RICE, SKY HORSES, DUCK PATROL AND LIVE DECOYS
Harry Truman is credited with saying, “The only thing new under the sun is the history you don’t know.”
Rice in California had its beginning in 1908 when a Japanese rice variety called Kiushu was planted on 40 acres in the Sacramento Valley community of Biggs in Butte County by W.W. Mackie, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil specialist and researcher. From 1908 through 1911, farmers made small plantings in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. Within two years, rice was being grown commercially not only in Butte County but as far south as the San Joaquin Valley.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, ducks and geese feasted upon the rice fields, which had developed with wonderful rapidity in California, especially in the Sacramento Valley. By 1912, interest in rice growing in California had increased to a point where commercial sowings of 1,400 acres were made near Biggs as an experiment. This was so successful the following year that acreage was increased to 6,100 acres. In 1920, a total of 130,000 acres was planted, producing about 4,000,000 sacks of rice, with a value of more than $25,000,000. California that year rank second in the country in rice production.
Before settlers came to California, there were several hundred thousand acres of marshes, grasslands, and swamps into which the Sacramento and other rivers overflowed in winter. And before rice was being produced, this Sacramento land still consisted of large tracts of marshlands and was known as “goose land.” It was considered by many to be worthless marshlands and lowland hardpan. Weeds, wheat, and barley were about all that would grow there until the idea of flooding the land and planting the vast areas to rice was tried. The rice throve, and in a few years the great Sacramento Valley was transformed into rippling fields of emerald green.
Returning at a time when the fields were flooded and the rice ripening, it didn’t take long for the ducks and geese to swoop eagerly upon the rice to find their ancestral marshes even more inviting than they once were, and that its rice fields offered better nourishment than the marshlands and wheat fields.
As the first season’s rice crop neared maturity, the annual southward migration of waterfowl set in. Down from the summer breeding grounds, the swamps and lakes of northern Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic Islands beyond, came ducks, geese, brant, and other waterfowl. Mallards and pintail, especially, overflew the fields of barley and wheat and native pond weeds and left them virtually untouched once rice became available.
Here was what it was like in November 21, 1916 at the West Butte Country Club in Sutter County, California, after a hunter returned to his hometown of San Francisco:
I have just come from a shooting trip at the West Butte Country Club, in Sutter County, California. The shooting grounds comprise a swamp and overflowed land along Butte Creek. The birds there—the ducks and geese—are in numbers beyond description. There must be several thousand swans, and there are certain favorite localities in which all these birds seem to congregate at certain times. The rice fields adjoining are now all drained. Great quantities of the birds go to the rice fields at night and there feed upon the waste rice that has been threshed out by the wind, blackbirds, etc. The farmers regard this as a positive benefit, since it cleans their land of what would otherwise be an annoying and worthless volunteer crop during the following year. All the farmers bear testimony to this, and their grounds are all posted forbidding shooting. Toward daylight the birds move down to the marshlands literally in myriads. Some of the Mallards are fairly wobbling in their flight, and their crops and necks distorted, with the rice they have eaten. [Condor, January 1917.]
As another writer said in 1916, “The birds swooped down into the rice fields in flocks that darkened the sky—wandering freebooters taking advantage of an open ‘free lunch’ established by man apparently for their special use.”
The Breeder and Sportsman, November 4, 1916, reported:
DUCKS NO MENACE TO RICE CROPS. President Newbert Makes Investigation and Finds Reports Are Not True. A great deal of publicity has been given in the public press of late regarding the alleged damage done to growing rice in California. It is the custom of the California Fish and Game Commission to investigate all reports concerning the welfare of the fish and game of the State. If certain game birds or animals are a menace to the property of any community, the Commission realizes the necessity of some action for relief. If they are not, then the idea of game conservation must prevail. Reports of immense damage by ducks were made. Offers were made by alleged rice farmers to board, lodge and furnish ammunition to an army of shooters from all over the State. Hunters were induced to travel long distances to Marysville, Gridley, Biggs and Colusa, only to find that a rice farmer did not want relief from the hunter, but had posted his land with no hunting signs and, in some instances, was patrolling the road with gun in an endeavor to keep men and dogs from entering the rice field. An investigation has been made for the Fish and Game Commission by Deputy George Neale and myself, interviewing many rice farmers, members of the Chambers of Commerce and business men financially interested in that great future of rice culture in the counties named, and all without exception stated they could not point to one instance where damage could be shown. Mr. Gohm, who farms 800 acres, stated that if ducks were injuring his crop he had never known it, but that the blackbirds were very destructive and that the ducks were blamed for the depredations of the blackbirds. J.H. Stevens, President of the Rice Growers’ Association, states that wild ducks do no damage to rice whatsoever on his farm. The wild duck eats what is threshed out by blackbirds and the grain left by the harvester. Hunters do not shoot ducks on the rice fields, but on the overflowed areas of drainage water, which comes from the rice fields when drained, and which carries much feed with it. Growers say that if this rice was allowed to remain on the ground and become what is known as volunteer rice, it eventually becomes red rice, the same as cheat is to degenerated wheat or barley, and which is the real menace to the rice grower at this time. Some of the rice growers state that the wild duck is a benefit. Ducks feed on the rice stubble fields at night, scarcely ever in the day time. They frequent the fields in day time while the water is there, but it is to feed on the water larvae, tender grasses, bugs and other insects, which are quite numerous. The investigation was made in justice to the growers of rice. This new industry is making giant strides in Northern California and the Fish and Game Commission realizes that to allow the false reports to be given to the world unchallenged would have the effect of keeping capitalists and farmers away who wish to engage in the new and rapidly growing industry. As one grower put it, “We don’t want hunters to tramp our rice down. We want people to eat more rice.”
