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World Leader in Wetlands Conservation

Waterfowler's Notebook: King Can

The canvasback is a symbol of the struggles and triumphs of waterfowl conservation
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  • photo by Wade Bourne
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By Wade Bourne

An old mounted duck on my bookshelf brings back memories of a good December morning in Texas. It's a canvasback drake—a "bull can"—I bagged some 40 years ago on a reservoir southwest of Ft. Worth, where I was stationed while in the Air Force. 

One of the first things I did when I moved to north-central Texas was to check out the surrounding area's duck hunting possibilities. And boy did I find a gem! This reservoir wintered a good number of canvasbacks (along with other duck species), and in that year the limit on cans was one per day. 

I'd grown up hunting puddle ducks in west Tennessee, so to me a canvasback was an exotic waterfowl trophy. Yet taking a bull can on this Texas reservoir was almost routine. Each morning several flocks of these speedy diving ducks would buzz my spread. My partner and I would each shoot our canvasback, and then wait for other ducks to fly by.

One time my aim was slightly off, and I crippled a can that flew a quarter-mile down the lake toward a development with big houses. As the duck sailed over land, it began climbing vertically, then folded and fell dead. I marked the duck's fall, motored over, and beached the boat near an impressive home overlooking the lake. Then I gave my Lab a line and commanded "Back!" Rip raced off toward the duck . . . just as the homeowner appeared on his patio to check us out.

Rip fetched the canvasback and returned to the boat. The elderly man watched with no reaction until we started to push off, then yelled over to us, "Nice dog."

"Thank you, sir," I responded, and we went back to hunting.

That bull can is the one that graces my bookshelf today. Over the years, it has become a symbol to me of the struggles and triumphs of wetlands and waterfowl conservation in North America. Canvasbacks, in particular, have had their ups and downs. 

"I'd grown up hunting puddle ducks in west Tennessee, so to me a canvasback was an exotic waterfowl trophy."

This regal diving duck—long known as the king of waterfowl—was subjected to unregulated, decimating market hunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Canvasbacks have also been ravaged by drought and the drainage of prairie potholes—their main nesting habitat. Their populations have experienced dramatic swings as water levels on their prairie breeding grounds have varied over the decades.

Pollution degraded the canvasback's historical wintering areas on Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna flats. Poor water quality and increased silt loads caused wild celery beds, an important canvasback food source, to dwindle. As the wild celery disappeared, these big divers experienced a corresponding decline on traditional migration and wintering areas. All of these factors led to the first-ever closed season on canvasbacks in 1936.

Contrast this with 2007, when the canvasback breeding population was estimated at 864,900, the highest level recorded since continental duck surveys were launched in 1955. In 2012 this figure stood at 760,000—33 percent above the long-term average. Better management and more effective conservation practices have paid off. 

Does this mean we no longer need to worry about the canvasback? Absolutely not. Canvasbacks, like other prairie-nesting ducks, face ongoing threats from wetland drainage and habitat loss. And although canvasbacks should remain at huntable levels while wetland conditions are favorable, we must not shift our attention from many of the successful conservation programs that are in place today.

Canvasbacks continue to need quality wetlands. Big ones. Small ones. Clean lakes and rivers. Clear waters and protected watersheds. And while this duck's recent return to sustainable numbers is a fitting tribute to DU's 75-year conservation legacy, it is also a reminder that there is still much work to be done. DU members and all conservationists must continue providing grassroots support for management practices and policies that will secure this bird's future. 

But for now at least, we can rejoice in the fact that these grand birds still come down the flyways each fall in relatively healthy numbers, riding the north wind and thrilling those who observe their majesty and grace.

Long live the king!

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