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.

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Fly Away Home (and Safe)

Originally posted on October 29, 2010 — with additions

Sandhill Cranes hiding in reeds

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.

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 duck hunters. The water birds in the nearby no-hunting zone scattered and, 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 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 on occasion 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.

Snow Geese Flying at Dusk

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 Area 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.

So, this October, 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!

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