Near Chico, in 1917, with the “gun clubs” inactive, the farmers were using “bomb squads” to keep the ducks from their unharvested rice fields in October when the law forbade no waterfowl hunting. Bombs were manufactured ,with the explosives used kept a secret. Each night and morning, the bombs were exploded and considered effective.
In 1917, farmers’ sentiments changed almost over night as members of the California State Fish and Game Commission had to combat several bills that were introduced in legislature presented by rice growers who sought to remove protection from ducks. The rice growers contended that the ducks were responsible chiefly for the destruction of their crops, while the commissioners held that the black birds and mud hens were the birds shelling out the grain, while the ducks merely ate the rice after the others had scattered it. In particular, the commissioners attempted to prove to the legislators that the peculiarities of the duck’s beak made it impossible for the bird to strip a head of grain.
South of Chico, “ducks were so plentiful in the rice fields in 1917 that farmers were organizing gun clubs for their protection. For an hour one day, the sky was obscured in the Richvale region [Butte County], the ducks swarming by thousands. Hunters in the marsh regions are happy, but the rice men are fearful of great loss through the birds. During the past few days, flocks of from 5,000 to 10,000 ducks have been no uncommon sight. The ducks are all mallards and sprigs. The squawking of the mallards resemble thunder.” In 1917, losses from ducks totaled 300,000 bags of rice worth more than a million dollars.
A year later, in the first part of 1918, a great deal of discussion was taken place. Some farmers desired to have market hunters come in and do their job. Others wouldn’t even allowed sports hunters to hunt. Others remarked that by the international agreement the U.S. made with Canada that California, as other states, was allowed only a fair share of these ducks and fairness demanded that ducks be not slaughtered for profit. Most rice growers realized that protecting crops, which would involve a small expenditure and a few men, was much to be preferred over turning a bunch of market hunters loose into their rice fields.
A few days after the migration began, and before the actual season had started, countless fields of standing grain became “mud puddles of desolation.” They “‘puddled”’ the rice fields, consumed the grain by hundreds of tons, and ruined tens of thousands of acres sometimes in a single night. This preference for rice, together with the fact that most of the rice was grown in areas that were once the best of the original marshland, accounted for the increasing losses sustained by rice growers. Many farmers were ruined and went out of business.
Therefore, some rice growers hired a few men to protect their crops using shotguns and artillery to keep them off during the early part of September. State law allowed duck hunting at any and all times. The U.S. federal law, however, prohibited such shooting except during prescribed periods. The U.S. Secretary of ; Agriculture had the power to modify the season and the protection accorded, but such modification had to be requested by the state fish and frame commission. The commission, it was said, would favor such modification with respect to blackbirds, whose destructiveness was generally admitted. The Commission believed that a continual open season would result in the birds being shot for the market and thus thinned out. In opposition to the protection accorded to ducks, the Commission pointed out that it was comparatively easy to keep ducks away from a field, as a shot or two would frighten them out of a 410 acre tract.
In late September 1918, orders were issued from the U.S. Biological Survey which gave blanket federal permission to “rice growers, immediate family members, and bona fide employees in the counties of Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba to kill ducks when necessary to protect their rice crops from depredation of such birds,” irregardless of state law. The order from the Survey was a direct result of the appeal made by the rice growers to California Food Administrator Ralph Merritt. Merritt took up the matter with Herbert Hoover, National Food Administrator, recommending that the growers be given permission to shoot the ducks and that the slain ducks be made use of as food by the families of the growers and in charitable institutions. The order permitting shooting, announced by the State Fish and Came Commission as received from the Biological Survey, was the result of the steps taken by the Glenn County rice growers and Merritt.
This order covered the period from September 30 to October 15, inclusive, 1918, in open fields of rice when necessary to protect rice crops from damage by ducks. No ducks were to be shot at from artificial or natural blinds or from or in fields from which rice had been harvested. Ducks killed were not to be sold, offered for sale, shipped for purposes of sale or be wantonly wasted or destroyed, but could be used for food purposes by persons killing them, and could be transported to hospitals and charitable institutions in California for use as food. Any package in which ducks were transported had to have name and address of shipper and of consignee and accurate statement of number and kinds of ducks contained therein clearly and conspicuously marked on outside thereof. Each owner or lessee of land on which ducks were killed on or before October 25th had to submit sworn statement of number and kinds of ducks killed each day on such land, manner of disposition of ducks, and cost of ammunition used.
