The canvasback duck - a once-abundant bird prized for its majestic looks as well as its delicious meat - has become rarer in Maryland, according to a new state study.
Department of Natural Resources officials counted 13,700 canvasbacks during their annual midwinter waterfowl survey, which tracks about 20 species of ducks and geese that fly south each winter. That marked a precipitous drop from the four previous years, when canvasback numbers hovered between 30,000 and 40,000 during the annual count.
The survey found declines in other species of ducks as well, and recorded the lowest numbers of waterfowl in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay in five years.
The dearth of ducks has not gone unnoticed by hunters.
"I'm almost 50 now, and it's been one of the worst duck hunting seasons I've seen in my entire life, for any kind of duck," said Bob Jobes, a duck decoy carver, hunter and boat captain who is based in Havre de Grace.
"A group asked me to take them out this year, and I said, 'If you want to go out there and stand in the water and look in the water, that's about all we're going to do,'" Jobes said.
Waterfowl specialist Larry Hindman, who conducts the department's surveys, said an unseasonably warm winter is to blame for the lack of canvasbacks, which decided to spend much of the season in the Great Lakes area. Federal data show that the russet-necked, white-feathered birds are breeding at a stable rate nationwide and that the continental population is relatively high.
In the 1950s, nearly 250,000 canvasbacks - about half the North American winter population - wintered in the Chesapeake Bay, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thousands of those birds flocked to the Susquehanna Flats near Havre de Grace, where they dined on the plentiful wild celery grasses and helped drive a hunting industry. The number of ducks in Maryland has fallen in part because much of the grasses that were their food source have been destroyed.
The canvasback hunting season is short, usually lasting less than a month, and hunters are allowed to bag only one bird a day - regulations put in place to help stabilize the population. Still, it's one of the most sought-after birds, known for its juicy meat and its rich colors.
"They're sort of the duck king of the Chesapeake, whereas the Canada goose is the goose king and the rockfish is the fish king," said Paul Peditto, DNR's wildlife and heritage director.
Bruce Batt, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, a waterfowl and wetlands conservation group, said the canvasback's reputation reaches far and wide.
"An awful lot of the traditions of duck hunting were built around diving ducks in general, but especially the canvasback," he said. "It's considered to be one of the best birds at the table."
Batt said climate change is throwing the bird world out of whack. Like the canvasbacks, which are wintering farther north, mallards that once spent the cold months in Mississippi and Arkansas are instead spending the season in Missouri and Kansas. The blue-winged teal, which typically rides out the winter in Cuba and South America, has switched locales to Louisiana and Texas.
"Climate change is the story," Batt said. "Nobody knows how this is all going to shake out in the long run, and each species is a little different."
Jim Kohlhaus, an employee at Albright's Gun Shop in Easton, thinks the climate change argument is "debatable." But what has been clear on the Eastern Shore, where waterfowl hunting supports many gun shops and charter boat businesses in the winter, is that warmer weather has cut into profits.
"When you get weather that's 60 to 70 degrees outside, I don't care if you get a million ducks on the water, they're not going to fly," Kohlhaus said. "You have to have nasty weather for those birds to fly."