Plains Folk

Duck Doctors


There will be no duck hunting for me this autumn. My elderly retriever has arrived at the stare-into-the-fire stage of life, a graceful retirement, and his unavailability for duty disrupts the whole organic process that is waterfowling. It makes no sense to make birds rain from the sky without a soggy companion alongside praying for rain.


I am reduced to joining the old boy before the fire and reading about ducks. Specifically, I’m reading the wisest thing ever written about ducks and waterfowl management. It comes from a largely unknown fellow named John Lynch.


Following service as a Navy pilot during the Second World War, Johnny Lynch became a biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. More specifically he, along with a number of other veteran airmen, conducted aerial surveys of wildlife populations.


Every May, and again every July, the flyboys made their transect surveys of waterfowl breeding grounds. Their reports were reviewed by Fish & Wildlife officials higher up the food chain. The director of the service made recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior, who issued annual regulations for migratory bird hunting. States operated within these regulations, including the setting of bag limits.


There prevailed a belief that the setting of bag limits—how many ducks, and what kind of ducks, hunters would be permitted to shoot—was profoundly important, that such regulations had serious effects on duck populations. Lynch knew this was officious and silly. Duck populations rose and fell irrespective of hunting pressures. When there were a lot of ducks, it didn’t matter how many were shot. When there were few ducks, very few would be shot.


So in 1951 Lynch wrote a memorandum, entitled “Escape from Mediocrity,” recounting an imagined conversation among the “duck doctors”—meaning him and his flying and drinking buddies—and making fun of the pomposity of Fish & Wildlife authorities and processes. This memo circulated in mimeo form and oral legend until finally being published in 1984, two years before Lynch’s death.


Lynch was what you might call a character. He didn’t write scholarly scientific papers or pedestrian business memoranda. His communications were, well, irreverent. But they embodied the wisdom born of field observation, not theory.


The important thing, as Lynch saw from the sky, was wetlands, breeding habitat. So he laid out the geography of waterfowl breeding. Some ducks came from what he called the Big Crow Factory, the parklands at the northern edge of the prairies in Canada. A few ducks came from the Big Fish Factory, the boreal zone.


By far the most ducks, however, came from the Bald Open Prairie, the only breeding region that could produce an abundant crop of ducks. Its production hinged on the extent of wetlands, which depended on precipitation, minus a certain loss of habitat every year to cultivation.


What Lynch did was direct attention to the primary importance of what came to be called the Prairie Pothole region of the northern plains. This region subsequently became the focus of federal programs and private initiatives—such as Ducks Unlimited—to preserve waterfowl habitat.


Recently Ducks Unlimited has been using the term “duck factory” to refer to what Johnny Lynch called the Bald Open Prairie. I hate that phrase, “duck factory.” Ducks are beautiful creatures that come from beautiful wetlands and beautiful prairies, not from a factory.


And although I’m sitting out this hunting season, I can still look at these beautiful creatures and beautiful places.


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