Men were hired and furnished with shotguns and ammunition, but waterfowl soon caught on to men roaming around rice fields with shotguns and just got up and went to another rice field, sometimes at his neighbor’s expense. That December, on the Independent Rice Company’s ranch at Maxwell, California, ducks had eaten over 200 acres of matured rice from their 2,000 acres planted, which cost the company $36,000. The cost of help and ammunition to the Company from August 1 up till harvest which was completed November 7, was $100 per day.
The above stipulations continued for the 1919 duck season, but allowed the order to take effect August 1. Considerable discussion and consequent investigation followed for the protection of the rice fields from the depredation of ducks. As the season progressed, it was decided that the most effective methods of control were to be obtained by herding. Other methods tried were mechanical scarecrows, torpedoes, and fire flares sent aloft with toy balloons, rockets at night, and the usual array of pot shooters with shotguns. In desperation, some of the farmers mined their fields with detonating torpedoes which were set off at intervals by means of electrical-timing devices. None of these methods, however, was fully successful, and partial success was accomplished at heavy expense.
From the many devices tried, is it little wonder that the rice growers wanted the duck to stay out of their rice fields? In a single night, a flock of ducks or geese, by knocking down the grain and eating it, could do enormous damage to a rice field. Therefore, by the fall of 1919, the problem of saving the rice crop became so serious that the growers were ready to listen to anybody who came up with a new “duck-shooing” idea.
After the signing of the World War One Armistice in November 1918, plane accidents by active duty pilots stood well above what it had been in the U.S. during the war,” and it stayed high due to what was called “indiscriminate flying and failure to observe even the common rules of flying.” General Kenly did not, however, want to prohibit all “stunting.” Pilots had learned acrobatics as part of their tactical training during the war but for use in combat. After the Armistice, pilots did “stunting for thrill maneuvers to show off,” with frequent plane accidents occurring. This eventually came to be a problem for General Kenly, who said, “I direct all commanders to stop low flying and acrobatics in the vicinity of cities, towns, and buildings, and to see that all acrobatics finish at an altitude of at least 1,500 feet.”
The pilots left the cities and towns and did their acrobatic stunting in the countryside, which then got out of hand and eventually came to the attention of General Kenly, who said, “The indiscriminate kind of flying that has drawn my attention brought complaints from sportsmen and others interested in wild life. Pilots have disturbed migratory ducks by buzzing their feeding places. And that is not all. They are shooting the birds with their machine guns.” He declared such hunting “absolutely forbidden.” He ordered flying to be conducted so as to interfere as little as possible with waterfowl. “Offenders in the future would be brought to trial,” he said. [Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1930, Maurer Maurer.]
With the end of the war, many airplanes became surplus and were converted to civilian use. Many of the Curtis “JN-4D,” better known as the “Jenny,” a bi-wing military airplane, became surplus and were converted to civilian use.
There were those who from this saw an opportunity. It was then that a trio of pilots flew into the Sacramento Valley. They were looking for business in their chosen line. As they flew low over the rice fields, sending cloud after cloud of waterfowl scattering every which way and scurrying skyward ahead of their roaring airplanes, they soon realized they might have a business opportunity and a solution to the problem—herding ducks away from rice fields using a Curtis “JN-4D.” This was the beginning of an “experiment,” the beginning of the “rice patrol,” or the “duck patrol,” as it was commonly known in the Sacramento Valley. It would turn out to be a perpetual yearly assignment for the JN-4D, or “sky horses” as they were sometimes called, while the pilot was called a “sky horseman.”
The trio consisted of Edward Moffett, Irwin Hunt, and Frank McManus. In Colusa County, by August of 1919, Moffett had left the Navy Air Service after the war. Afterwards, he, along with Irwin Hunt, formed the Moffett and Hunt Airplane Company. They signed a contract with McManus, formerly aeronautical engineer for the Liberty Iron Works, then in business for himself, for two airplanes which he owned and which Moffett proposed to use in patrolling the rice fields of Colusa County to protect the growing crop against ducks. Moffett did the patrolling under contract with the growers, and by August 25 he had 15,000 acres signed up soon after signing his contract with McManus. At about the same time, near Chico, Butte County, a rice planter and owner of the Parrott Ranch hired an airplane and its pilot to herd ducks off of his rice lands.
The Standard Oil Bulletin, November 1920, stated: “Last year an aeroplane patrol was established as an experiment. It worked so well that this season it was repeated.” The American Game Protective Association reported that “We have been told that permits were granted to the rice growers of California to use aeroplanes to frighten the ducks from their growing crops. This appeared to us to be a very good idea, as efforts to frighten birds away from growing crops by gun fire have never accomplished the results desired and is nearly always used by unscrupulous gunners as an excuse to shoot out of season. However, if aeroplanes under permits of this kind are actually killing birds, such permits should be immediately revoked.”
By January 1921, the Company had six planes in its fleet of the duck rice patrol. To do effective work, the duck-patrol airplanes had fly day and night, in all sort of weather, and over country where landing fields were conspicuously absent. From the time the duck-patrol fliers left their bases until they returned, four hours later, they were flying over country where landing without getting “cracked up” was impossible. If the planes could fly at a high elevation, it would be different, but to work effectively they had to scoot along with their landing wheels scarcely over the top of the growing grain. Thus, if anything went wrong with the “ship” there was no possibility of gliding to a safe landing place.
