Murder most fowl
The life, death and legacy of a wayward duck underscores the importance of conservation
Dawn Garcia was one of the first local bird lovers to see a rare-to-the-area long-tailed duck that recently came to winter on the Feather River, just beneath the Oroville Dam. She was also one of the last to see the bird alive less than two weeks later, minutes before it was illegally shot and killed.
The duck was first spotted by a member of the Altacal Audubon Society during the group’s Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 30. Garcia, a biologist, ornithologist and member of the group, was counting more common winter birds—yellow-rumped warblers, buffleheads, pied-billed grebes and others—not far away when word of the sighting went out, and she joined some of her colleagues to admire the unique visitor. The species is rarely seen on the West Coast south of Canada or this far inland, and the last local sighting was six years ago.
Garcia and her friend Carolyn Short saw the bird several times after that on their regular morning walks along the river. They got their best look on the rainy Thursday morning of Jan. 12, observing the duck through binoculars from 100 feet away as it splashed about, took flight and landed on the water near the opposite, western bank of the river.
About five minutes after resuming their hike, the pair heard the firecracker-like popping of a half-dozen low-caliber gunshots in rapid succession, drawing Garcia’s attention to a man standing across the river holding a rifle. Hunting is not allowed in the area.
“I yelled at him to stop shooting … he was firing across the river and could have hit us or other people out hiking or watching the duck,” Garcia said during a recent interview. The man jumped in the passenger side of a pick-up truck and another man drove away. That’s when she spotted the duck bobbing in the water, left for dead just offshore from where the shots were fired.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they shot this bird, this rare and beautiful bird,’” Garcia said. “There were no other ducks around, so they had to be targeting it in particular.”
As shocked as she was by the shooting, Garcia was even more astonished when Warden Joshua Brennan of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife—who responded to Garcia’s call to CalTIP, that agency’s hotline to report poachers and polluters—told her the killing was possibly premeditated by trophy hunters who seek out rare species, and perhaps had been tipped off by social media posts alerting the birding community to the duck’s presence.
In addition to that revelation, the bird’s North State sojourn can shed some light on the myriad—and largely man-made—issues affecting bird populations. Garcia and other birders have taken steps to ensure that one duck, whose life was tragically cut short, leaves a lasting legacy.
Garcia’s passion for birds was solidified when she traveled to Rwanda three decades ago with her then-husband, a veterinarian who worked with mountain gorillas. Since the 1990s, she’s worked with birds of many feathers, from caring for penguins at SeaWorld to banding northern saw-whet owls at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, where she’s run a program studying that species since 2005 as part of a nationwide effort called Project Owlnet. Garcia is exuberant when talking about birds, her smile fading during a recent interview only when she spoke of the shooting, and she jokingly chided herself for using unscientific terms like “cute” and “adorable” to describe the handful-size owls she studies. She also referred to the duck that was killed as “handsome” and called a rare vermillion flycatcher currently wintering in a nearby valley town cemetery “sexy.”
The long-tailed duck—or LTDU as the birds are known in birder lingo—shot in Oroville was a juvenile male with muted black and white plumage, and the long, central tail feathers that give the species its descriptive name had yet to fully form. LTDUs are medium-size, diving sea ducks traditionally known in North America by another name that’s fallen out of favor in recent years for its racially insensitive connotation—“old squaw.” The bird’s scientific name is Clangula hyemalis, Latin words for “to resound” and “of winter,” respectively. They are predominantly black and white with brown and gray markings, with plumage differing according to age, sex and season.
LTDUs are much more common in North Atlantic and Arctic regions—Northern Europe, Canada, Alaska and Russia—where they are born and breed near tundra pools, marshes, mountain lakes and coastline. They are migratory, and fly south to North American and European coasts during the winter.
Declining populations since the 1990s of LTDUs observed in their most prominent winter destination—the Baltic Sea, where up to 4.5 million of them gather annually—have caused global conservation group BirdLife International to declare the bird a “vulnerable” species. Most migratory birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but some waterfowl qualify as game birds and can be hunted according to state and national guidelines. Since LTDUs are not normally found in the Western United States but are relatively common elsewhere, they have no special protections in California.
Still, the Oroville incident likely broke several laws, according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. Chris Stoots. For starters, the bird was shot in an area where hunting isn’t permitted, and the hunters allegedly used a center-fire rifle (for legal and ethical reasons, ducks are hunted exclusively with shotguns). Stoots said other violations may have occurred, all of them misdemeanors punishable by up to six years in jail and $1,000 in fines for each offense.
