Ducks for Sale

The rise and fall of market hunting in America

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By Mark Petrie, Ph.D.

Rowing alone in the dark, he reminded himself that there was no money to be made on shore. Beside him lay the gun, two hundred pounds of well-arranged iron and wood that stretched nearly 10 feet in length. He used it only at night and in a narrow skiff that offered six inches of freeboard in the best of weather. Forged in England, the big gun had passed through three generations of men who supplied the Baltimore and Philadelphia markets with ducks shot on Chesapeake Bay.

Except for a small raft of scaup, he saw no birds on the journey out. He reached the island just as the tide turned, thankful that the wind hadn't turned with it. It was his sister's boy, fishing blue crab, who'd seen the cans. If still there, they'd be off the southwest shore where the lee was best and the wild celery thickest.

Stowing the oars, he lay prone in the boat. The muzzle of the punt gun rested on the bow, the stock lying on his empty seat. Hanging one arm over the gun, he began to maneuver the skiff using two small hand paddles. The boat's narrow beam allowed him to extend his wrists over the gunnels and work the paddles forward while offering no silhouette to the birds. Face down with eyes closed, he listened in complete darkness. The sound of a thousand canvasbacks diving on the celery reached him. The boy had been right; the birds were here.

Moving toward the sound he'd heard, he passed through a small group of cans that drifted, unconcerned, off his path. These were birds feeding on the edge of the great flock. The real prize lay just ahead. In a minute he was among them, cans so dense they covered the water. Pointing the skiff to the spot where the canvasbacks were thickest, he turned his eyes away from the breech and slapped the three-inch trigger.

No matter how many times he went out, he was never prepared for the sound of the gun. Nor did he ever remember the gun's recoil as it slid under his shoulder and came to rest in a bag of sea oats that protected the boat's thin transom. It was only the roar of ducks taking wing that restored his sense of time and place. Straightening up, he reached for his lantern and began the methodical work of retrieving the dead birds. It was New Year's Eve, 1911.

Nobody alive in America today has legally sold a wild duck. That bit of commerce ended with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a law that expressly forbids the sale of wild waterfowl. But two important books offer us a detailed portrait of market hunting from the early 1800s to 1918. The first is Harry M. Walsh's The Outlaw Gunner, a classic description of the men who hunted ducks for profit, the tools they used, and the dangers they faced. The more recent book is R.K. Sawyer's Texas Market Hunting. Although focused on the history of market hunting in Texas, it gives a superb account of how this trade evolved at the national level. In its final years, market hunting developed distribution networks and marketing strategies characteristic of the modern food industry. It also pitted sport hunters against commercial hunters, in a battle similar to the one that continues today between many sport and commercial fishermen.

Prior to the Civil War, the impact of market hunting on continental duck populations was probably small. Duck populations were three to four times larger than they are today and sport hunting was almost nonexistent. Most market hunters were limited to black-powder muzzleloading shotguns and the demand for ducks was localized. That was the farmers' market era of commercial hunting. After 1865, however, market hunting joined the industrial age, with predictable consequences for waterfowl.

The catalyst for change was the American public itself. As the country became more affluent, the demand for wild game increased. At the same time, two factors related to industrial progress made it possible to increase the supply of ducks from marsh to table. The first was America's expanding rail system. By the late 1800s remote waterfowl hunting grounds were linked by rail to the country's major cities.

Second was the development of commercial ice-making plants, which allowed birds to be shipped from distant ports with little risk of spoiling. Factor in a burgeoning population with a growing appetite for ducks, and the die was cast.

Market hunting in its most destructive form appeared first in the Chesapeake Bay region. Back then much of the country's population lived a relatively short distance from the bay, and transportation systems that relied on rail and boat were highly advanced. The punt gun, once despised by those who hunted ducks for sport, has become a nostalgic icon of the region's heritage.