During this time, a reporter flew ten hours with the duck patrol to take photographs for a story that was written for Popular Mechanics, January 1921. At Willows, Glenn County, there were three duck patrol planes based there, all “touring planes.” By reason of its great speed, one airplane could patrol a tremendous acreage of rice. The three-plane patrol covered over 35,000 acres thus giving the airplane men a gross income of $17,500 for approximately 100 days of flying, and in return for the money they spent, the farmers were saved a loss that was estimated in tens of thousands of dollars. The duck patrol was thus a profitable institution for the rice growers as well as a good business venture in aviation. The reporter wrote as he boarded the plane which had just come in from a four-hour patrol:
Before adjusting my life belt, the pilot (a former ace in the British army) handed me a blood-spattered raincoat, which he bade me put on to protect my clothing when we went through a flock of ducks. A few minutes later we were soaring along a thousand feet above the rice fields. I was reveling in the beauty of the bluish-green fields below when the plane suddenly dived nose downward. Up came the landscape with a dizzy rush; the pilot tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed to a rice field which was now directly under the nose of the plane. It was black with ducks, and resembled a piece of sticky flypaper which had caught all the flies that could find standing room on it. In a few seconds more we had “flattened out” with our wheels almost on top of the rice, and were going through the cloud of ducks which rose out of the marshy rice land like dust before a windstorm. They whizzed between the plane, spattered against the struts and rigging like hailstones, or disappeared as a puff of feathers as they were sucked into the propeller. Something warm and wet struck me in the face, and my goggles became so dim I could scarcely see through them. I wiped my face with my handkerchief. The warm, wet substance was blood hurled backward by the draft from the propeller. Ducks by the million were winging their way with all the speed they could develop right in front of the plane. Seeing they were outstripped for speed, they dove headlong into the rice. Most of the flock, however, hung together, and for 15 minutes we chased them until they disappeared in a bank of fleecy clouds that hung over the mountains that bound the west side of the Sacramento Valley. Chasing a huge flock entirely out of the rice country is one of the favorite practices of the duck-patrol men. Often two or more airplanes work together in this fashion, rounding up the flocks much the same as ranchmen round up herds of live stock, and then chasing them clear out of the valley. . . . Four hours later we returned to the aviation field, and gathered enough ducks for a family dinner from various corners of the airplane. They were impaled on the wires and struts, hanging in the landing gear, and lodged in just about every corner of the plane that could catch and hold one. The rather clumsy-looking propeller was a mass of gore.
Outers’ Recreation, April 1921, reported:
During the fall of 1920, a professional camera man filmed a duck hunt by aeroplane and the picture was shown over the country by one of the popular “Pathe News Weeklies.” Guns were not used in this hunt. The birds were killed by being hit with the propeller and other parts of the machine. This picture appeared simultaneously over the U.S. and was enough to make the blood of any true sportsman boil with indignation. The aeroplane plowed through flocks of ducks, killing and wounding thousands.
At the same time that the film was being shown in the motion picture houses, photographs of the aviators and their machine appeared in the colored supplements of Sunday newspapers. These prints showed the machine flying through vast flocks of ducks and again after it had landed with the body streaked with the blood of the birds and waterfowl hanging to the wires and struts.
Articles were written in magazines, telling of the “novel and thrilling” method of hunting ducks. These articles varied in the details, some contending five thousand birds were killed, while others placed the number of casualties for this one hunt at thirty five hundred. It was explained in detail how it was necessary to have an extra heavy propeller. These great chopping knives knocked ducks in the proverbial forty directions, spattering blood and feathers over the whole plane as the plane overtook them.
In one account the camera man is reported to have said, “We circled around to see what damage we had done to the birds. There were about thirty-five hundred casualties. We then plowed through the mass once more, dropping ducks like rain.”
It is no wonder that this Game Protective Association, the Bureau of Biological Survey at Washington, and state game departments were flooded with protests against this flagrant violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. When the picture first appeared and it was credited with having been taken on Long Island and New Jersey, the game departments of these states immediately began investigations and reported all of the information gathered to the Biological Survey. The investigations proved that the only picture taken was made in California. The laws of this state prohibit shooting ducks from an aeroplane, but nothing is included in the statute to prohibit the aviators from chopping them up with a propeller.
The Federal law, however, prohibits the killing of ducks in any manner except with a gun not larger than 10 gauge, fired from the shoulder, except under special permit from the Secretary of Agriculture. In addition to this violation, it was reported that the plane used was an army plane, operated by a lieutenant from Crissy Field, California. Immediately, the film corporation that promoted the picture learned of the protest its showing had occasioned, it wired the theaters to discontinue its projection.
We are informed by Mr. George A. Lawyer, Chief United States Game Warden, that every effort is being made to gather sufficient evidence to base prosecution against the parties responsible for this slaughter. Also that the Secretary of War has started an investigation to learn whether or not any officer has violated the official order of the War Department [General Kenly], given out two years ago, which forbids army aviators from hunting from aeroplanes or maneuvering their machines unnecessarily over the feeding or resting grounds of waterfowl.
