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Anyone who contends change is a great thing and we should always embrace it — is a bobolyne of the first water. While change can exist in three states — good, bad and indifferent — in my experience, the statistics seem to strongly favor the negative. I contemplated this most recently after engaging in a lively discussion about whether or not one could distinguish gender in deer based on the tracks. I, and anyone else, of course, can in the majority of cases, but it got me to contemplating how much one can learn from tracks.

One part of the Conservation Officer job I dearly loved was to take a set of tracks and come out on the other end to tell some dazzled desperados that the left-handed guy shot the deer, the guy that limps on his right leg helped drag it, and the one wearing the rubber pacs carried all three guns out of the woods. They also typically disbelieved that could be garnered from tracks, came to the conclusion I must have seen them, and confessed.

It was with this backdrop that I, after walking out into the field through virgin snow, happened to take notice of my tracks. In the tracking schools, I was always an easy one to identify because when moving right along, my tracks were in a straight line. Most peoples’ tracks splay out ranging from a couple of degrees to a duck walk.

My left hip has been hurting if I carry anything weighing over 40 or 50 pounds in my right hand without a similar weight in the left. I thought it must be having an effect on how I walk but I was alarmed to note that my tracks are now splayed out by at least 10 degrees on the right and half again as much on the left. My track is now distinguished by being weird! This is change for sure but it also for sure is not for the better. Whoever coined the phrase Golden Years is also a bobolyne.

Sometimes, in the wild, change in one area that might be considered good, is mirrored by another that we might not view so favorably.

The first time my track was noted, my stepfather was taking me duck hunting. Seeing our tracks in the soft mud, he wondered why mine were straight and suggested I might have a career as a runway model. We were hunting with his uncle who owned the pond although I really was not doing much hunting. My function was to sneak around to the far end of the pond and flush the ducks to fly over the two shooters. As soon as the ducks flew, I had to sit down and cover my head so one of the hundreds of pellets that would rain down on me would not get me in the eye. Disconcerting, but not really dangerous and good practice for game warden work.

I told you that story so I could tell you this story. Uncle Al encouraged duck hunting because he liked roast duck but he was emphatic on one thing. No mallard ducks were to be shot. Back then, mallards were very rare and a treat to see on the pond. The most common waterfowl was the black duck and these Uncle Al considered a pestilence who were crowding out the lovely mallard. Nowadays, the situation is reversed — there are mallards everywhere, so many that some urban areas are trapping them to eliminate the mess and destruction to properties. The black duck population, on the other hand, has decreased by 84 percent since 1950.

The black duck is a medium-sized puddle duck. They have about a 3-foot wingspan and weigh around 3 pounds — about the same size as a mallard. Both genders of the black duck look similar and both are colored very much like a female mallard. A bit less dramatic in color, more of a creamy chocolate than bright mottled brown, with yellow olive beaks, the black ducks become more obvious when they fly since their underwings flash a bright white color. Of course, the best way to tell the species apart is to examine their speculum.

I greatly enjoy that word but it does not live up to its ambience. A duck’s speculum is the brightly-colored patch of feathers on their wings. The mallard wears a blue band with a white bar on top and bottom. The black duck’s speculum is iridescent purple with no barring at all.

Black ducks are indigenous to the eastern part of North America. Some winter as far south as Florida; some breed nearly to the Arctic Circle. Breeding and brood-raising nearly always takes place on fresh water, often in ponds and slow-moving streams surrounded by woods but many of the flocks seem to prefer wintering on brackish backwaters and salt marshes. Black ducks have been with us for as long as there have been young growth forests. In Florida and Georgia, paleontological excavations have uncovered black duck bones dating back to the Pleistocene (about 11,000 years ago when global warming started and the glaciers began to retreat.)

Generally found no farther west than the Mississippi, there have been occasional black ducks that seemed to have a genuine wanderlust. Occasional individuals have been seen on the other side of the Rockies in coastal California. One particularly adventurous individual was banded in New Brunswick, Canada and the following year was recaptured and re-banded in the west of France.

Suggested reasons for the black duck decline are plentiful and strongly debated ranging from hybridizing with the increasing numbers of mallards to the fact that the Humane Society sued and got the management changed from science-based to dictated by the court finding. Actually, it appears that this might be one of the only times when human disturbance might actually be a factor. Black ducks are much warier than their mallard cousins and less tolerant of disturbance, particularly when nesting, whereas the mallard thrive in such an environment. The pervasive building of second homes along the seashore and back along waterways to the sea seems to have effected black ducks on both their summer and winter ranges.

Since about 1990 the black duck population has stabilized and is starting to climb very slowly, thanks in large measure to research and habitat restoration undertaken by advocacy groups, in particular Ducks Unlimited. Right here in New York state, they have partnered with our College of Environmental Science and Forestry to study wintering activities to define differences in black and mallard ecological requirements, which will then allow them to focus on protecting and enhancing habitats that benefit black ducks the most. The plan is to invest $18 million to conserve and enhance over 7000 acres.

Perhaps in a few years, I can go back to the pond and find the black duck numbers back to normal (the way Uncle Al hated) and when I walk in, my tracks will look more “normal” (which I think I hate).

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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