Fowl language

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

(Illustration by Will Lytle)

In water fowling literature, you can find many wonderful passages by really good writers that describe what it truly means to be a duck hunter.

Since I was young, I loved books. It is quite natural as my mother schlepped my sister, brother and I to the library at least two or three times a week. We lived in the Bronx, just three blocks from a library. It housed only books — no children’s corner, no story hours, computers a thing of the distant future. My mother chose the books to read to us. This continued until I was six and we moved to a place called Willow, seven miles from Woodstock and the only library. I felt neglected as days passed without my literary fix. Lo and behold the one-room school started a mobile lending library and books came to me.

Along with my mom I became a book junky. Together we prowled old book stores and dusty shelves for our fixes, hardcover and soft-cover. And like most junkies, I eventually found my drug of choice. I got hooked on books about dogs and duck hunting. I never made an attempt to kick the habit and to this day, I am strung out on the words of people like John Madson and Gene Hill, who wrote for Field & Stream.


My years as a bibliophile have lead to some unusual quirks, like placing marks on the corner (in pencil of course) on pages where I chanced across some magical combination of words, some wonderful passage, that says something special about pastimes I love. (This habit is now defunct, as I own a Kindle.) I came across this sentence recently, in my much marked-up copy of John Madson’s “Out Home.”

“I do not hunt for the joy of killing but for the joy of living, and for the inexpressible pleasure of mingling my life, however briefly, with that of a wild creature I respect, admire and value.”

Do these words define me as a sportsman? They say what I wish I could say and they say it better than I ever could. These few words are magical, unforgettable and insightful all at once. When I read it, I wondered if Mr. Madson had to struggle with words as he tried to connect them in just the right way. For some, such things come easy, like turning on a faucet. For others, like me, the words never seem just right.

So I decided to give you some of thoughts about duck and duck hunting but not in my words, these are words of the sages, taken from my many marked-up book pages about the hunt.

“I suppose it may seem like a strange sort of lullaby to some, but I have never heard sweeter music than the muffled report of duck guns on a distant marsh, and I know that others share my feeling.” –B. Spiller

“There are no bad days in a duck blind.” –C. Waterman

“I intend to learn to call waterfowl even if in the process I offend every ear in the country—and I just might.” –G. Hill

“There is a deeper sense of understanding, accomplishment and downright pleasure that accompanies the ability to look at a knot of birds on the horizon and say with conviction ‘Mallards’ or ‘Brant.’” –N. Strung

My present dog Ponder, while a chaser, is by no way a retriever, not the kind you would want in the blind. For me duck hunting takes more desire than talent, but my early memories of sitting in that blind with my dad and my lab, Rascal, vivid as if it happened yesterday, call to me in the early morning hours, when I hear the report of shots coming off the river.

I find waterfowl the most diverse and interesting creatures on the earth. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica. Ducks, geese and swans can be found just about everywhere there is water, from the arctic to the tropics, from ocean to the desert. To survive in these varied environments, waterfowl have incredible abilities and do amazing things.

All the continent’s waterfowl can dive, some are better than others. The best of all is the long-tailed duck (formally known as the oldsquaw). More than 80 of the birds were reportedly caught in fishing nets off Wolfe Island, Lake Ontario, at a depth of 240 feet. The champion, of course, is the emperor penguin, which has been recorded at the amazing depth of 1,770 feet.

A female green-winged teal can weigh as little as six ounces, the smallest of North America’s waterfowl. The smallest of the geese is Branta hutchinsi minima, called the cackling Canada goose or just cackling goose; by either name it can weigh as little as three pounds.

The largest of North America’s waterfowl is the trumpeter swan. This beautiful and elegant creature can tip the scales at more than 35 pounds. The common eider, the largest duck in the northern hemisphere, weighs in at about six pounds.

Most waterfowl fly at speeds of 40 to 60 mph, with most averaging roughly 50 mph. With a good tail wind migrating mallards are capable of traveling 800 miles during an eight-hour flight.

So the next time you see that delightful V-formation in the sky, it might just give you goose bumps, and remember it is not the cry but the flight of the wild duck that leads the flock to fly and follow.