The California Conservation Commission secured the information that the picture was taken ostensibly under a federal permit to prevent depredations by ducks in the rice fields according to the film producer, Pathe Weekly News. However, the Chief Game Protector Llewellyn Legge forwarded to Washington the names of the pilots and the camera man, and he was informed by the Chief U.S. Game Warden that no such permit was ever issued and that prosecution would be instituted against all involved.
When reports reached the Bureau of Biological Survey of ducks being killed by airplanes, which were engaged in taking moving pictures, investigations were started by the Bureau, which resulted in the filing of criminal proceedings before the United States Commissioner in Sacramento on March 9, 1921. The defendants in the case were Pathe Exchange, Inc., Louis Hutt (famous daredevil Pathe camera man), Lieutenant Harry Halverson (pilot and later a highly decorated WWII veteran), all of San Francisco, and J.M. Fetters (pilot of the other plane) and Richard Done (backup pilot), of Willows, California. Investigation of these violations was made by U.S. Game Warden Charles F. Heuser, with headquarters at Sacramento, and complaint was filed through him against those named on a charge of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act regulations prohibiting the taking or killing of migratory game birds by means of an airplane.
Field and Stream, May 1921, reported:
It appears from the investigations that two airplanes were used in securing the pictures. One of which carried the moving picture camera and the other to be photographed with the ducks. For the purpose of securing the pictures, the machine was willfully driven into dense flocks of waterfowl, killing many of the birds by the whirling propellers and other parts of the airplane. Investigation showed that chips were knocked off the propeller blades, and the pictures which were exhibited in California and elsewhere showed the plane being driven into and destroying many ducks. The chasing and killing of ducks by means of airplanes is a serious offense, and every effort will be made to suppress violations of a like character in the future. Ducks killed in this manner are wasted, as they cannot be retrieved, the dead birds falling to the ground where the aviator cannot secure them, and those ducks which are not killed are compelled through fear to leave the vicinity.
J.M. Fetters, mentioned above, made history along with Mrs. Van Huffman in 1920. According to “Colusa Woman Chases Ducks in Airplane,” in The Rice Journal, October 1920, “Mrs. Van Huffman, wife of a prominent Colusa County farmer, claims she is the first woman in California to participate in duck herding by airplane. She was taken up by J.M. Fetters in one of his planes that is being used in the Sacramento Valley Duck Patrol. The patrol is used to frighten ducks from the rice fields in the valley.”
In 1922, operating both night and day, a fleet of five airplanes was in service in the counties of Colusa and Glenn rice fields to ward off the invasion of the great flocks of wild ducks and geese that descend every fall from the Northland.
The Dodge City Journal in its March 24, 1921 issue printed extracts from Popular Mechanics magazine, February 1921, as told by John Edwin Hogg, journalist, photographer, and adventurer, of a unique way of obtaining live decoys:
J.E. Hogg has been telling about something new hereabouts, catching wild waterfowl alive by seining them out of the sky with nets carried through space by an airplane above the rice fields of the Sacramento valley in California. They needed live wild ducks, geese and brant for decoys, so they rigged up an airplane with two halibut trammel nets. With a crew of three men, the plane was flown from San Francisco to Willows, where the wild fowl were so numerous that they were a plague. At Willows, they operated from a small aviation field which had been made by draining off a piece of the rice country. Around the flying field, there was nothing but rice as far as the eye could see, even from an airplane flying several thousand feet above the fields.
Two large steel hoops were made and fitted between the wings of the airplane, and from these hoops two nets were strung. These nets are funnel-shaped, and in the small end of each a circular piece of canvas was placed. When the airplane is on the ground the nets hang limply between the wings, but as soon as the airplane gets up in the air, the rush of air through the nets and against the piece of canvas at the small end holds them straight out their full length. The airplane was fitted with a heavy propeller strong enough not to break when flying through a flock of fowl. In three days of flying more than 500 ducks and geese were caught in this manner. From this number, the sportsmen selected 50 of the kind they wanted: mallards, pintails, teal, and Canada geese. Only the young birds were retained, and the remainder were liberated. The ducks cannot outfly, but can easily outmaneuver an airplane. In consequence, catching a desired bird in the nets called for acrobatic flying that has seldom been seen since the armistice was signed. It was nothing uncommon for the birdmen to dash into a flock of retreating wild fowl, and then do a barrel roll in an effort to scoop a few more birds into the nets.
Damage to rice steadily increased from 1920 to 1933. During the Dust Bowl years from 1933 to 1937, there was a noticeable decrease in damage due to the fact that the population of waterfowl during these years was at a dangerously low level. Herding by airplane was little needed.
Damage continued in an upward direction from 1937 until 1942. With so many men off to war and so few out hunting, ducks had the rice fields to themselves. At Oroville, surrounded by numerous rice fields, the U.S. pilots stationed nearby were asked by the local farmers to buzzed their fields when they could doing their training exercises. The farmers told them to fly low and loud. The “T-6 Texan” had a prop, if “put in low pitch,” mad such noise it scared away the birds, but after a while they got used to it so the pilots buzzed the field with the T-66 and once they came back the T-6 was augmented with P-39s. Labeled “Operation Duck,” this all came to an end when one of the pilots buzzing a rice field had a duck fly through the bullet-proof pane of glass in front of the gun sight. He was a mess when he landed, with blood, guts, and feathers all over him.
