Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Remembering Leopold: Listening to the wings of waterfowl

It’s the subtle sounds of nature that sometimes escape us. Consider the wings of waterfowl or anything else that breaks silence. (Photo by Stan Tekiela)

And when a flock of bluebill, pitching pondward, tears the dark silk of heaven in one long rending nose-dive, you catch your breath at the sound, but there is nothing to see but stars.

— Aldo Leopold

It’s officially winter in the north country, and most of the lakes and some of the rivers are frozen. Ducks and other migratory birds have already headed south, although a few may linger. Before we get too deep into the winter sports season, it’s a good time of year to sit by a fire and think about this past autumn, and previous years and seasons.

Good thinking in the early winter is always helped along by flames dancing
in a wood stove. Good thinking absolutely requires a good dog curled up
on the floor next to your chair or in front of the fire.

This also a good time of year to crack open some books in the evening – the
older the better – and read about past adventures in the duck marsh.
It’s fun to read and learn about days past and compare modern
experiences to those of decades ago.

The sounds of the hunt are what I always find intriguing. Not the boom of the shotgun or the mighty splash of a retriever launching into the water, but the subtler sounds
of the natural world, generally, and ducks, specifically. The squeal of a
woodie, the nasal quack of a mallard, the honk of a goose, or the
trumpet of a swan are easy to hear. But there are other ways ducks make
music: with their wings.

Indeed, any good waterfowler can usually identify the ducks overhead without
looking up, and often flaring the ducks with the motion.

Edwyn Sandys writes about the “hollow roar” of canvasbacks, the “measured
winnowing” of mallards, the “steamy hiss” of teal, and the “sounding
hum” of shovelers. Neltje Blanchan describes the “peculiar reed-like
whistling of greenwings. Frank Kortright recognizes bluewings in the
twilight by the “sibilant sound of the wings.” S.F. Baird thought
bluewings had a “soft, lisping note.”

George Bird Grinnell and N.S. Goss recognized wigeon by the “low, soft whistle, very melodious in quality” and the “whistling noise made by their wings.” Thomas Roberts writes that
pintails create “a loud swishing, almost roaring sound as the birds near
the water.”

The literature describes two types of sounds, big and soft. This is
obviously related to the number of ducks you’re listening to.

Thomas Roberts describes canvasbacks and redheads at Heron Lake: “… with their
united wings made a noise like the rushing of a railroad train.” W. B.
Leffingwell and Thomas Nuttall describe canvasbacks flying over the
Chesapeake Bay with “one continuous roar of thunder.” Sigurd Olson also
writes about a flock of mallards taking flight “with a roar like that of
an express train.”

Olson can hear both the loud roar and the quieter sounds wings make,
depending on the distance of the ducks. He describes a flock of lesser
scaup approaching with a “dull approaching roar, like the sound of a
gale on a rampage.” However, as the flock came closer, the sound shifted
to “the ripping of canvas.”

Michael McIntosh describes “the sweet, slithery whisper of wings cutting the graying darkness” at Delta Marsh.

If these quotations don’t bring a flood of memories and images – and tug
at your heartstrings – then you haven’t spent nearly enough time in a
duck blind.

One goal the pup and I have is to match each description in the literature to our
own experiences. We’ve been able to check off a few, but there are
still several to go. I guess that means we need to spend more time out
there.

And we need to look up what the word “sibilant” means.

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