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The Case of the Missing Cans

Canvasbacks have faced hard times, but are making a comeback this season.

By Michael Furtman

They came, barrel-chested, across the marsh, flying low, beating into the fierce wind as if they felt it not at all. Even this shallow marsh sported tiny whitecaps, flecks of foam tossed by the wind, whitening the air like snowflakes.

“Cans,” whispered my duck blind partner, “And there are drakes!”

In seconds, the birds closed the gap, spotted our decoys, and swung toward us on short, pointed wings. Shannon and I rose and fired as one, and when we paused, we were amazed to see two drakes belly up in the marsh, black legs waving. Wigeon, my black lab, fairly flew across the water, fetching each handsome drake canvasback in turn.

For much of my adult life, canvasbacks have been off-limits. Found only in North America, the canvasback has never been a particularly numerous duck, and in fact, was on the “Blue List” (species that may be of concern) from 1975 to 1981 and was a “Species of Concern” in 1982 and 1986. However, from a 1994 population of 525,000, the canvasback breeding population increased to 770,000 in 1995 and 849,000 in 1996, well above the 540,000 long-term goal set by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which allowed for duck seasons that allowed one can in the bag. But for reasons we’ll explore, they have generally faced harder times than most species, and consequently, the season for canvasbacks has been more often closed than open. Even when legal, the daily limit never exceeds one.

Of course, that wasn’t always true, and Texas was once home to clouds of wintering cans, a population that now largely stops at Catahoula Lake in central Louisiana.

Consider the reports of Forest McNeir, one-time market hunter in southwestern Chambers County, in and around Lake Surprise and Galveston Bay. Lake Surprise, a shallow body of water on the north side of East Bay, is about six miles from the tip of Smith’s Point. About a mile and a half long, this 4-foot-deep lake was once filled to the brim with wild celery, a favorite food of the noble canvasback.

In 1897, McNeir and his brother were hired by Galveston banker Colonel W.L. Moody, to run his hunting camp on Lake Surprise. And it was here that McNeir reported what is now but a Texas memory – untold thousands of canvasback. On a cold mid-December morning, McNeir and one John Scales took 300 shotgun shells and headed to the lightly iced lake:

“It began to get rough out in the middle, and they (canvasbacks) took a notion they wanted to be up in the east end of the lake around the small islands. To get there they had to pass the end of our island. We didn’t shoot into the front end of the big bunches as they dived for our decoys, but we tore into the back end, and shot all the scattering ducks that came along.

“I never got my pump gun fully loaded again after the first round. The ducks came so thick and fast that lots of them got past us while reloading. Our shells lasted forty-five minutes. When we quit shooting all the rushes around our skiff had shed their ice and were standing up from the heat of those 300 rounds of black powder. We picked up 192 fat canvasbacks, worth big money in the New York market for the Christmas holidays. And we got them there.”

McNeir reports that he’d get 10 cents for teal, 12 and a half cents for spoonbills, 15 cents for “middle-sized” ducks, 20 cents for mallards, and a whopping 50 cents for canvasbacks. Packed in barrels around a central cylinder of ice, the Texas cans were shipped to markets all over the north.

It may be hard to imagine a canvasback hunt like that today, but former TPWD Assistant Waterfowl Program Manager Steve Cordts points out that today’s waterfowler can still find Texas a good place to hunt cans.

“On average, about 10,000 cans are harvested in Texas,” says Cordts. “In fact, of all the states in the Central Flyway, Texas usually ranks first in canvasback harvest, followed by North Dakota.”

And where are those cans taken? From 1991 to 2000, Shelby and Sabine were the top two harvest counties, with 870 and 826 canvasbacks per year. The statewide average is 6,487 cans per year, but this includes years of closed seasons. The best two regions are East-Central Texas and the Gulf Coast.