In 1942 and 1943, crop damage increased at a tremendous rate due to these reasons: ( 1) waterfowl populations were increasing very rapidly at this time; (2) because of World War II, there was a shortage of ammunition both for herding the birds and for sportsmen’s use and a sharp decrease in the numbers of hunters; (3) wet weather and labor shortages increased the time of harvesting and enabled the birds to damage more rice; (4) improperly prepared rice fields were more numerous during the war.
A survey made by the California Farm Bureau Federation in 1942 showed a loss of rice of 200,500 bags which was valued at over $607,000. In 1943, a more thorough survey was made by state and federal agencies which revealed a loss of 258,804 bags of rice, valued at $905,000. It was during the war and after that depredation again became a severe problem.
In 1943, there were about 100,000 acres of land in the Sacramento Valley that was not cultivated because they produced such a light crop, or the hazard of growing the crop was so great, that it did not pay farmers to take a chance for such a low return. The hazard in this case meant that the land was low and if the crop happened to get a rain before getting the crop harvested, they lost it. At the time, however, with the price of rice up to $1.60 or more per bushel, it paid to take a chance and cultivate that land. The result was that a great proportion of the land on which ducks could ordinarily feed without being hazed after being herded off of rice fields, was no longer available to them, and when they swarm into the rice fields, they did some damage to the crop and were subject to herding and harassment.
To make matters worse for the 1943 duck season, ducks came in early and because of the war there was no civilian ammunition. Growers became very anxious and at their request the AAA cooperated with them to see what could be done. Through the cooperation of the Army, ammunition was released for allocation by the AAA. Simulated pyrotechnic devices were also released. However, supplies of ammunition were too-small and came too late.
A study recommended that in order to maintain the Pacific coast flight of waterfowl it would be necessary to purchase and develop around 90,000 acres of submarginal land, such as that mentioned above, for duck-feeding areas in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. The submarginal land would be planted with plants that would reseed themselves and then just left for the waterfowl. That would provide feeding areas into which farmers could herd the ducks and so protect their own fields.
As early as 1944, “lure” (left undisturbed crops) were used in parts of California on federal refuges. One of the earliest NWRs in California to do so was the Colusa NWR, which continue even today to plant permanent lure crops as do other refuges. The problem with lure crops is that once it has all been eaten, waterfowl must find available nearby food and, in most cases, that was a nearby farmer’s rice field. However, the losses during 1944 were estimated to be less than 2,000 bags of rice, as compared to 305,000 bags in 1943, this attributed to the air horsemen and more planted acreages on the Sacramento refuge and leased feeding areas.
The Chico Daily Enterprise, August 14, 1944, printed:
Herding of ducks over the rice fields in Butte County will start tomorrow morning when the first of the fleet of planes to be used will take off from the Patrick airport on Oroville road, Garrison Patrick, owner, announced today. Eventually, as it is planned now, there will be four planes working out of this airport. There will be both a morning and evening patrol over about 20,000 acres of rice, Patrick said. The technique of herding ducks is somewhat similar to that of herding cattle and sheep. The planes fly at about 350 feet above the fields and drop specially prepared bombs which first whistle and then explode. This causes the ducks to take to the air. The planes then endeavor to round them up and “shoo” the ducks into two general directions–to the south and southwest. The planes try to herd them toward the Spaulding reserve and the duck clubs grounds. It is understood that wide-scale feeding of the ducks in the marshlands of the Suisun district is contemplated.
Also, during the duck season of 1944, the government, due to the lack of hunting ammunition, ducks had become even more plentiful than at any time in years—so much so that they had become a menace, especially the rice fields of California. As a result, Charles Ranstetter, of the Nevada-Pacific Airlines, was hired by the government to swoop over the rice fields, scare the ducks into the air and. by flying behind them at a slow speed, herd them into government reservations. The same principle was used as that of the shepherd dog namely, flying on one side or the other in order to steer the ducks in the opposite direction.
Despite the transition from war to peace in 1945, the year was an exceedingly tight year insofar as ammunition supplies were concerned. In order that some ammunition be made available to farmers, it was necessary that supplies of shotgun shells and .22 caliber bullets be allocated to the California Agricultural Adjustment Agency Committee for distribution to farmers, in areas where -needed. This ammunition was handled through the regular trade channel but release could be had only upon a certificate issued to a particular farmer by the County Agricultural Conservation Association. During the year approximately one and one-half million shotgun shells and 6 million .22 caliber cartridges were made available under this program to farmers. About 8,000 certificates were actually issued to farmers enabling them to purchase available ammunition. The ratio of certificates issued to actual applicants was about l to 3. In other words, a total of about 25,000 farmers desired ammunition. During most of the season, this ammunition was the only ammunition available. The. ammunition was so handled and so distributed that the flights of ducks were kept pretty well under control. The combination of the use of ammunition made available, plus airplane herding engaged in by farmers, plus the installation of public feeding grounds, resulted in relatively minor losses from ducks. Airplane herding in the rice areas during this time and earlier had become a standard practice on the part of just about all the rice growers. Ammunition was needed by the planes to move the ducks and keep them moving and also to keep them from circling back and alighting. This turned out to be a very effective programs. It was estimated that in 1945, ducks did $2,000,000 damage to rice crops.
