It’s the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland this weekend, and it’s got me thinking about sport hunting. For many of our visitors at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, it’s not only a foreign topic, it’s one that is often perceived as controversial or troubling. Simply put, newcomers to this pastime tend to think of it as ‘killing for fun.’ When compared to the other reasons for hunting (for food and to sell, known as 'market’ hunting), it can be hard to see the point behind sport hunting, in an age of conveniently pre-packaged, pre-cleaned, and pre-cut chicken parts at available every supermarket. We don’t “need” to hunt now. So why do we still do it?
As the daughter of an avid Eastern Shore sportsman, I feel particularly well informed to discuss sport hunting and its tradition as the Chesapeake’s newest iteration of a long and respected relationship with migrating birds of all kinds. I grew up in a household where venison or goose was a much more frequent feature on my plate than beef or chicken. My father loved to hunt, but for him, it was never really about the kill- it was about the friendship and camaraderie of the guys in the blind, it was about watching the sun rise over a frigid, frost-furred marsh, it was about the subtle art of arranging a decoy rig just so, or a plaintive intonation on a goose call. We ate what he brought home, but for him, that was just a bonus of the entire process.
As I teach it here at CBMM, so much of the appeal of sport hunting lies in that delicate art of camouflage- whether visual, aural, or locational. Before sport hunting was developed in response to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, market hunting was the traditional approach towards harvesting waterfowl in the Chesapeake. Since there was no regulation up until that point, hunters were free to bag as many birds as they cared to shoot- and then profit by subsequently selling the birds to restaurants, steamboats, and individual consumers. Shooting was done with the birds on the water, rather than in the air, and used tools like punt guns or battery guns, which were developed to allow a hunter to dispatch the maximum number of waterfowl as quickly as possible. Often the gunning was done at night, while the geese, ducks, and swans slept in the water. This was not a method of finesse, rather one of efficiency and mass harvest.
We have several of these guns at the Museum, and they are almost fascinatingly ogre-scaled. The sixth grade boys particularly love them.
One thing to keep in mind regarding market hunting is that the Chesapeake’s waterfowling population was certainly not the only place where this attitude prevailed. The New World from the time of European first contact had seemed a place of endless bounty. For many of these settlers, especially those with a Christian mindset, it was understood that these wide open spaces, clear rivers, and forests were abounding with life for them. Now, we call it 'manifest destiny’. Then, it was just the birds, fish and animals god provided for sustenance. And what a bounty it was - early accounts from colonists are brimming with breathless descriptions of birds and beasts in populations never seen or even imagined. William Strachey described the Bay in 1610 as “covered with flocks of waterfowl…in such abundance as are not in all the world to be equalled.” George Alsop estimated in the mid-17th century that one flock of ducks at the head of the Bay was a mile wide and seven miles long.
Frankly put, no one could imagine any type of hunting could really make a dent.
But by the early 20th century, it was clear through the plummeting numbers of migratory geese, ducks and swans, that yes, indeed, overharvesting could have a seriously negative impact. The need for regulation was clear. The following Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, dramatically changed the approach towards hunting in the Chesapeake. With the sale of migratory birds outlawed, and subsequent legislation limiting the amount of birds each hunter could harvest and also mandating that birds could only be shot on the wing, hunters had to radically alter how and why they waterfowled. Now gunners had to create a setting, complete with sound, bird replicas, and a hiding spot, that birds had to be lured into. Hunters were challenged to familiarize themselves with the habits, calls, and preferences of the individual birds they sought. For example, in the wide-open, shallow waters of the Susquehanna Flats, where millions of migrating canvasbacks descended to plunder the verdant underwater meadows that grow there, hunters had to develop a way of concealing themselves in the middle of a wide open Bay. The response? Sinkboxes: partially submerged floating vessels, with wide rims for supporting canvasback decoys, often painted the color of the water. (See the sinkbox on the left in the photo below.)
Along with canvasback calls and box weighted and floating decoys, the 'rig’ of a canvasback hunter mimicked the sounds, sights and location that the ducks preferred. To hunt successfully, this was now the challenge- every hunter had to know the subtle art of camouflage, and through that, also had to intimately acquaint themselves with the birds they hunted. The birds and the style of hunting depended on the natural inclinations of the waterfowl- whether canvasbacks, mergansers, geese, or wood ducks. Hunters can now be found in blinds, in pits in farm fields, on boats, and in corn fields, each hunting a particular bird with a certain call, decoy rig, and schedule.
This merganser decoy, photo courtesy of Dave Harp, represents the local, species-specific kind of tool hunters developed after 1918.
The habitat, life cycle, food preferences, calls, and movement of individual species has become part of the learning process. Through this appreciative observation, along with strategy and the development of bird-specific skill, sport hunting became the activity it is now- one that often creates ardent hunters that consider themselves passionate conservationists. Ducks Unlimited, for example, founded by sportsmen, is the leader in wetland and waterfowl conservation with a simple premise: you protect the birds and their habit, you have more birds to hunt without negatively impacting the population.
So, when I’ve got those visitors at the Museum who say, “But isn’t sport hunting all about killing for fun?” I say, “The fun isn’t in the kill. For most sport hunters, it’s all in the camouflage.”