Winter Ducks Open a Window on the Past

From the North Beach boardwalk, where I take my morning walks, I have seen a small, mixed flock of Bay ducks, hanging close to the shore: mainly scaup, bufflehead, goldeneye and canvasback.  This is a tiny remnant of the vast flocks that once wintered here.
    In December I called the Canada goose an icon of the Chesapeake. Canvasback ducks also deserve the label, though more for their historical place than present day. Until recent decades, the Chesapeake hosted more wintering canvasbacks than any other body.
    In the 1950s, their number were estimated around 225,000 on the Bay, more than half or the total winter population in the U.S. By the 1980s, due mainly to habitat destruction, only about 50,000 of them wintered here. Since then, the overall population has made a modest rebound. But the majority of canvasbacks now winter elsewhere.
    In silhouette, the canvasback’s ski-slope-shaped foreheads stand out among the others. This time of year, the males are mostly white, with red heads and black tails and breasts. In breeding season, the white turns to a muted canvas color. Coloration on the females is pale over all.
    In the early years of the 20th century, market gunners used outsized guns mounted on low-slung skiffs to harvest enormous numbers of ducks for the restaurant trade in Baltimore, Philadelphia, D.C. and New York. The gunners nearly wiped out waterfowl populations on the Chesapeake before the practice was outlawed. The Bay was healthy then, so the ducks came back, for a while.
    In the 1930s, it was estimated that the canvasback diet consisted almost entirely of plant material, their favorite being wild celery. The plant-based diet meant their meat was mild and they were, more than any other species, prized for eating, so they say.
    Plants are the foundation of the Bay’s ecosystem. The fate of every Bay-dwelling creature is tied to the plant life in and around the estuary. Many factors have contributed to the devastating loss of submerged aquatic vegetation in the Bay. Despite efforts to restore grasses, they are not making a sure comeback.
    The shallow waters of the Susquehanna flats at the northern end of the Bay spread out before me when I looked south from the house where I grew up. Canvasbacks covered the water and filled the air in that place and time. The only fine dining establishment in the nearby town of Perryville was called the Canvasback. Sportsmen from all over the world came to the Flats to bag their limit.
    The Chesapeake’s population of canvasback have adapted to the loss of grasses by switching to a diet of clams. But a clam-fed duck offers a less rewarding culinary experience.
    Today, there is a Royal Farms Convenience store at the corner of Rts. 222 and 40 in southern Cecil County, down by the Susquehanna River Bridge, and those in search of fine Maryland cuisine must look elsewhere to another place and time.