The largest punt guns had a two-inch-diameter bore and could shoot two pounds of shot-the equivalent of about 25 12-gauge shells-each time they were fired. All these guns were muzzleloaders, and like other black-powder guns their effective range was about 50 yards. Some men mounted kerosene lamps on the bow of their sneak skiffs to hold the birds in place before shooting, a method akin to spotlighting for deer. Although the earliest guns were made in England, many were also manufactured in the United States. As Walsh points out in The Outlaw Gunner, the old story that nuts, bolts, and glass were substituted for shot is a complete fabrication. Real shot was cheap, and such haphazard alternatives would have damaged the barrels of these highly prized guns. And besides, can you imagine that customers paying top dollar for a canvasback dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria would willingly tolerate picking glass out of their teeth?

Although we often associate punt guns with large kills, the reality was somewhat different. Forty to 50 birds was considered a good shot, and one shot a night was often the norm. Although punt guns offered the best means for killing birds at night, better daytime options were evolving for the market hunter. Descriptions of market hunting west of the eastern seaboard rarely mention the big guns, proof that commercial hunters exploiting these new areas had turned to better technology.

That technology was the repeating shotgun. Pump guns made their first appearance in the 1880s, and by 1900 John Browning had developed the semiautomatic shotgun. Loaded with new smokeless-powder cartridges, these guns allowed market hunting to be practiced on an industrial scale from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Between 1910 and 1918, Atley Lankford of Elliot Island, Maryland, would kill 35,000 ducks with his Model 11 Remington semiauto. And he wasn't the only market hunter to make the most of the latest advancements in firearms.

For those who couldn't afford the new shotguns, or who preferred a quieter approach, there was always the duck trap. Such traps were simple to build and were usually constructed of chicken wire and wooden stakes. Most were baited with corn. Catches of 40 to 50 ducks a night would have been common since a single man could easily maintain a dozen or more traps. The economics of this method are obvious when weighed against the punt gun-as are the safety advantages. Most of the ducks banded today are either captured in traps identical to the ones used by market hunters or are netted off the bow of an airboat at night using powerful lights to confuse the birds. Both these methods were invented by the market hunter, which is an interesting irony for modern-day waterfowl managers.

As repeating shotguns and rail lines encouraged the spread of commercial hunting, virtually all the great waterfowl migration and wintering areas came under fire. The Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, the Illinois River Valley, Minnesota's Heron Lake, California's Central Valley, and even the Klamath Basin in Oregon were all heavily exploited. Put the right market hunters in a room and you'd get the first map of our nation's most important waterfowl habitats.

By the 1890s, the level of commercialization had become astounding. Game merchants and shipping companies began to employ 'commission hunters,' who were paid a percentage of the proceeds from their kill. These men hunted nearly year-round and followed the birds throughout their migrations. Employers supplied them with repeating shotguns, some of which held up to 11 shells, and shipped ammunition to their bases of operation. At the pinnacle of this highly organized commerce sat the canvasback.

Most of us are generally aware of the value placed on canvasbacks during the market hunting era. Brother, that ain't the half of it. If the market was right, a pair of 'prime' canvasbacks might be sold for the equivalent of $100 in today's currency. That was many times the price paid for 'lesser' species such as pintails or wigeon. But even more fascinating is the national trade that grew up around the canvasback and the regional distinctions in flavor and price that drove the market, all of which is so well chronicled in Sawyer's book. Though waterfowl routinely appeared in humble kitchens and in the country's best restaurants, the quality of the birds varied widely among these venues.

Let's just admit it. Many of us who have shot a can are a little disappointed in the culinary experience. Sure they're good, but no better than a corn-fed mallard or a pintail that's stuffed itself with rice for three months. Why all the fuss? Well, the fuss has a Latin name-Vallisneria americana, or wild celery. Canvasbacks are very partial to this plant, and those that dined on it acquired a flavor like no other duck in the world. Wild celery is highly sensitive to changes in water quality, and pollution has eliminated much of it since the market hunting days. At present, your odds of shooting a canvasback that has ordered only from the wild celery menu just aren't very good.

