By Larry Dablemont
I am amazed at the great increase in the number of large-species birds. Back in the fall there were thousands of huge white pelicans in the Ozarks. Most likely there are 10 times as many pelicans today as there were 100 years ago. I could write a whole column about pelicans, a fascinating bird I have observed in both northwest Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Ozarks.
One evening I was duck hunting with old friend Rich Abdoler on a western tributary of Truman Lake, picking up decoys as the sun dipped below the horizon, and we watched a long string of low-flying pelicans fly from the southern sky northward, several thousand of them, passing over within shotgun range for 15 minutes. It was about that time we begin seeing great numbers of cormorants on Truman, and today they are everywhere on that lake, thousands of them, feasting on shad, as overpopulated as anything in the Midwest. They are ugly and dirty and worthless, and neophyte hunters often think they are geese. But if you shoot one it is a federal offense with a big fine. What are the fish and wildlife people thinking? There should be a bounty on them, but even that won’t reduce their numbers.
Beginning nature photographers will get photos of one bird above all others, and that is the great blue heron. They have likely quadrupled their numbers in the past 20 years, as nests along waterways are abundant, sometimes a dozen or more nests in one large sycamore tree, and fledgling birds making the darndest racket you can imagine. As if game fish in our rivers don’t have enough problems. In the pool hall back home ol’ Bill said he shot every great blue heron that he found within range of whatever gun he was carrying at the time. Doc Dykes asked him why. Bill said they were terrible bass killers…said he saw one once that had a flopping two-pound bass held down in shallow water with one foot and the tail of a bigger one “hangin’ out of his jaws!”
Eagles, which were so rarely seen along the Piney when I was a boy, need no protection today. There are nine different eagle nests along the rivers and lakes that I know of within 10 miles or so of my ridge top as the crow flies. Quite often I will see six or eight eagles together eating the remains of a dead deer along some river after deer season. If you have a camera and get tired of photographing herons, then you can find a bunch of eagles that aren’t all that wild.
Last week in a big harvested cornfield there was a flock of Canada geese and near them, six big trumpeter swans. The swans aren’t overpopulated but the geese are, likely at a high number that hasn’t been seen for decades. In the day of my boyhood, there was never an Ozark farm pond with nesting Canada geese. If we had seen wild geese in any appreciable numbers during the depression days folks in our region would have eaten better.
Likely the most overpopulated big birds now are snow geese, so great in number that biologists fear they are doing irreparable damage to their breeding grounds in the arctic region of Canada. When they start to appear by the thousands in March, on northern migrations through parts of western Missouri and eastern Kansas, hunters have, for many years, killed them by the hundreds. It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in their numbers.
There are problems on the horizon for Missouri, with a big worthless and destructive bird known as the black vulture. I have seen what a problem they have become in north Arkansas. Along the White River some boat docks have obtained permission to kill all of them, but to do it legally you have to pay $100 for a depredation permit. These birds, like so many which are now overpopulated, are protected by federal migratory bird laws.
Here is some of what has been printed about them in north Arkansas… “Black vultures sometimes peck and damage rubber seals and windshield wipers on parked vehicles, canvas awnings and seating on boats, and rubber or vinyl materials on rooftops. Black vultures leave characteristic evidence of their depredation. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports black vultures can inflict gruesome damage to livestock. They pluck eyes and eat tongues of newborns, down, or sick livestock; disembowel young livestock; kill and feed on domestic fowl; and leave scars on those animals which survive.”
I’ve seen them coming into Missouri more and more over the last five years as poultry farms provide thousands of dead chickens and turkeys in southern counties for them to feed on. There is no telling how far into the state they will move. In the east they have moved as far north as New England.
Black vultures are a little smaller than what we know as turkey buzzards in the Ozarks, and they have no color on their heads. They have completely black skin. To see a picture of one which I photographed on the White River, and other photos, go to my BlogSpot…larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com.
Amongst hawks and owls, populations are above the healthy level, most being just as high in numbers as I ever remember seeing them. But there is one large bird in the Ozarks which is not overpopulated…the wild turkey. I have seen alarming declines in wild turkeys over the past eight to 10 years and they have reached low numbers I have not seen in at least 40 years. More about that in a column to come, and I will tell you what should be done, but won’t be done, by our conservation departments to help stop the declining populations of wild gobblers that is now about one-third of what it was 20 years ago.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.