Dorchester ducks born to be wild Pressure taken off migratory flocks


December 20, 1992|By PETER BAKER

CAMBRIDGE -- Ask the average hunter his opinion of gunning pen-reared and -released ducks and it is likely that you will receive a mixed response, something like, "Well, it just isn't the same as shooting wild ducks."

But if, for example, that same hunter has been gunning in Dorchester County, it is likely that he has shot at more ducks native to the lower Eastern Shore than those that make the flight south from Canada each autumn.

Simply, there are just many more resident ducks in that part of the world than there are migratory birds. And after 10 years of intensive pen rearing and release, there are wild resident birds, offspring of drakes and hens once reared and released.

In fact, the rearing and release program of the Grand National Waterfowl Association has been successful enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering it as a model for national standards.

But there are issues to be resolved, said W. Ladd Johnson, chairman of the North American Waterfowl Foundation.

* Do different species of ducks interbreed?

* Has intensive rearing and release deleted the gene pool of the mallard?

* Are thick populations such as those in Dorchester County prone to disease?

Johnson said these issues are among those being studied jointly by the Grand National, the NAWF, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and the USFWS.

"This is a premier study addressing those concerns," Johnson said. "The concerns of the biological fraternity right now are purely hypothetical.

"It is a what-if situation because there is no factual basis to back it up. The factual information we have proves totally contradictual."

In more than 1 million resident mallards in Dorchester County, Johnson said, there is no evidence of hybridization or disease.

"Since we are doing a release program, all of our ducks get a certificate of health from the Department of Agriculture before they are purchased," Johnson said, adding that pen-reared and -released ducks further benefit from clean water and optimum nutrients. "We are more concerned that a wild duck might introduce a disease to our healthy birds, rather than the other way around."

If there is a flaw to the program, it is that ducks raised and released on the Eastern Shore do not join the migratory flock, with the exception of a few drakes that pair off with wild hens each year.

In fact, Johnson said, a radio telemetry study showed that the resident mallards often don't move much over a mile and half from the sites they were raised.

"That also tells us that we are not putting them out in competition in the habitat that wild ducks might use," Johnson said. "We are putting them out on the habitat that we create."

The wild ducks, in turn, find the better habitat of the resident birds, move in and benefit.

But do the hunters on these private lands benefit as well? Johnson says they do not.

"The beauty of this is that the participants in this program are not harvesting anything but mallards," Johnson said. "What is happening is that the wild ducks are coming to us, but they are not being harvested.

"The statistics that we have show that only 3 percent of the total harvest of close to 20,000 birds were wild ducks. Tremendous pressure has been taken off the migratory flocks."

Johnson said that even on public hunting grounds some 60 percent of the kill is the result of the rearing and release program.

"The real benefit of the program is to the wild population," Johnson said, "because we are enjoying the heritage of waterfowl shooting without having an adverse effect on the wild population."

So, what about pen-reared ducks? Can they provide as much sport as wild ducks? At the outset, no.

"These ducks have been raised in a non-hostile environment," said Johnson. "So the first two times you pull a trigger around those ducks, perhaps they are not going to behave identically to one that was hatched in Saskatchewan and has been shot at through Illinois, Indiana and Ohio and ends up in Maryland.

"You cannot expect it to be inherently that wild."

There are several steps, Johnson said, that increase the wild nature of these released ducks, but the most important is for the breeder to minimize human contact.

"You feed them only at night, so they do not associate a vehicle or person with a food source," Johnson said. "You have to minimize all imprinting through the entire program."

James S. Bugg, a member of the executive committee of the Grand National Waterfowl Association, said he has had people call him from Louisiana, South Carolina and Canada to report they have taken one of his banded ducks.

Bugg has been rearing and releasing mallards in Dorchester County for more than 15 years, and by now, he says, the process produces wild ducks.

"I guarantee you can't tell which is which," Bugg said. "My ducks are as wild as they come."

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