A Diver Unlike Any Other

Though commonly called “diving ducks,” canvasbacks and their relatives are more properly named “pochards,” and all share some common characteristics, such as heavy bodies and short wings. With legs set farther back on their bodies than on dabblers, they are poor walkers and rarely seen on land. However, this leg position makes them superior divers, propelled by their large feet. Because they are stout birds with small wings, they cannot leap into flight as do the puddle ducks, but must run along the water’s surface to gain enough momentum to take flight. Consequently, they are uncomfortable on small bodies of water.

Like dabblers, diving duck hens have a strong homing instinct, perhaps strongest in the canvasback. Males, however, do not return to their natal home, but follow their hen. Pair selection takes place in winter. Males generally stay with their hen until incubation begins, then depart to larger marshes where they undergo their molt. Diver hens molt while they are raising their brood. The molt process takes about three weeks, and during this time they replace their flight feathers, leaving them temporarily flightless. A second molt occurs more gradually during the fall and winter, during which both sexes replace body feathers, and the male gets his gaudier breeding plumage.

Few ducks are as distinctive in appearance as is the dramatic canvasback, with its reddish head and long, sloping bill and forehead. The canvasback has long been a favorite of hunters because it is a fast flier, clocked at more than 70 miles per hour; it is rare (the least numerous of all our diving ducks); and it is delicious table fare.

The drake’s startling red eye sets off its rusty-red, sloping head, while the female’s eye is black. Both sexes have gray feet and black bills. Drakes in breeding plumage – which is often attained by late October – have a broad black chest and neck, as well as a black rump. His breast, however, is white, as are his flanks and sides. Although from a distance and in bright light, even his back appears white, actually the back is a delicate weave of gray and white, which spawned this duck’s name: Early hunters thought this pattern looked like the weave of canvas. Except for the primaries, even the wing feathers of the nuptial-plumaged drake are white.

As with many other species of ducks, the prairie pothole and parkland region is the breeding home to the majority of canvasbacks, but some do breed in the subarctic on river deltas, and a few in Alaska. They typically winter on the Atlantic, the Gulf or Texas coasts, although a few cans winter on the Pacific coast.

Canvasback hens have a strong homing instinct largely independent of spring water conditions. Smaller marshes are preferred as nest sites, especially those rimmed with cattails or rushes. Hens build their nests amid the tall vegetation on floating mats in water up to 2 feet in depth.

Canvasback clutch sizes average about nine, and the eggs are large, gray-olive and smooth. A redhead hen often dumps eggs in canvasback nests and even rolls the canvasback eggs out of the nest to replace them with hers. Drakes stay with the hens until the egg laying begins, and canvasbacks are somewhat less territorial than other ducks. Like the wood duck, the canvasback drake will tolerate others of his species nearby, and instead focuses his defense on the female. Wherever she is, the “territory” is, and so it is mobile in nature.

After about 24 days, the eggs hatch, and canvasback hens lead the ducklings to water. These broods are more mobile than some of other species, and frequently move from wetland to wetland. At eight weeks, the ducklings are feathered, and by 60 days of age, they are ready to fly.

Never numerous, canvasback populations have been in trouble during most of the last half of the 20th century. They seem particularly prone to the double assault of drought combined with increased wetland drainage on the prairies. They also have suffered from the northward movement of raccoons, a predator that easily hunts the floating vegetative mats that for ages protected canvasback hens. Raccoons were never recorded in most of the prairie pothole region until the 1950s, and since then have prospered thanks to the changes to the landscape wrought by man. Today raccoons present a serious predation problem not just for canvasback, but many other duck species as well. Hunting restrictions or closures of some sort for canvasbacks have been in place most years since 1960.

While other species of ducks have prospered in recent years thanks to conservation measures and wet conditions in the breeding grounds, canvasbacks have fared less well. Although their numbers, too, have responded to these better conditions, perhaps the real restriction is the fact that this is not an adaptable species. For instance, canvasbacks are fairly restricted in diet, and many of their historic migration and winter areas have been adversely affected by pollution, limiting the nutritional assets canvasbacks can utilize, and possibly affecting their reproduction. They have been called the “calendar” duck, because migration timing is more rigid, as are the stops along the way. But many of their once famous migration and wintering areas – like Lake Surprise – are either no more or are so altered that the canvasback no longer finds them attractive. Yet they are reluctant to try new areas. By feeding or wintering in compromised areas, the hens return north in poor condition for breeding.

