Monday, February 04, 2008

Hunting for Buffleheads on the Jersey Shore

Witmer Stone compiled extensive notes on species recorded at Cape May and elsewhere along the New Jersey coast. These notes were published as Bird Studies at Old Cape May: An Ornithology of Coastal New Jersey in 1937. Perusing the notes reveals the different conditions under which ornithologists worked a century ago.

One difference is the prominence of hunting. The difference is especially noticeable is the accounts about waterfowl. Many of the records that Stone cites involve birds that had been shot by hunters and catalogued by one of the ornithologists at Cape May. He also notes the appeal of certain species such as Buffleheads.

The "Butter-ball," as it is locally called, is a rare duck at Cape May today but according to Raymond Otter was quite common twenty years ago when it came in November and remained regularly until March, frequenting the sounds and to a less extent the interior ponds. He tells me that it decoys very easily and being a fine duck for the table its numbers were depleted until it is today threatened with extermination unless given the absolute protection that it requires.
Stone notes further that Buffleheads had to be placed on a protected list in 1932. It is hard to believe that one of our most common diving ducks had almost disappeared along the Jersey shore. Currently hunting is practiced more as a recreational activity than an economic one. If this USFWS report (pdf) is accurate, more of us interact with wild birds as subjects to be watched and admired rather than things to be eaten. In Stone's day the situation was reversed. He even shows a certain defensiveness when discussing people (like himself) "who prefer the study of ducks in life to mastering the technique of killing them."

Some time ago, Laura wondered why decoys of Long-tailed Ducks are difficult to find. Stone offers a clue in his entry for this species.
The "South-southerly," as the Old-squaw is called at the Cape and elsewhere along the New Jersey coast, is strictly a bird of the sounds and the sea although many of them round the Point and may be found regularly in Delaware Bay. Walker Hand has told me that they have decreased very greatly in numbers since his earliest recollections and John Mecray says the same thing. Hand stated that these ducks are accustomed to winter on the thoroughfares and that they persisted in flying against and wind and would go deliberately past a gunner rather than leave a waterway and cross the meadows. The result was that they were easily killed by anyone who persistently pursued them and large numbers of them were shot even though they are not generally regarded as edible. This practice has apparently been abandoned for the most part today as Raymond Otter tells me that they are still here in numbers.
Stone's comment suggests economic and behavioral reasons for the lack of long-tailed duck decoys. Large-scale use of decoys was probably associated mainly with market hunting. If a particular bird were unappetizing, there would be less of a market for its meat and less need for decoys to capture it. Recreational hunters would not need decoys either, since a long-tailed duck's flight path was apparently very predictable.