On New Year's day, I went for a walk on the beach. It's a calm beach along a calm bay. The bay alternately flushes and is flooded by the tides through a narrow connection to the larger sound. In summer it's a fine place for fishing. And in winter that channel is a fine place for loons and for wild ducks, like the exquisite goldeneyes and the elegantly streamered long-tails. I love to see the arctic-breeding species that come to keep us company through our shortest and coldest days. And I love to hear them. I also know, though it's hard to imagine it when we're tucked in tight and snug, that all winter they are keeping their faith, and ours, throughout the season's bitterest storms and longest nights.
A minute into my walk, I come across the gouge of truck tracks on the usually undriven shore. A few yards past, the sand is trod with boot-prints and a heap of shotgun shells. What species of animal marks its territory by sprinkling plastic shells?
And from the bay, mere moments later, the muffled crack of guns.
I think of the ducks who so cheer me through winter.
I think of the duck shooters who enter the birds' most secure haunts and private places, where they go to feed, to hide, to widen the gap between themselves and the grasp of foxes, owls, hawks and eagles. But anywhere they go, seeking sustenance or solace, humans appear, regularly and unannounced. Three months of the twelve-month year, the shooting is a near-constant feature of being near the shore. The noise, which reaches into each room of my home, starts at dawn. Especially on weekends, in the predawn darkness I lie in bed hoping for the sound of heavy rain or wind enough to keep duck hunters home.
Unlike duck shooters, deer hunters perform a service. In the absence of predators like wolves, in the protection of the suburbs, the white-tailed deer that were once shot almost to extermination in our region have in the last few decades come back in such force that they create intense pressure on seedling trees and native shrubs, hazards to drivers, frustration for gardeners, sharply increased rates of Lyme disease (because they are a necessary host to the tick that spreads it) and such severe competition with each other for food that winter starvation likely causes them more suffering than a lethal gunshot. In short, though it's not something I'm interested in doing personally, deer hunting does some good. Plus, I've never heard of deer hunters intentionally leaving the deer they've shot. As far as I know, they're all after meat.
Contrast duck hunters. Numerous times, I have seen duck hunters make no attempt to retrieve ducks they've killed or crippled. I have seen them throw ducks they've shot -- but do not want -- into the bushes and brush. Or just leave them on the beach among their spent shells. I have also found half a dozen hunter-killed wild geese tossed into the woods beside the road. I have found dying long-tailed ducks struggling after being shot (including one whose eye had just been shot out) while the "hunters" were standing in plain sight just a few hundred yards down the same beach, shooting at birds flying by, utterly disinterested in retrieving the dying birds or ending the suffering they'd inflicted. That time, they were shooting only about a hundred yards from the nearest houses, a clear public nuisance.
Another time, I saw a boat motoring rapidly across the surface of the bay, charging groups of sitting waterfowl, with a shooter in the bow blasting at all the ducks trying to get airborne ahead of the fast-approaching hull.
Apparently, they think all this is fun. I hate it.
As I implied, I enjoy fishing. I find it satisfying, and often exciting. And the fish, delicious. But invariably over the course of a season, a few hooked fish may break the line, or baited rigs will snag on the bottom and break off. And who knows what happens to the fish who drag those rigs or find that bait? Surely some die. Fishing is merely hunting for animals with gills. But my fishing disturbs neither my neighbors nor all the fish in the area. Its strategy depends on the fish being able to feed undisturbed by the very boats that seek them.
Duck hunting chases ducks from their best feeding locations and forces them to use up more of the precious energy they need to survive the cold.
Who does this? Not your average person. Average people who have indoor things to do, or who need to go shopping, people who like to be warm in winter, who don't like to be wet when it's cold out, who don't like to keep still while their feet and fingers are uncomfortably numb, register low among the ranks of duck-hunters.
The edges of civilization, be it remote locales or mere shorelines, attract people who are not average. In winter, outside, it's really only nature lovers and nature hunters. There's some overlap in motivations: getting away from average people is one. Getting nearer to the seasons, and to the wildlife, are others. I share them all.
I am, by predisposition, a hunter. When fishing I am avid. And I used to train hawks and hunt with them, mainly for rabbits which I -- and the hawks -- ate. As a pre-teen I flirted with a fascination in the possibility of hunting deer or birds. When I was 12, I shot a grackle with a pellet-gun. It never occurred to me that I might hit a bird and fail to kill it. Astonished, I saw the bird attempt to rise, and, disabled, drag itself into the undergrowth. Thus ended my personal interest in guns.
On admittedly thin evidence, I believe the capacity for pain is higher in warm-blooded animals like ducks and people than it is in fish. Fish act agitated when hooked, and they can act panicked or shocked. But crippled birds seem to really suffer, to show true misery.
I have known some duck hunters. Many are likeable, admirable people. A small percentage of duck hunters are fine naturalists and some even devote their life's work to wildlife conservation. There are also hunting groups whose conservation works or dollars are based on the idea that more ducks overall will mean more ducks to shoot, and that both are beautiful things. And I concede, after all, the beauty in a working retriever and the human-dog working bond.
But other duck hunters -- the ones I most often see -- strike me as slobs. The shooters near my house don't use dogs; they're shooting bay- and sea-ducks for fun, not for meat. They like to kill them but don't want them. Their mess and the wasted birds they leave intentionally; there's no excuse for it. And unlike deer hunting, which benefits people, the land, and the surviving deer, no justification for duck hunting rings true.
But isn't it justification enough that, despite hunting, the abundance of many pond-oriented ducks has been increasing in the last half-century? Well, saltwater ducks -- the main ones that people in my area shoot -- have been declining. Yes, duck hunters pay for a lot of conservation. So do conservationists who don't kill ducks. I invite the former to join the latter. There is too commonly in waterfowl hunters a blind spot for the suffering inflicted. And inherent in the sport is the repugnant waste of killed bay- and sea-ducks that nobody eats.
What is the answer? As a lifelong advocate of fresh air and taking kids outdoors, my recommendation to those interested in this form of recreation is: stay inside. On the couch. Eating sugar and watching movies and playing video games. Safely indoors, out or harm's way, develop your capacity for compassion and humane treatment of animals and people. If you must interact with animals, play with a puppy or get a parakeet. If you must go out, I suggest you challenge yourself to take up birding, which requires vastly more skill and knowledge but still gives you an excuse to buy nice, waterproof boots and a cool camo jacket, and to get wet and cold anyway.
But if that just isn't you, put yourself under house arrest where you're less a menace. Or -- go deer hunting.