When the war ended, herding by air increased as more and more land was planted with rice. In the fall of 1946, thousands of ducks and geese descended into the Klamath Basin. Straddling the Oregon-California border, the birds found little food on the refuge and quickly moved on to the nearby fields of barley and wheat. Farmers watched in anger as acres of grain disappeared from the ravaging waterfowl. The farmers called upon the USFWS to allow them to take action. Using military surplus equipment like smoke grenades, searchlights, and small airplanes, the USFWS herded the birds back into the refuges. They also issued permits that allowed local farmers and their laborers to scare them from the fields with shotguns and flares.
By 1951, the waterfowl population had grown to an estimated 125 to 150 million birds. That same year, Frank Gallison air seeded 20,000 acres of rice and herded rice-loving ducks twice daily out of his grain fields to grasslands and either of two state feeding plots at either end of the rice area in the San Joaquin Valley. One plane could protect 10,000 to 12,000 acres. Waterfowl in some cases could be herded to lure fields 15 miles away. Other techniques were employed other than air herding: scarecrows, rifle or shotgun squads, and pyrotechnic devices.
Owners of thousands of acres of rice lands, the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Company of Merced, California found early in May 1929 that flocks of migratory birds en route north had almost completely destroyed the earlier than usual spouted seeds on one section of their rice land. Facing a potential loss of $64,000, they decided to try airplane broadcast-seeding over the affected section. They enlisted the services of their local commercial airplane proprietors, Frank Gallison and Leland “Tiny” Tedrow, who was well versed in patrolling and herding ducks with airplanes. The two loaded 500 pounds of rice seeds into the front cockpit of a plane, constructed as a bin, and made 160 round trips over the field, which they seeded in three days. The cost to seed an acre by airplane was was $1.30, which was just twice what it cost by ordinary methods.
In 1951, the Dos Palos Firebaugh area, during September and October, when the harvest was in progress, the area suffered severe losses due to depredations of the large number of waterfowls which came into the area during that time. The farmers expended more than 30,000 rounds of shotgun ammunition, more than 12,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, something over 400 imitation hand grenades, and more than 14 cases of “star shells,” the last two items being obtained from surplus Army supplies. Three airplanes were employed, flying mornings and nights, with the cost of $6,000 going to the airplane herders.
During the season of 1952, Gallison, a Dos Palos farmer who pioneered the sowing of rice seeds by air in 1929 in Merced County in the San Joaquin Valley, estimated that California rice farmers lost more than $2,500,000 in rice to the starving birds migrating from the north in record numbers. For the season, he operated the Dos Palos Airplane Agricultural Service and reported that ducks had flocked into the Dos Palos Firebaugh area since early August in three or four times the numbers of previous years. Gallison and his assistant, Vernon Erlandson, were hired by farmers to fly eight hours daily in efforts to herd the flocks away from the 22,000 acres of almost mature rice in the area. The pilots dropped magnesium flares and smoke grenades to remove the birds out of the fields. While maneuvering their planes with one hand, they used the other hand to fire shotguns loaded with bird shot through open windows of their craft. Meanwhile, ground herders coordinated their actions with those of the planes. The ground herders swept the sky with searchlights and fire smoke grenades, flares and shotguns at night.
During the 1947 congressional hearings, Clarence Lea, representative in Congress from the state of California stated:
The duck population had increased immensely since 1934, when the population reached its minimum of an estimated 20,000,000 waterfowl. The estimate for 1944 was 140,000,000 waterfowl, where we formerly had only 20,000,000.
A particular phase of this question in California is in the rice production area. We had last year about 240,000 acres of rice which, has increased materially in the last 20 years. The ducks are particularly fond of rice and very destructive of rice.
Some years ago I went up into the Sacramento Valley where I saw a 30-acre field of rice. It was a fine crop. The adjoining field of a similar crop produced 38 sacks to the acre. In three nights, the ducks settled on this field and so devastated it that it was not harvested at all. They centralize in locations and move from one field to another. As a result there is great destruction.
In 1943, there was a destruction in the rice fields of California amounting to $1,000,000, representing over 300,000 bags of rice. That damage was done by the depredations of ducks.
The situation is intensified by the development of our State. From the beginning of the history of California there were three great centers of duck population, in the north and south and the central parts of California, the Imperial Valley in the south, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Delta and Sacramento Valley, and thousands and thousands of acres of marshlands where there was an abundance of feed and water. As time has gone on, agriculture has encroached on these lands. The marshes have to a considerable degree been eliminated. There has been a greater use of water for irrigation and agricultural purposes. So there is no longer the abundant water supply that once flooded those low areas. The result is that the original feeding grounds for ducks have greatly diminished. In the meantime, we have had a great increase in the production of cereals—rice, wheat, barley, and so forth. The ducks have naturally changed over to these improved forms for their feed supply. They have largely been turned away from their original habitat and have gone out over the rice and other grain fields of the State.
