farm and the land is bought by hunting groups under guises with federal money backing.
    This is like starting a war for profit… these people don’t play fair.

    How are the true conservationist going to help? Hunters claim to even be conservationist.

    40 acres of rural farm land cost around $100,000, I do not see how even that amount can be raised at this point. One small field. And that is the only way to win this war for sure..unless a deep pocketed Bill Gates/tree hugger/ one-of-us buys up a ton of land.

    There might be a another way.

    I really feel the only hope is a dedicated group going door to door like the bible thumpers, looking for owners of land to commit to a real conservation program. Have them keep hunters off the land with $30 in signs and you have saved $99,970 dollars and have unofficial sanctuaries.

    Grateful I am to everyone concerned and trying to stop this killing, it is hard for me to get beyond the reality in a couple hours I will be hearing killers shooting tame, released pheasants nearby. Blasting for 3 months and 1 week plus to go…..
    and it is legal, morally accepted and funded by our government.

  7. Bea Elliott October 23, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    What a thoughtful post both eye opening and heartbreaking. Killing is always savage, but to destroy life when it exists peacefully in nature seems more so. A sin against the Earth as it were… A wound upon us all. Terribly sad. I wish the survivors steady, strong wings as well.

  8. Dc January 11, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    I read this and found it very interesting. I myself am a hunter who operates under very strict guidelines when I hunt. Personally I feel that hunting is as humane as it gets. If you have ever seen chicken farms, dairy farms, beef farms and any animal farm producing food your opinion might my changed. Just because you don’t see the rub marks that chickens get in there small cages doesn’t mean there not there. You buy a chicken beast and don’t think twice about it. How is the life of that chicken? Not to mention the hormones and gmo that gets pumped into mass food production. I hunt be because I’m not afraid to take care of my foods on all sides. Harvest, clean, butcher and eat. I didn’t grow up in a hunting family but did this because I believe it’s the lesser of two evils. Animals are a beautiful thing and I enjoy watching them as much as anyone with nothing more then a set of binoculars. I respect animals and consume and retrieve everything I shoot. Don’t paint everyone with the same brush. I will say that overall I think hunters can be better and more ethical. I will also say that no one donates more money into maintaining wildlife like hunters. Before you paint hunting with a bad brush check the other way food gets to your table.

    • Maria F. January 11, 2014 at 6:59 pm

      The issue…Dc…is that God puts us all on the table…except being vegan comes out with a cleaner brush than yours, a little less bloody perhaps? Go ahead and have a bloody meal, but beware God is also carnivorous.

      • Dc January 11, 2014 at 7:52 pm

        The issue begin talked about isn’t whether eat meat is bad. If you want to eat soy burgers that’s your choice and I will respect that. But don’t kid yourself, you don’t think vegans create graves. The weeds you pull from your garden are alive too. Not to mention the biodiversity destroyed by pulling that one weed. Correct, we are ALL on the table. Everything ends up in the ground. Me, you, food on the table and the weeds pulled from your garden to let your veggies grow. Either way life is life no matter how small.

    • ingrid January 12, 2014 at 2:57 pm

      Dc, I appreciate the comment and thanks for taking the time to write and express your view. I don’t share your perspective but I’m always interested in the opinions of others, even when I disagree.

      In response to your points, you say that I paint hunting with a broad brush. If you read the post you will know that I focus primarily on injury rates and wing shooting, less generalized than you suggest. In your comment, you actually didn’t address the crux of my argument which is that the injury rate is unacceptable and rampant.

      Beyond that, hunting is, by nature, broad in scope and lends itself to a very wide brush. Numerous practices fall under the auspices of “hunting.” So in arguing, as you do, that hunting is “as humane as it gets,” you’re effectively defending a variety of shooting sports that I suspect you, as a strict hunter, might find unpalatable. I’m curious how long you’ve been hunting and how much you’ve seen in the field. I’ve seen my share and over time, you come to understand the darker sides of the sport. Do you, for instance, support unrestricted coyote shooting as happens in many areas of the U.S.? That’s one form of hunting. How about prairie dog shoots? Or how about sky busting, as I discuss in this piece? All legal. Do you support wolf and predator hunting along with selective land-shaping policies to keep populations of ungulates high for hunters?

