By Scott Yaich, Ph.D.
By supporting conservation today, all of us can help ensure a bright future for waterfowl and our sport
Can duck hunters change history? Think about that for a second. It’s a trick question. No one can change what has already occurred, right?
The question should really be: Can today’s duck hunters change the future, or history as it will be seen through the eyes of our grandchildren? Based on the accomplishments of history-changing duck hunters who have gone before us, the answer is a resounding “we have, we can, and we must.”
We have no less opportunity to shape the future than some of the past’s larger-than-life duck hunters, and no less of an obligation to the generations that will follow ours. And you don’t have to be a president or congressman to make a profound impact on waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Fortunately, there are some inspiring examples from which we can learn important lessons.
Hunters demanded early waterfowl protection laws
When faced with significant challenges to waterfowling, duck hunters have always been among the first to rise up as a powerful force for conservation. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unregulated market hunting was devastating some populations of waterfowl and other birds. One buyer in Norfolk, Virginia, bought as many as 1,000 ducks at a time, paying $1 to $1.50 a pair for harvested canvasbacks and redheads.
Urban restaurants not only featured waterfowl on their menus but also served robins in soups and made “hearty” pies of cedar waxwings and goldfinches. Market hunters quickly met the demand for wildfowl using armament like 4-gauge shotguns and punt guns, essentially small cannons loaded with shot. As many as 15,000 canvasbacks were shot in a single day on Chesapeake Bay during the 1870s.
Shocked by rapidly declining waterfowl populations, duck hunters expressed their concern in the way that remains an effective way to change history—they contacted their elected officials. Duck hunters, working together, demanded legislation that took the critical first step of protecting waterfowl species from overharvest. In response to these vocal constituents, Congress passed laws like the Lacey Act (1900), which prohibited interstate movement of illegally harvested game, and the Weeks-McLean Act (1913), which ended spring waterfowl hunting and marketing of migratory birds. The laws bear the names of congressmen, but the voices of average duck hunters resound today through the benefits of such farsighted conservation legislation.
But arguably the most significant piece of history-changing legislation for waterfowl and other migratory birds, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), usually isn’t associated with anyone in particular. Prompted by a serious loophole in the Weeks-McLean Act, the MBTA’s drafters went an important step further than previous groundbreaking legislation, building upon others’ accomplishments as history makers inevitably do.
Drafted by Dr. T. S. Palmer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and John Burnham and William Haskell of the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, an organization full of duck hunters, the MBTA cemented North American waterfowl conservation in the foundation of an international treaty (established in the Migratory Bird Convention of 1916) with Great Britain, later joined by Mexico, Japan, and the Soviet Union. President Woodrow Wilson signed the MBTA into law in 1918, providing the legal framework for waterfowl and migratory bird conservation as it exists today. Duck hunters once again changed the history of waterfowl and other migratory bird conservation throughout North America.