Although my waterfowl season was abbreviated last year due to the pressing need to replace a house that had burned down, it was actually satisfying. I shot a banded goose in Canada in September and a banded mallard in December – the fifth and sixth banded birds in a lifetime of hunting.
Of course, I was thrilled to collect this “waterfowl jewelry,” but as always, it is a bit discomfiting to hold the lifeless body of a banded bird that someone had once held gently before releasing it with a toss into the air and a hearty, “Good luck, pal!”
I have been in on the banding process as a volunteer myself, and I know firsthand how thrilling it is to hold a wild thing close to your chest, feeling its heart thump against your own. On one hand, you want it to thrive; on the other, you know your work is in vain if no bands are returned. The ultimate coincidence of my banding endeavors was the season I helped band a greater scaup in July and shot the same bird in November just 10 miles away.
Many waterfowlers hunt their entire lives without shooting a banded bird. Others, particularly guides who are out day after day, wear necklaces made of this waterfowl jewelry that are often so laden with bands they look silly.
I have been hunting over 50 years, and I remember distinctly each banded bird I have killed. As with girls and shotguns, however, I remember the first best of all.
It was a mallard drake taken the last week of the season 50 years ago.
An early thaw had flooded a 1-acre bowl in a field of wheat stubble near Cheney. A friend and I built a rough blind against a scab rock bluff just off the new pond, threw out a few decoys and had fair shooting but minimal success.
At one point, a mallard drake flew directly over our heads barely 20 yards up. We rose, shot, missed and sat back down as the bird disappeared. Later, when the ducks quit flying altogether, I left the blind to wander around in the sagebrush behind us. Miracle of miracle, I found a freshly killed mallard drake behind the blind. And it had a leg band.
Upon considering the possibility my friend could also claim the band, I fired my gun, let out a whoop, and soon returned to my buddy in the blind holding aloft my banded bird. My friend was envious but happy for me. I can’t say the guilt was terrible, but it did occupy a spot on the fringes of my subconscious until many years later when I was given an opportunity for absolution.
I had taken a young friend, Joshua, with me in October and set up a large spread on the Crab Creek Channel off Potholes Reservoir in Grant County. Joshua wasn’t a rookie, but his ducks taken could have been counted on one hand. Every duck he bagged was still a gift, a miracle to be admired and babbled about all the way home.
On this particular day, Joshua hadn’t hit a duck by late morning and we were just about to call it quits when a small flock of redheads came roaring through the decoys. I stood quickly, shot, and a large drake folded. As my dog made the retrieve, we could see sun glinting off the metal band on the duck’s leg.
I let out am animated, “Yeah!” and grinned at Joshua and saw that he was ejecting a smoking, spent shell from his single shot 20-gauge. Evidently, we had fired simultaneously. Joshua looked at me, his eyes wide, the excitement lighting up his face. “Did you shoot too?” he asked.
In my heart, I knew I had killed that duck. And I had wanted a prime mounted redhead drake for many years. To shoot one with a band was more than I could have dreamed of. But I reached down and took the beautiful bird from the dog and handed it to my young friend.
“Nope,” I said. “Great shot, kid! You were too fast for me on that one.”
Anyway, I plan to put in a full season this year, and I can’t wait to hunt Crab Creek again. Joshua had his bird mounted, and I’m still looking for a prime redhead drake. It’s probably too much to ask, but in my dreams, it’s wearing some jewelry.
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