Where a canvasback was shot was of keen interest to game merchants, fine restaurants, and food critics. Areas that harbored large amounts of wild celery, such as the Susquehanna Flats on upper Chesapeake Bay, Wisconsin's Lake Koshkonong, and Lake Surprise in Texas, were well known, and birds shot on these waters fetched the highest prices. These birds were destined for the finest restaurants in New York, Baltimore, and Chicago, while cans shot outside areas of wild celery production were more likely to enter local markets.

Hindsight and modern biology tell us that this trend couldn't last. But it was social pressures rather than biological statistics that ended market hunting, or at least forced it underground. The same affluence that produced such widespread demand for ducks also produced something else-leisure time and the means to enjoy it. The number of people hunting waterfowl for sport increased dramatically after the Civil War. At first, the line between sport and market hunters was blurred. Bag limits were nonexistent and sport hunters routinely killed far more birds than they could eat. Many of these birds were sold to defray the costs of the hunt.

As market hunting intensified, however, conflicts between these groups were inevitable. Many in the sport hunting community were wealthy businessmen with strong political contacts. As their duck hunting declined, they began to focus their political clout on the market hunter and his allies. Until the 20th century birds were the sole responsibility of the states, and federal regulation was absent. Laws to regulate hunting appeared as early as 1832, when Virginia banned the shooting of waterfowl at night. Other states enacted similar laws, but they were rarely enforced. What's more, these laws were aimed not at ending market hunting but at restricting where and how it might be practiced. They did nothing to stem the increasing commercialization of waterfowl.

By the early 20th century, sportsmen had been joined by groups such as the Audubon Society and even several of the nation's newspapers in calling for an end to market hunting. Federal involvement finally came in the form of the Lacey Act. Passed in 1900, the act outlawed any interstate bird traffic that violated existing state laws. Constitutional challenges to federal authority and a lack of funds for enforcement guaranteed its failure. A market hunter might have looked over his shoulder, but never took his finger off the trigger.

The feds tried again in 1913 with passage of the Weeks-McLean Act. This law transferred responsibility for migratory birds from the states to the federal ¬The final chapter was written in 1918 with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was signed by the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada). The act increased federal jurisdiction over migratory birds and finally provided the dollars necessary for enforcement. Market hunting quickly moved from a profession to a criminal enterprise.

Looking back a hundred years, it's hard not to speculate about the toll market hunting took on waterfowl. Sawyer cites several examples of the slaughter-5,000 ducks shot in a day on the Susquehanna Flats, 1,000 ducks shipped every day from Reelfoot Lake, 100,000 birds marketed from Currituck Sound, 1,300 mallards killed by one man in seven hours, 3 million ducks killed in one year in Louisiana. Even given these numbers, it's difficult to pinpoint the impact that market hunting had on continental duck populations. The damage done by commercial hunting would have varied widely among species and would have depended on their flavor, their wintering distribution relative to major markets, and their reproductive capacity to replenish the ranks. That said, there seems little doubt that canvasbacks paid a terrible price.

So much of the narrative around market hunting centers on the canvasback. Compared to many species, the bird seems ill suited to the demands placed on it. Since 1955, when we began estimating the size of duck populations, canvasback numbers have fluctuated between 400,000 and 800,000 birds. That's not a large number when you consider that over the same period mallard numbers fluctuated between 6 million and 11 million birds. Canvasbacks typically breed in permanent or semipermanent wetlands, while most dabbling ducks rely on seasonal wetlands that often go dry. Permanent wetlands are also much more difficult to drain, and we've lost fewer of these habitats. If canvasback breeding habitat has fared better than that of most duck species, you have to wonder whether their numbers were ever that large to begin with. I'd wager that breeding canvasback populations didn't top 2 million or 3 million birds in many years, far fewer than our most common duck species today. There's simply no way they could have withstood the pressure of commercial hunting.

Market hunting would persist between the two world wars. Economic hardship and underground markets kept many men in the game, and the 1918 law only drove up the price. Still, the days of unfettered slaughter were over. In the end, the American people recognized that waterfowl were to be valued but not sold. For that we can be thankful.

Based in Vancouver, Washington, Dr. Mark Petrie is director of conservation planning in DU's Western Region.