The romance of waterfowl

The romance of waterfowl

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

The other afternoon I was sitting on the bank of a wide ox-bow in the Kishwaukee River, where I had been unsuccessfully casting lures that I hoped would attract a small mouth bass or northern pike. As I rested on a grassy knoll before heading back to the parking area, I was struck by the beauty of the sunset. The western sky was awash with every hue of red and orange.

Against this background, numerous flights of ducks, mainly mallards but occasionally a small group of teals, were stringing out toward their evening feeding grounds. The sight of so many ducks in formation against the fiery sunset prompted me to recall a statement made many years ago by the late, gifted and talented outdoorsman and writer Ted Trueblood—“There is more to duck hunting than killing ducks.”

I have not been duck or geese hunting in many years, yet the thrill I experienced as I watched the flights was every bit as stimulating as one that comes from success with a shotgun.

I also remembered something my uncle, who taught me to hunt, said to me many years ago. We had had a successful day afield stalking quail with his talented pointer and had returned to the car parked near a lake in north Texas. As we were preparing to leave, 15 or so mallards flashed by fairly close, and I commented, “Look, what an unusual formation!” My uncle paused a few seconds, then replied, “Any flight of ducks is an artistic formation!”

How right he was. This self-evident truth should have been obvious to me, but my thoughts had not run in that direction previously. It would, indeed, be an insensitive oaf who failed to see the intrinsic beauty in each and every formation of waterfowl that passes overhead.

Though I gave up hunting any species of wildlife two decades ago, I remembered with nostalgia another day on the unspoiled Nanticoke River on the eastern shore of Maryland. It was a wild and stormy day, and no matter what tricks my hunting partner and I tried to play with the various calls, the birds would not come to our decoys. However, the ducks were moving that morning, high overhead and well out of range of our full-choked 12-gauge shotguns. There were long, wavering lines of them fighting their way against a strong north wind; golden eyes, or whistlers, in singles, pairs, and widely scattered bunches flew past us with the characteristic wh-wh-wh-wh of their beating wings. Occasionally a tightly packed formation of canvasbacks swept past our “blind,” but they too were well out of range.

Suddenly, a small flock of mallards materialized out of nowhere, and, much to our surprise, responded to our calls and pitched among the decoys. Though they were “sitting ducks” as they came in for a landing, for some reason, neither my partner nor I raised our guns against them as they splashed down.

Once on the water, the low, contented rasping of the drakes and the cackles and gabbles made by the hens seemed to send the message they were glad to have found a safe haven that stormy morning. What a din they created as they nestled up to the decoys, some of which were battered and pitted with shot from previous hunts.

Did you know that no two ducks, as is the case with humans, have the same tone of voice or use the same “words” when communicating? This would have become apparent if you had been with us that morning as we listened in fascination to their conversations.

There is a well-known adage that states the more you know about a subject, the more interesting it becomes. This is certainly true with waterfowl. Few birds are more inspiring, have more interesting and intriguing life habits, or reward the observer more richly.

And the ducks themselves provide not all of the personal values associated with “duck hunting.” It is good for man or woman to return to the raw environment in which they once existed and experience the sensations that were common to their ancestors. Such experiences revitalize the inner being.

The bite of the cold wind, the rustling of the marsh grasses, the distinctive smell of the water, the first pink streak of dawn breaking through a leaden sky are not hardships to be endured but are privileges to those of us who are routinely shielded from these natural phenomena.

Beyond a doubt, there is more to duck hunting than killing ducks.

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