The above photo was one of the more bittersweet images I’ve taken of wild birds. 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. My encounters with waterfowl hunters in the field have been nothing short of dismal, so although duck hunting season covers some of the most vibrant months of bird migration on the Pacific Flyway, I’ve done my best to stop shooting photos — when and where the shotgun shooting starts.
As we inched our way toward the cranes, 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. Colloquially, shooters like this are known as “sky busters.” Legions of ducks flew over that slough, and although I couldn’t tell if any flew away wounded, the possibility on that day, from that blind was high. My only consolation was that their Mallard call sounded like a drunken sheep, and 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 further traumatize them and possibly scare them onto the dark side of the hunting zone, we packed it up for the day and went to the car. As we drove alongside the slough, I spotted these specklebellies1 (Greater White-fronted Geese) behind the reeds in the distance. Using the car as a blind, I looked through my telephoto. Their high-alert agitation was visible, and every shot from the nearby blind sent a ripple of activity through the flock. Standing among the geese were two Sandhill Cranes. I wondered if the geese somehow knew that if a person shot the cranes — that person could end up in the Clink. Safety by association?
I always maintain that those shooting at the birds don’t see the effects beyond the scope of their blind and decoy spread. And I don’t mean the emotional toll it takes on those of us who care about these birds, watching them fall. But rather, on the birds themselves — their social structures and behaviors. The science of waterfowl management covers the numbers, and as long as the numbers are sound by those estimates, us non-consumptive wildlife observers are supposed to accept the reasonableness of the sport. Some birders do. Most birders or rehabbers, regardless of their views on hunting, recognize contributions made by those hunters who are genuine conservationists — especially in terms of habitat protection. That’s an entirely different and complicated post. But, I’ll refer you to the 10,000 birds website for an interesting discussion on habitat funds management, and the topic of “should birders buy duck stamps?”
My perspective on waterfowl hunting comes from sharing the field with duck hunters, and grappling with their dirty little secret, as it were: the wounding rate inherent in the sport. It’s an aspect of duck hunting that many non-hunters simply do not know about.There are the thousands or possibly millions of uncounted water birds, the “cripples,” as hunters call them — the ducks shot and left crippled with injuries, or birds that fly away but succumb to injuries later. A South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks paper suggests the wounding rate could be as high as 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.
I looked for a few anecdotal accounts of crippling, just to establish for anyone reading here that this is, indeed, an aspect of the sport which is known and accepted within hunting circles. It’s something that can’t be completely avoided — not even by the greatest shots. The most sound, intelligent and ethical hunters I know have crippled or wounded ducks they couldn’t retrieve. They cripple far fewer ducks than the irresponsible hunters. But they injure ducks nonetheless. It just happens.
You can read a hunting writer’s take on sky busting, 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. This Tony Dean Outdoors post discusses a Humane Society report — a report which claims wounding rates are much higher than acknowledged. There’s also an old 1980 paper here from the Michigan Department of Resources, where crippling numbers were established by collecting crippled birds in the field, after the hunt. If you have the stomach for it, search You Tube and you’ll find plenty of sky busting vids.
When you consider the many shooters who aren’t as careful as my diligent hunting acquaintances, you might get a sense for why my ambivalence over this “sport” actually turns to outright disgust when I’m faced with the visual proof, like dead ducks, not retrieved, floating downstream from hunting areas. If I find injured animals, I rescue them. But the reality is that it’s impossible to help this many downed animals, if one could even find them all. And frankly, it’s a problem that could be controlled at the source, rather than at the unfortunate outcome.
A long tradition of duck hunting as sport does not mean we shouldn’t question the humanity of this practice in the context of our modern understanding and our ostensible civility. Throughout history, practices that were once “traditional” have been deemed inhumane or inappropriate in the context of ever evolving attitudes and revelations. In Australia — in Victoria and South Australia — protesters are taking on waterfowl hunters in on-site demonstrations. You can read more about that controversy at the Coalition Against Duck Shooting website. In these regions, rescue and veterinary teams are in the field, rescuing and treating ducks, and drawing attention to the problem as they see it.
Until I can afford my own duck rescue mobile the best counterbalance I can offer for anyone who cares about ducks and geese and the wild things among us, is to support your local wildlife organization** and also the national organizations that roll up their sleeves everyday to pick up the pieces where we, as a whole, fail our wild earth companions. Wildlife organizations are in constant need of funding and support. And they carry out the unsung, boots-on-the-ground labor of rescuing and rehabilitating the animals who are at the mercy of human judgment.
In tribute to the water birds traveling the flyways this year and into 2011, a gallery of my duck shots . . . the non-lethal kind. Fly safely, my friends, and always with strong tailwinds!
* These same knuckleheads were cited later by kayakers after the hunters threatened the kayakers who had a right to passage on the river.
** Note: I’m affiliated with a wildlife hospital in the Bay Area, so to avoid any conflict of interest, I won’t recommend one or the other organization. Check the Wildlife Rehabber website for state-by-state listings of wild animal rescue groups.
1 Greater White-fronted Geese are also known as casually as specklebellies, often by waterfowl hunters.