Part of the program preventing this destruction is for the farmer to drive them off his own land by the use of firearms to scare them away and in recent years by the use of the airplane.
After this great destruction in 1943, an experimental plan of establishing refuges was tried. Lands were rented, several thousand acres, and planted to rice and cereals; ponds were provided, and such areas were protected refuges where the ducks could go to feed in security. As they were driven off the ordinary farms, they soon learned to go and stay in these protected sections.
When growers hired men to intentionally “herd” migratory birds from commercial crops, a herding permit had to be obtained from the USFWS. Herding was very expensive for the farmer and was included in annual estimations of monetary figures of crop damage. Herding was done several ways: (1) By men on the ground that walked through the fields frightening the birds by shooting at them with rifles, shotguns; or by using “duck bombs” and flares. (2) Many farmers employed mounted riders who herded the birds out of the crop area in a similar fashion as do the men on foot. (3) The most effective method of herding, however, was done by airplanes. Waterfowl were deathly afraid of a low-flying plane and were rather easily driven out of a rice field or off any crop for that matter. When birds became stubborn and refused to fly from a field, commercial herders dropped bombs and flares on them. This caused them to lift off the field and the plane would get under them and take them to other areas. Many types of crops were protected by herding in this way. One plane could adequately protect 10,000 acres very easily. Thousands of dollars were spent annually for herding waterfowl from crops by these methods.
The herding of waterfowl on the ground and by airplanes and the use of frightening devices were effective in protecting crops in certain areas, but it only caused the birds to move on to crops that were not being protected by these methods. It soon became evident that a place must be provided for the birds to go for food and rest after they had been driven from commercial crops. State and federal waterfowl refuges that had been established in the early phase of the depredation problem did not reduce crop damage to any extent as they provided a place to rest but not an adequate place to eat, and the birds had to “go out to eat.”
Hand feeding of threshed barley and wheat was begun to hold the birds on the refuges for a longer period of time, which allowed farmers more time to harvest their crops. This method was not too satisfactory as most of the grain that was fed in this manner was grown considerable distances from the refuges and management areas. Most of the grain was grown in the Tule Lake region and shipped to all sections of California and to other western states for hand feeding. This feeding helped to reduce the damage caused by pintail, mallard, and teal, but widgeons and geese remained a problem.
To further alleviate the problem of depredation, parts of these bird sanctuaries were farmed in a manner similar to the surrounding areas. Crops such as rice, barley, alfalfa, watergrass, and other palatable duck foods were grown on state and federal refuges. Flooded at the time of depredation, they provided ideal feeding and resting places for millions of waterfowl. With areas such as these, it was much easier to frighten and herd the birds away from farmers’ crops.
By 1951, the control of waterfowl damage had been accomplished by the use of frightening devices of various types, systematic herding from the ground and by airplane, and the provision of management areas where food crops were grown and flooded at the time of damage, so as to supply adequate feeding and resting places for the birds as well as suitable hunting grounds for the public. It was concluded at that time that these feeding and resting areas would eventually solve the greatest part of the problem of waterfowl depredation in California. At the time of 1951, these areas were inadequate in both size and number.
In 1952, damage to rice was very light, but the California waterfowl problem was not by any means over. The state and federal refuge system was by no means complete enough to adequately handle normally good waterfowl populations. The season of 1952 also showed that emergency feeding programs, combined with some herding by various methods, did keep huge duck populations off commercial crops. The season also re-emphasized that the great Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges were the keystones of California’s waterfowl conservation program, for at the time when danger to crops was the greatest and emergency efforts were strained to keep ducks off the valley crops, Tule and Lower Klamath were holding populations of waterfowl ranging from one and one-half up to nearly four million birds. It doesn’t take must imagination to guess the results had those additional millions of birds been dumped into the valleys in August and September. In addition, the 11,000-acre USFWS’ Sacramento national refuge was not fully developed. which would cost at least $8,500,000 to complete the job. The USFWS, operating on a limited budget, had to go at the job piecemeal, and it would take several years to complete under that method. It was also apparent that another strategically placed refuge was needed in the upper Sacramento Valley.
In 1961, in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, more than 40,000 acres were maintained on five state and four federal properties as combined refuges and waterfowl management areas. Rice, barley, and other duck foods were planted on these refuges to attract and hold the birds until farmers’ rice and other crops were harvested. The Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife used ingenious devices to shoo the birds off of private lands. Pilots exploded 12-gauge shotgun shellcrackers from guns. Instead of pellets, these shell-crackers contained a king-sized firecracker that exploded at 100 yards. Often, slow-burning fuse-ropes festooned with firecrackers arranged to explode at 30-minute intervals were dispensed from airplanes. Skyrockets and Roman candles also were fired. As a result, the arrival of the autumn flights of birds from the north often was celebrated in the Sacramento Valley by a spectacular fireworks display—not for celebration or fun, but to chase ducks and geese away from valuable agricultural lands.
Thus was the life of ducks, sky horses, and sky horsemen. It is a marvelous story to read and realize how successfully this was done. The ducks were herded out of the rice fields by the sky horses and sky horsemens and right into one of the refuges. It all began as an experiment in 1919 with the duck patrol, but its success pointed the way to a solution of the problem—more refuges.