Plains Folk

The Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh


Fortunately, my Labrador retriever is gullible. Frequently this time of year, as we range the countryside, a nesting bird—this morning, a hen mallard—erupts noisily from the grass, rising in a ruse to draw danger away from her nest. My Angie, bless her heart, goes for the fake every time. Which is good, because as both a lover of nature and a hunter of waterfowl, I wish every nest, and every clutch of ducklings, well.

If you are of like mind, there is a prairie classic you might want to put on your summer reading list: The Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh, by H. Albert Hochbaum.

The book, first published in 1944, is a classic in the natural history of the Great Plains. It can be read in two ways: as documentation in the history of waterfowl management, and as a poetic tribute to the wetlands and waterfowl of the Great Plains.

Hochbaum, a native of Colorado, went to Cornell University to study fine arts and zoology before working with the National Park Service. The big break came in 1938 when he became scientific director of the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba. Here he came to recognize the importance of the prairies to waterfowl and became an international expert in waterfowl conservation. He also was a painter, specializing in wildlife art. The Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh was his first book.

“When my studies began,” writes Hochbaum, “it was widely believed that most ducks bred in large marshes.” However, “Studies . . . revealed that the greatest densities of nesting Canvasback and other ducks were to be found on farmland sloughs and potholes. . . . Indeed, in the very best of this duck nesting country, a traveler is never beyond sight of ducks or farmsteads.”

“Hunters,” notes Hochbaum, “are ready to chew ten-penny nails when they see sloughs drained or plowed or burned to their rims.” But farmers have to make a living. Hence the tension that has reigned ever since, as bird-lovers and hunting enthusiasts advocate the conservation of wetlands, but farmers assert the rights of property and profit.

The dependence of the entire Central Flyway, from Saskatchewan down to Texas, on the potholes of the northern prairies is one of the things that illustrates the unity of the Great Plains. It is one huge piece of waterfowl habitat, from breeding grounds through to wintering grounds.

Another unifying aspect of waterfowl management, up and down the plains, is the habit of hunters to cuss waterfowl regulations—bag limits, lead shot restrictions, and so on. “Probably no phase of game policy is more encumbered with conflicting opinion,” writes Hochbaum, “than that which governs the harvest of waterfowl.”

If the story of waterfowl conservation were all there was to Hochbaum’s book, then it would be of interest just to wildlife managers and duck hunters. The work is much more than that, though. Hochbaum captures the heartfelt sentiments of many of us plains folk when he writes, “on an April morning one may stand on a prairie knoll with his feet in pasque flowers, his head in the heavens, and see before him myriads of wildfowl on marshes reaching beyond the horizon.”

I know this feeling, and I think my Angie does, too. God willing there will be many such days ahead of us.

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