      Are you also aware that in archery, a half hour is generally considered a standard amount of time that a hunter should wait before tracking an animal that will bleed out — and that tracking can take hours and even, in some cases, overnight if a hunter is even diligent enough to pursue the animal shot and wounded?

      As I wrote, there is precious little data on exactly how many mammals and birds escape with their injuries, either mortal or debilitating, but it may be as high as one in four or even 50 percent. It’s not uncommon for x-rayed birds at wildlife facilities to have embedded pellets from previous injuries. And much of the injury/loss data is self-reported by hunters, which probably leads to under-reporting. Putting aside for a moment that hunting is inherently violent and disruptive, those injury probabilities do not speak of a sport that is “as humane as it gets.”

      I do not defend modern slaughter and slaughterhouse practices which is why I don’t eat meat. Of course, I’ve heard the argument you make from many hunters previously. I’ve been around that debate a thousand times. Refraining from meat is not a perfect solution in a world where vast amounts of animal exploitation, harm and inadvertent injury occurs as a result of our mere existence. That’s part of the reason I don’t choose to inflict additional deliberate harm on animals already stressed by our technology, our pollution, our overpopulation, our habitat destruction and on and on. But it is a large step toward minimizing that harm, not to mention a significant step toward changing how our limited resources like water and land are allocated.

      You criticize those who choose a plant-based diet as being equally damaging to the environment. But since you are informed on industrial farming practices, I’m assuming you are also aware that the most intensive resource use occurs because of animal farming, both the raising, slaughtering and processing of animals (water, pollution) and also the vast amounts of crops grown to feed animals. You probably also understand how devastating grazing has been on some of our public lands and waterways, both in destructive terms and also in terms of how much wildlife is killed to support ranching and farming practices. So, to answer your points about vegans or vegetarians being implicated in harm, of course this is true. None of us leaves no trace. But in changing one’s dietary practices toward the plant-based, there is clearly environmental benefit and reduction in harm. Unless you eat hunted animals exclusively, with no contribution to the industrialized food system, your impact is going to be greater. And as far as weeds being living entities, of course they are. But to the best of our current knowledge, they do not have the biological complexity of nervous system responses that all animals do. As I write in this post, even the scientific community is beginning to acknowledge greater sentience, intelligence and consciousness in other animals that we previously ascribed (officially, at least). Most people who care about animals also care very much for all living things, and eating lower on the food chain reduces the number of plants killed, too, since so many are used in industrial animal food production.

      As far as hunters contributing the most to conservation, no one is going to argue that hunters don’t contribute. They are mandated by law to pay certain fees and taxes, that is true. But using superlative phrases like “no one donates more money” is highly debatable. When you take Pittman-Robertson funds, for instance, they’re collected through gun and ammo sales. But a majority of gun owners are not hunters. In terms of Duck Stamp revenues, they’ve purchased 3-5 percent of Refuge lands. The rest comes from public monies, etc. Groups like Ducks Unlimited conserve land and resources for ducks and hunters, but if you tally the contributions to other organizations like land trusts and conservancies, state parks, National Parks and so forth, the grand sum is monumental. It’s just not as easy to calculate and combine those contributions and volunteer hours supplied by non-hunters into one figure as it is for P-R funds. All of the non-hunting conservationists I know volunteer, give money and other services toward the cause of environment and wildlife.

  9. Maria F. January 11, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Did you know that weeds love being pulled out? The more you pull, the more they propagate? I want my grave to be the weediest. But did you know that killing an animal multiplies your bad Karma, and you could actually be the hunted one, as of this minute?

  10. Dc January 11, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    If you pull out a weed and get all the roots the weed dies plain and simple. If you do not get all the roots, what is left of the weed responds by sending all of its energy towards self propagation. This is a reaction to stress. My wife has a horticulture degree.

    This has nothing to do with the topic anyways. It’s safe to say that both sides think they are right. With that you continue to do what makes you happy as I will too.

  11. Maria F. January 12, 2014 at 12:03 am

    If you want to glorify hunting, the NRA is waiting for you with open arms.

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