Mallards may be flying false colors


June 19, 1993|By TOM HORTON

To paraphrase the old saying: If something looks like a wild duck, flies like a wild duck, and sounds like a wild duck, then it must be a wild duck. But these days, maybe not. Maybe it's just a mallard.

In appearance, few of the world's waterfowl surpass a drake mallard, with its glossy green head, white neck ring and iridescent, purplish-chestnut feathers merging into the creams and pearly grays of its breast and back.

And virtually alone among the 20 or so species of ducks that grace the Chesapeake Bay, the mallard has been increasing in number. Which should be good news, except that more and more mallards around the Chesapeake are less than they appear.

Many arrive here not on traditional migratory flights from Canada but in trucks. They come not from northern nesting marshes but from incubators. Commercial game farms like Whistling Wings and M and M supply them by the tractor-trailer load to Eastern Shore hunters tired of the dwindling supplies of wild ducks and able to fork out $3 and up per fowl.

More than 1 million farm-raised mallards have been imported to Maryland since 1985, the bulk of them by hunters in Dorchester County, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Now the service has announced a review of rules allowing unlimited imports. Its biologists worry that enough of the pen-reared mallards are surviving to dilute the gene stocks of wild species.

Other concerns include the potential for spreading disease to wild ducks -- and, at least theoretically, to the Shore's billion-dollar poultry industry. Already some poultry companies refuse to place new flocks on farms where mallards are established year-round, says Larry Hindman, a waterfowl biologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

Another concern, unstated in the federal review but frequently mentioned by waterfowl regulators and biologists, goes to the very nature of duck hunting: Is the value of the waterfowling experience to be measured in numbers, or for the connections it makes between the hunter and those qualities of wildness and natural habitat embodied by truly natural birds?

Most who hunt would answer: Some of both.

It should be enough, some days, to go just for the sunrise over the marshes, for the music of distant geese and the thrill of duck flocksshimmering high above the bay en route to northern nesting grounds. But few people would hunt for long without a reasonable expectation of killing something.

It is a matter of balance, and some think that with pen-reared mallards, the balance is shifting too far toward tameness and sameness.

Taking the easy way

"It's the all-too-typical attitude that you take the easy, fast way to get shooting back instead of working to rebuild habitat, working with the Canadians [to preserve nesting habitat]," says Ned Gerber, a biologist who specializes in creating waterfowl habitat on private land in Maryland.

Ed Soutiere, who manages a 6-square-mile private hunting preserve in Dorchester County, readily concedes that "it is sad ,, that this is what duck hunting has come to." But it's reality, and the reality needn't be all that bad, he argues.

He shows you forested ponds with duck blinds and hidden, movable towers, from which mallards -- he buys several thousand annually -- are thrown to provide hunters a variety of passing shots from several directions. Few could tell the experience from a good day of wild shooting, he says.

It also takes the pressure off the wild waterfowl, Mr. Soutiere says, noting that only 19 wild ducks were shot on his preserve all last season.

One root of the problem is the unique nature of the mallard itself, says Jack Frost, operator of a game farm in Wisconsin. He says he does not think the concerns of the Fish and Wildlife Service are proved, particularly with regard to disease, but he also says:

"Quite frankly, mallards are the poorest duck to use; but they are so elastic, so intelligent, so adaptable to any environment, including captivity, that we have gotten stuck on using huge numbers of this one bird, and we've gotten further and further away from the [wild] stuff genetically."

'Great generalists

Game farms like his, says Mr. Frost, could as easily raise any number of sought-after and scarce waterfowl: wigeon, gadwall, pintail, wood ducks, even the supremely wary black duck. "But nothing pumps out those eggs like a mallard," he says. Other species "would have to sell for two or three times as much."

Mallards are "the great generalists" of the duck world, says Bruce Batt, director of research for Ducks Unlimited, the national waterfowl conservation group. He says their genetic makeup is more fluid in response to environmental pressures than that of any other species.

Virtually all species of domestic duck are derived from mallard stock. Mallards breed readily with other species, and their genes tend to predominate in the offspring.

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