Stoots has spent most of his career with the agency hunting poachers in San Benito and Colusa counties, with some of those cases documented by the National Geographic Channel show Wild Justice. He was named the department’s Wildlife Officer of the Year in 2015. He said cases he’s dealt with range from honest mixups regarding permitting and licensing on up to organized rings of poachers hunting large game at night to sell meat and other animal products in big cities. Trophy hunting of rarities is a prevalent issue in the North State and elsewhere, he confirmed. Some poachers chase threatened or endangered species, or individual birds with federally permitted bands—easily viewed and read through binoculars—that scientists use to track birds and gather data.
Stoots said he was unaware of cases in which poachers prey on naturalists’ love of sharing bird sightings on the Internet. But a Jan. 3 Sacramento Bee article focused largely on that topic in relation to a common pochard that recently visited that area. That bird, also unprotected in California, was the first of its kind seen in the state since 1994.
“A hunter found the first Humboldt County record of a Steller’s eider and shot it,” John Sterling, a Woodland-based biologist and birding guide told The Bee. “He mounted it. I’ve seen the specimen. Other hunters have shot emperor geese up here. We’d get the word out to birders when an emperor was seen, and in two to three hours it would be shot. So now we don’t talk about them anymore.”
“Deliberate violators of poaching laws will go to great lengths, so it doesn’t surprise me at all,” Stoots said of poachers stalking social media for prey. “It takes someone with serious issues to go to those lengths to kill an animal … that’s definitely the type of person I would like to catch.”
Stoots reported last week that his agency followed up on one lead based on Garcia’s account, but the suspect had an “airtight alibi.” The investigation is still open, and he urges anyone with information on the crime to call CalTIP at 888-334-2258.
Illegality aside, the LTDU killing has invoked the ire of both hunters and birders. Though those two camps may seem far removed from one another, there is ample crossover, as they share goals of conservation and preserving wildlife for posterity.
“Some Audubon members are duck hunters, and I’d say most duck hunters are birdwatchers,” said Jeff Smith, hunt program coordinator with the California Waterfowl Association. “They may not be members of the Audubon Society per se, but they’re out in the field all the time observing. That’s what I personally love most about waterfowl hunting … you see all kinds of wildlife, including all the birds migrating from October through February.”
Based in Sutter County, Smith is an alumnus of Chico State and was familiar with the Oroville shooting before being contacted by the CN&R.
“It’s a very unfortunate incident, both because it’s a rare bird this far inland and because of the ethical aspects,” he said. “It was wanton waste to leave the bird behind. It doesn’t sound like these guys were ‘hunters,’ because everything they did is against what real hunters stand for. This is a poaching incident … I doubt they had a license and it sounds like they haven’t even had a hunter safety course.
“It’s troubling because things like this make people think that’s what hunting is … going out, driving around in a truck, drinking, shooting at whatever … but no hunters I know would ever do anything like that.”
Scott Huber is the current conservation chair and a past president of the Altacal Audubon Society, and a birder and hunter who noted that the most celebrated historical conservationists—Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and John James Audubon himself—were also avid hunters. He said another ethical and legal transgression in the LTDU killing is the fact it may have been shot on the water—a literal sitting duck.
Huber said he believes the poachers had two possible motives for killing the bird: “It was either someone who heard about the duck and just wanted to be cruel, because they knew it would hurt the feelings of people who are sensitive to animals and animal rights and killing it satisfied some demented urge; or it was someone who felt the need to add something rare and unusual to the collection of mounted animals on their wall. But if you asked 100 hunters, you’d find very few that agreed with that being done.”
While discussing how the rare duck ended up here, more than a thousand miles south of its normal range, local experts spoke about some of the myriad threats to bird populations. Some of those threats, like certain green energy projects, are surprising to people outside of conservation communities.
“Wind turbines have been disastrous for migratory raptors,” Garcia said, adding that some solar power efforts have also been detrimental, particularly the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert. The plant kills an estimated 6,000 birds a year, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. Some of the animals are incinerated in mid-air by concentrated beams of sunlight; their smoking corpses that fall to the ground have become known as “streamers.” Despite those dangers, Garcia said most birders support green energy and that conservancy groups have helped advocate for mitigation measures and proper siting of power production facilities.
