Shortly after the program was launched in the 1930’s, Aldo Leopold (the father of wildlife management) wrote,
It is certain that the Delta setup is rich in possibilities for work on important problems not yet visualized by other organizations.
Not surprisingly, Leopold’s words proved prophetic.
In the Beginning...
James Ford Bell, the founder of General Mills (think Cheerios), was unhappy with declining waterfowling conditions at his local hunting grounds in Minnesota and started to look around for better sport. In the end, the large fall flights of canvasbacks at Manitoba’s Delta Marsh attracted Bell. By the 1920’s Bell had purchased 5,000 acres of the Delta Marsh.
Bell, his family and guests became regular visitors to the area, somewhat to the annoyance of local hunters who worried about sportsmen from the United States further depleting a declining population of waterfowl stressed by drought conditions. However, Bell took great pride in being an ethical hunter and conservationist and did not take these criticisms lightly. He decided to demonstrate his commitment to waterfowl and in 1929 built a hatchery with the intention of releasing two ducks for every bird he and his guests shot.
Bell’s philosophy is reflected in this quote from Flyways – Pioneering Waterfowl Management in North America:
When I first went to Delta there were no limits except those that were self-imposed. Despite this freedom, we did set limits, both as to amount and to the number of shells to be used in getting that limit.
Still, it troubled me to think that we were destroying without making some effort at replenishment. It occurred to me that it would be possible by artificial means to put back into the air as many or more birds as were killed.
Between 1932 and 1937 Bell was well on his way to fulfilling his objective with the release of 9,798 hand-reared birds that included mallards, pintails, shovelers, blue-wing teal, redheads, canvasbacks and lesser scaup, to the wild.
But this wasn’t enough for Bell. He and his estate keeper/hatchery manager, Edward Ward, came to realize,
...we must go much deeper into the matter to have an understanding of the various phases of their lives.
Bell decided that no one was better qualified to head up a waterfowl research program at the Delta Marsh than the renowned naturalist Aldo Leopold. But when he approached Leopold he was turned down.
Leopold was under the impression that all Bell was interested in was the artificial production of canvasbacks. Leopold felt too little was known about canvasbacks in the wild to commit funding and manpower to such a project.
But Bell was not a man to readily accept rejection and he continued to pursue scientists to help secure his vision. He convinced Dr. Miles D. Pirnie from Michigan State University to visit Delta. Pirnie was so amazed by the facilities and the opportunities for waterfowl research he managed to convince Leopold to give Bell another chance.
This second meeting between the two men in April of 1938 was more productive than the first. Leopold discovered that Bell was more interested in offering his plant and his property for any research useful to waterfowl conservation rather than just raising ducks.
After the meeting Leopold made a presentation in support of Bell’s plan to the technical committee of the American Wildlife Institute. He was successful. The Committee agreed to provide $1,000 in support of a graduate student to work at Delta.
Enter Al Hochbaum
H. Albert Hochbaum, a graduate student of Leopold’s from the University of Wisconsin, was appointed to spend June through November at Delta Marsh conducting research at facilities provided by James Ford Bell. Peter Ward, Edward Ward’s son, became his research assistant.
According to an excerpt from Sporting Classics, Hochbaum exclaimed on his arrival at Delta
...this is the place I have always dreamed of!
With the arrival of Hochbaum, the Delta Research Station and Program were born. After completing a project on canvasbacks, Hochbaum became Scientific Director at Delta, a position he held until 1970. You can read about Al Hochbaums work on canvasbacks in his book The Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh.
When Hochbaum retired in 1970 he was replaced by Dr. Bob Jones. Only a few years later Peter Ward took over as station director. Assisted by Dr. Bruce Batt and numerous other notable scientists, Peter Ward continued to provide Delta with scientific wisdom and guidance.
During the 1980s a team of scientists supported by Delta launched what was to be one of the largest and most in-depth study of wetland ecology ever conducted - The Marsh Ecology Research project (MERP). This project alone contributed 93 scientific publications and 16 graduate theses and dissertations. This project is summarized in the book Prairie Wetland Ecology, The Contribution of the Marsh Ecology Research Program.
Currently the program is as strong as ever with over 20 graduate students working across North America every year. The latest accomplishments of Delta-funded students includes insights into the effectiveness of predator management via intensive trapping as a tool to produce ducks, the effectiveness of botulism clean-up on survival of molting birds, and the nesting ecology of pintails in the heavily farmed prairies of Canada. Equally ground-breaking studies in the past were investigation into mechanisms of spacing by breeding ducks, philopatry (homing to breeding areas), techniques for sexing and aging waterfowl, and the importance of small ponds and potholes for breeding ducks.
A Who’s Who in Waterfowl Management
But Delta produces more than research. Delta’s alumnus includes some of the biggest names in the waterfowl world. Delta students can be found scattered throughout key positions in universities, government agencies and private waterfowl organizations.
Current examples include Dr. Frank Rohwer, Associate Professor at Louisiana State University and Delta’s Scientific Director; Dr. Rick Kaminski, Professor at Mississippi State University; Mr. Dale Caswell, Chief, Waterfowl Management Division of Environment Canada; Dr. Robert Blohm, Acting Chief, Office of Research Coordination United States Fish and Wildlife Service; Dr. Jane Austin, Research Wildlife Biologist at Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center; Dr. Bruce Batt, Chief Biologist of Ducks Unlimited; Dr. Mike Anderson, Chief Scientist for Ducks Unlimited- Canada; Norman Seymour, professor of wildlife science at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia; and Mr. David Wielicki, Executive Director of the South Carolina Waterfowl Association.
From yesterday to today
Since 1938 over 340 students representing 75 colleges have written more than750 research papers on waterfowl under Delta’s support and guidance. Delta’s Research Program has grown from supporting students working only at the Delta Marsh to supporting crucial waterfowl research across the continent.
Each year Delta-funded students travel to conferences across North America to share their work with academics and waterfowl managers. At the Second North American Duck Symposium in 2000, Delta-funded students captured the top presentation awards. Delta-funded students also regularly present their work at conferences such as the Annual Conference of the Wildlife Society, the Stated Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the North American Sea Duck Conference.
And We’re Still Going Strong
Looking at the history of the student program it’s easy to see that the legacy started by James F. Bell, Aldo Leopold and H. Albert Hochbaum has only grown stronger with time. Between 1938 and 1959 about 43 students had passed through Delta. Now it is not unusual to have 20 or more students conducting research every year.
Delta continues to offer scholarships and awards for students who are the future teachers, managers and researchers who will affect waterfowl populations into the years to come.
Hugh Boyd, director of the Migratory Bird Branch of Canadian Wildlife Service, said in the late 1970s,
At the age of 40 the Research Station promises to have a future brighter than its distinguished past—and who of us can claim as much? As a center for sustained excitement about research on waterfowl and wetlands and as an independent source of advice and wisdom, it has no equals in North America.