The good news, however, is that due to the exceptionally good water conditions of the 1990s, and some restoration work on canvasback migration stops north of Texas, even the canvasback population grew enough to again allow limited hunting. The long-term average for the traditional survey region from 1955-98 is 556,000. To be included in the hunting bag, the population needs to be a minimum of 500,000 based on the May breeding pair surveys.

In Texas, cans are most often seen on some of the big reservoirs, such as Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend. And they are still present on coastal marshes, though not numerous. Matt Nelson, manager of TPWD’s Mad Island Wildlife Management Area near Bay City, sees cans regularly.

“We have two ponds on our WMA that attract cans, although the numbers have been down the last two winters,” says Nelson. “Our one main isolated 120-acre lake has sago pondweed, a favorite canvasback food, and in a typical winter, we’ll winter about 200 cans.”

Nelson also flies the midwinter aerial survey.

“A fair number of cans – maybe 300 or 400 – winter in the area around Laguna Largo.”

Barry Wilson of Ducks Unlimited, biological leader for the Gulf Coast Joint Venture (part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan), says Texas cans are most likely to be found in two types of areas – big reservoirs and river deltas.

“In recent years there have been some pretty high numbers of cans on the (Pineywoods) reservoirs. In 1999, some 10,000 were estimated to be wintering there.”

Still, the coast is the most important wintering area, he reports.

“The coastal zone is more likely to have the largest numbers, such as off the Guadalupe Delta, and some in the LaBahia Grande wetland at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and in locations on the Chenier Plain, such as the J.D. Murphree WMA. The McFadden National Wildlife Refuge gets inconsistent, but fairly large – in the thousands – numbers of cans in some years. While those numbers fluctuate, the coastal zone winters as many as 26,000 canvasback.”

No one will ever know just how many canvasbacks once wintered on Texas coastal marshes. Given the large numbers killed by early market hunters like McNeir, it certainly was substantial. But changes came to the marsh with the creation of the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, which allowed saline water to flow into once freshwater marshes, killing the foods that canvasbacks and other ducks need.

Even McNeir saw the changes.

“In 1900, Lake Surprise filled with salt water,” wrote McNeir, “that killed all the wild celery. All that great marsh where I hunted as a boy has been fenced and posted and today is dotted with oil wells, tanks, and drilling rigs. The ducks are gone, the oil has come and still the world goes round and round.”

The world indeed does continue round and round. And ducks continue to migrate to Texas from their breeding grounds in the north – but to a very different world than that which spun just a century ago. Thanks to the hard work of TPWD and its partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited, the noble canvasback can still find a seasonal home in this grand state.

Today’s coast isn’t nearly as inviting to canvasbacks as it once was, but efforts are underway to reverse that. Although not geared specifically toward cans, habitat restoration efforts, such as the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project, through which the TPWD, Ducks Unlimited and other partners work with private landowners to restore, enhance and create shallow-water wetlands throughout 28 coastal counties, will provide critical wintering areas for ducks of all kinds. Restoration work on public lands also contributes wintering habitat in important canvasback areas, like the Hynes Bay and Buffalo Marsh impoundment improvements completed in 1999 on the Guadalupe Delta WMA. Together, these public and private wetland projects keep the Gulf Coast attractive to all wildlife, including canvasbacks.

Less adaptable than other species, perhaps the canvasback is the best indicator of the health of our marshlands. Should they fail to come, we will know that we failed them.

For now, on gray and blustery winter days, flocks of canvasbacks still sweep in on short, rapid wings across those marshlands that have been saved or restored, the drakes’ bright white backs a startling contrast to the somber skies.

May it always be so.

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