The list of threats to birds goes on—feral cats, cellular towers and any and all development in sensitive areas like our own, which sits on a major bird migration path called the Pacific Flyway. In separate interviews, both Smith, of hunting organization California Waterfowl Association, and Huber, of the local Audubon chapter, said loss of habitat is the single biggest threat to all wildlife populations.
Furthermore, most of the bird-centric conservationists interviewed said climate change may be a driving factor for changing migration patterns, though the full affect of global warming on birds is still being studied.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of birds migrating to different locations because changing climate has moved food sources—like insects, nuts, berries and seeds—that they typically rely on to higher elevations,” Huber said. “In some ways, that ability to adapt is the best thing some species have going for them.”
Huber and Smith agreed the single biggest man-made change to local bird habitats has actually been a boon for waterfowl. Thirty years ago, local wetlands were rapidly succumbing to development, causing a dearth of those species. But changing agricultural practices—namely more rice farming, and a move from burning those fields to flooding them in order to replenish soil—have created new destinations, leading to booming populations.
This season’s exceptional storms may have blown the LTDU off-course, Huber said, though he explained the cause may have been something broken with the bird itself: “Birds migrate using magnetic fields, so it’s possible that out-of-range birds have a malfunctioning orientation system that sends them down the wrong path.”
Huber named President Donald Trump’s administration and Republican-controlled Congress as an immediate and significant threat to birds and all environmental matters. Trump has already started rolling back protective regulations, and Huber is particularly concerned about the promises to open up formerly protected areas to petroleum exploration and extraction, which could lead to further loss of sensitive ecosystems and a greater possibility of oil spills. This caused Huber, who had stepped away from leadership roles in Altacal for several years, to return to the group and take the conservation position in January.
“I think natural places and wild things are at risk for at least the next four years, and that they’re going to run roughshod over so many things that environmentalists and outdoor activists have been trying to achieve for so many years,” he said. “I read in a blog post the other day that environmentalists are disheartened by Trump’s election, but I don’t think that at all. I think environmentalists are inflamed and impassioned by Trump’s election, and that good things will happen because we’ll redouble our efforts to protect them.”
After witnessing the rare duck’s death and its killer’s escape, Garcia and her hiking partner ran back to their vehicle and drove through Oroville to access the other side of the river. Along the way they made several calls—to CalTIP, State Parks, local police and to a friend who brought a rubber raft to the scene of the crime. Garcia paddled into the river to retrieve the dead bird.
She took the body to Jay Bogiatto, who teaches ornithology, mammalogy, advanced zoology and waterfowl biology and wetland management at Chico State. He is also a birder and hunter, and runs the school’s Vertebrate Museum, a collection of more than 10,000 fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and, of course, birds.
The museum includes both “live mounts”—animals processed to appear as they would in life—and “study skins,” which are prepared in a way that students and faculty members can handle them and observe their physical characteristics.
“An essential part of any ‘ology’ class is learning to identify animals,” Bogiatto explained during a recent visit to the museum. He grabbed two nearby rat study skins to show how one, the non-native “old world” rat, has a white belly while the local rat does not. “If you can’t tell the difference between animals, then chances are your research won’t be well-regarded in the scientific community,” he said.
Some items in the museum’s collection, which includes a polar bear, the head of black rhino and other rare animals, date back 80 years or more. Some stuffed specimens were prepared by his predecessors and others donated. Fresh dead animals donated to the museum are processed by Bogiatto and his team of graduate students, and he will use the duck to show his students how to prepare study skins later this month. He also will conduct some duck CSI to determine what kind of weapon was used to kill the bird.
Bogiatto learned his taxidermy skills—which he said is a disappearing discipline—in the same room where he teaches and curates the museum now, as a graduate student in 1979.
“Something I’ve been stressing in all of my classes is the history of things, and this is part of that,” he said. “Most modern biologists [who prepare animals] learned from their instructors, who learned from their instructors, who ultimately learned from Darwin.”
The duck will become part of that ongoing educational history.
Garcia said that, as tragic as the death was, she’s happy that the bird will leave a lasting legacy, both for raising awareness about poaching and other issues, and to help educate future biologists.
“So much about that day just seems like it was meant to be,” she said. Someone lacking her background who witnessed the shooting may not have thought twice about the dead duck, and certainly wouldn’t have known where to take the body.
“In the big scheme of things, the death of a single duck may not matter that much,” she said. “The shooting was sad, for sure, and completely surreal. But he brought so much joy to people who came to see him when he was here, and I’m glad I was there that day and here now to help tell the story of his life.”