Ducks Unlimited biologists are well-aware of the suspicions. The oft-repeated theory one hears from groups of frustrated, camo-clad, lanyard-draped Southern hunters goes something like this: another day without ducks is another day Ducks Unlimited has “hung up” ducks further north.
How is this “hanging up” supposedly accomplished? Everything from new Ducks Unlimited-sponsored refuges in Indiana and Kentucky to massive piles of feed corn being dumped (to insure more ducks survive the lengthened hunting season) to hold ducks is cited.
Recently, in a wide-ranging meeting with Delta Farm Press, Ducks Unlimited biologists answered these charges and explained myriad conservation programs.
First, insists Alan Wentz, the “hanging up” charge “is categorically untrue. We aren't in the business of feeding ducks. We're pioneers in managing natural landscapes.”
Wentz, Ducks Unlimited group manager for conservation, says there are those up north who plant corn and hunt ducks over it. However, the amount that happens is “pretty minor. I've heard stories about how Ducks Unlimited has huge amounts of acreage in Iowa that we've bought and planted corn on. We supposedly knock it down periodically to allow ducks to feed. That's insane! It would take years and huge amounts of our budget to even buy the kind of land base these folks are talking about.
“Why would we want to hold ducks anywhere? Most of our members are hunters. We're trying to raise ducks so they're available for people to use — whether it's for a hunter or for a bird-watcher.”
Wentz doesn't have an exact answer for why some years birds don't get further south in greater numbers. However, he and other biologists say the chief cause is weather-related.
“We've seen some strange weather patterns over the last few years. Think about it: three or four years ago we had one of the best seasons ever in the South. Then, ducks didn't come down in the numbers folks wanted the last couple of years. I understand — people make great investments in duck hunting, and it's frustrating when the ducks don't arrive. I've had leases like that, too — you just go out and stand around waiting. But none of that has anything to do with what Ducks Unlimited is doing.”
David Blakemore, a Ducks Unlimited board member and Missouri Bootheel cotton farmer and ginner, waves his hand at the half-dozen biologists in the meeting room. “Everyone in this room is a hunter, everyone here shoots ducks and enjoys doing it,” he says. “And we hunt here, in the Delta. There isn't a soul here that would keep ducks up there to keep from shooting them here. We are hunters and we want to hunt! What's kind of funny is folks up north know Ducks Unlimited isn't holding ducks up there while hunters from down South claim we are. You can't convince some folks otherwise.”
The last “really good” duck season was about four years ago, says Scott Yaich, Ducks Unlimited director of conservation programs. “Last year, even though the duck population bounced back up, we were still about 25 percent below the peak population of 1999-2000.”
Yaich acknowledges some people are “tired of hearing us talk about the weather — but weather isn't driving ducks down. That's the problem. Last year, snows didn't arrive in northern Indiana big-time until late January. We just aren't having bitter winters — there are plenty of nesting areas with some of the warmest winter temperatures on record.”
When a duck isn't forced out by snow, say the biologists, they'll just happily waddle around northern fields eating spilled grain. If cold doesn't force them out, there's enough food there to hold the birds for a long time.
“Ducks walking around a dry field sounds strange to Delta folks,” says Blakemore. “They don't flood fields up there — but they don't have to. As long as there's just a little bit of wading water around, the ducks will just walk around feeding in a dry field. They're perfectly happy doing that.”
Ducks are hardy birds and able to handle very bad weather. Only when conditions get really bad do they bother beginning a trip south.
“I worked in South Dakota for eight years,” says Wentz. “In late fall, where there was open water, there'd be hundreds of thousands of mallards and Canada geese. Why? Because there was plenty of waste grain available — they grow a lot of corn there. It has to get really cold and iced over to get the bigger birds out of that country. As long as there's open water, they'll hang around.”
Another thing that's emerging as a chief cause for the dearth of birds is hunting pressure.
“There are a lot of hunters in this part of the world,” says Yaich. “Hunter numbers have shot up incredibly. With so much pressure, ducks have become more nocturnal. It's the same thing as with deer — the animals get wary of hunters.”