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Students, Hunters Combine Knowledge of Merrymeeting Ducks

Frank Burroughs, left, leads a Bowdoin student in a canoe trek along Merrymeeting Bay.

Story posted October 29, 2005

The hunters gathered, a little garrulous, a little awkward, in the Druckenmiller conference room. Among the group of eight, was well over four centuries of combined experience. They were here for a reason. To share their memories, knowledge and concerns about the local duck population with a dozen students in John Lichter's senior seminar, The Ecology and Environmental History of Merrymeeting Bay.

This wasn't a casual meeting, though it had all the familiarity of a day in waders. The hunters' input was a vital component to a semester's worth of work creating a history of the waterfowl populations on Merrymeeting Bay.

"I think we have more species than we did," observed hunter John Edgecomb. "Twenty-five years ago, it was black duck or nothin.' We've got a lot more mallards than black ducks on the bay now and I worry about black ducks, because they are not as tolerant of humans as mallards."

Hunters and student meet
Bowdoin students studying the duck population of Merrymeeting Bay meet with local hunters to share questions and knowledge.

"It's nothing like it used to be back in the '50s," said Buster Prout, a tall, elegant hunter with a softspoken voice. "On opening day you'd see ducks overhead steady ... now, if you don't shoot a bird by three o'clock you may as well go home. They're not there."

Though purely anecdotal, the hunters are confirming evidence of a shifting and declining waterfowl population that has sent both scientists and outdoorsmen scrambling for answers.

For Lichter, who has been studying the ecosystem of Merrymeeting Bay for five years, the questions become more and more narrow: How reduced are the number of ducks on Merrymeeting Bay? Are their reduced numbers reflective of declining duck populations along the Atlantic Flyway, or more specific to the local region? Why are some ducks more prolific than others? And why have Merrymeeting ducks begun "rafting up" - gathering in floating groups - out in the big water, away from shore? What is it about Merrymeeting Bay that makes it such an important stopover for migrating waterfowl? How can these qualities be protected?

In a search for answers, Lichter sent all of his students researching existing literature on Eastern seaboard ducks - the last major study of the local population was published in 1905 - including Atlantic Flyway duck population trends, black duck population changes, and the natural history of puddle ducks. "The data," says Lichter, "are patchy at best."

Then he sent his students out for a real education. In canoes.

"We went on the bay every Friday before the hunting season started," says Lichter. "It's important to get out there, to develop the insight or the feel that comes from being at the site. And when we meet up with the duck hunters, we'll know what they're talking about. We'll know what wild rice is, the difference between black ducks and mallards, and what a big flock of ducks looks like."

When the much-awaited hunters' summit took place in early November, Thomas Buehrens '07 showed that he knew a lot more than that. He passed around two vials of tiny seeds, culled from the intestinal tracts of Merrymeeting ducks. The samples came from ducks the hunters themselves shot and brought in for Buehrens to dissect and analyze. "We haven't identified these yet," he said tentatively.

"That might be off the wild marigold," said Edgecomb, turning over a vial.

"My guess is it's a water's edge plant, as opposed to aquatic," said another hunter.

These are the very interactions Lichter had in mind when he developed the framework for the interdisciplinary course - a blend of ecology and history, college and town, youth and maturity. The framework for gathering oral histories was shaped with help from Professor Emeritus Frank Burroughs, a lifelong hunter, who served as something of an ombudsman among the groups.

"In his approach to Merrymeeting Bay John has always had a great deal of interest in what he can learn from local history, oral history, things that scientists don't necessarily consider. It's a very holistic approach and I feel a very good one," notes Burroughs, pausing. "Nobody understands the mouse so well as the cat. If you want to learn about fish you talk to fishermen and if you want to find out about ducks you talk to hunters.

"These hunters began hunting on the bay as boys. They have a kind of historical perspective that we don't have in a continuous way anywhere else. And I've found that they are uniformly people of real intelligence, so observant and smart and exact in their observations."

There are observations that intrigue both parties: The wild rice - a staple of the duck diet - appeared thin this year. More black ducks and geese are congregating in saltwater areas now than there were in the past. The duck population near the breakwater was down. More sandbars are showing in formerly grassy areas. A small variety of Cat-o-Nine Tails is spreading.

With each kernel of gathered evidence, new avenues of inquiry emerge about the biological and physical makeup of the bay - and the effects that changes in soil and water chemistry, plant life, and other forces may be exerting on wildlife.

At the end of the course, each student will write a paper, some incorporating oral histories from the hunters. Lichter says he hopes to compile and publish their findings in a regional journal. "No promises, but we'll do our best," he says.

Student Thomas Buehrens, an ES/Biology major, says the course "was a pretty cool experience. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing than going out in a motorboat or canoe into Merrymeeting Bay. And getting to hear what people who have been on the bay their whole life have learned, you get insights that don't necessarily pop straight out of data.

"It's a different type of knowledge than scientists have traditionally accepted. But more and more - especially in ecology - there is a place for so-called anecdotal knowledge. And if you've ever heard of the Bowdoin bubble - work like this creates more of a sense of community. Getting to meet local people is great; you get a much better idea for what an area is like."

Pictured above:
Frank Burroughs, left, leads a Bowdoin student in a canoe trek along Merrymeeting Bay.

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Nobody understands the mouse so well as the cat. If you want to learn about fish you talk to fishermen and if you want to find out about ducks you talk to hunters.
— Frank Burroughs