Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Living in Flyover Country

The “important” people who live on the east and west coasts of the USA like to refer to the rest of the country as “flyover country”, because the only time they see it is when they fly over it while traveling from one coast to the other. That's not the kind of flyover I'm going to write about.

One of the common tropes of prepping and survivalism is the concept of hunting for your food after a major disaster. Some people think that they will be able to “live off the land” like the settlers did a couple of hundred years ago, while other people point out that everyone and their cousin is going to be out there shooting at Bambi at the same time, potentially leading to the decimation of all wildlife within a few hours' drive of any city. While I personally wouldn't mind seeing fewer deer on the roads (they kill about 200 people every year), I'd hate to see them exterminated. There are also other sources of protein worth hunting, if you know where and when to look for them.

Living not far from the Missouri River, I get to witness the annual migrations (spring and fall) of large numbers of geese and ducks. Large numbers means that I can walk about three miles and find 600-800 thousand Canada and Snow geese in one area. Yes, over half a million geese at any given time stop here to rest for a few day on their travels between nesting areas in Canada and wintering areas in Mexico. This happens every year and lasts for about a month each spring and fall, and has been happening for longer than people have lived here. Short of a nuclear war or asteroid strike, no disaster is going to disrupt the migratory patterns of waterfowl; it's literally hard-wired into their brains.

Here's a picture to give you an idea of what a field near any source of water around here looks like right now.

I drove past several fields like this today. Twice a year, for about a month each, nature brings the game to us. In the fall it provides a good way to stock up for the winter months, and in spring it provides a much-needed change of taste from eating stored food. 

You don't have to be a hunter to get a meal out of something like that. I've seen idiots ticketed and fined for walking into a field at night armed with nothing more than a golf club, looking for a way to fill their freezers without jumping through the legal hoops (or they're prohibited from owning firearms). I have friends who do hunt legally with shotguns and decoys that can fill a pickup bed with birds in a day; if you get enough hunters together, the daily limits stack up. 30 years ago we had a rare spring tornado (or microburst) hit a migrating flock in central Nebraska in March. Driving down the Interstate was bizarre, seeing dead Snow geese scattered along the shoulders and in the ditches for miles. 

Other than waterfowl, there are dozens of other species of birds that migrate every spring and fall. Who hasn't looked for the first robin as a sure sign that spring has arrived? The Swallows of Capistrano are a West Coast phenomenon, but every region has something similar, even if it's just blackbirds or sparrows. Smaller birds in smaller numbers may mean you'll have to modify your hunting strategy, but food is food. Ducks and geese typically require fairly large shot to kill reliably: No. 2 through BB-sized back when we could use lead shot, and BBB or T sizes when using steel or other non-toxic shot. Smaller birds can and should be taken with smaller shot, all the way down to No. 7 ½ or No. 8 for any bird smaller than your fist.

I live on the edge of what is called the Central Flyway, which covers about half of the continental US and is used mostly by snow and Canada geese. A few hours west of here, the sandhill cranes make the news every year as they pass through. While it's illegal to hunt sandhills in the US (endangered species), Mexico has no such restriction and I understand that they are quite tasty. The variety of ducks has decreased in my lifetime, but we still see mallards, canvasback, wood ducks, teal, and ringtails come through in moderate numbers. Some of these birds stick around to form resident flocks over the summer, but most keep going further north. 

Modern farming techniques have reduced the amount of “wasted” ground that a lot of the migrating birds relied upon, but we're starting to see some of the marginal and poor-producing ground go back to grass and native species. The various government programs called Cropland Reduction Programs (CRP), and the slim profit margins of growing corn and beans around here, have restored some of the ground that migrating species need for foraging. Ducks Unlimited and a few other conservation groups are improving and recreating wetlands to make the flyways better for the birds, so keep an eye open for possible minor changes in migration patterns.

The Mississippi Flyway is the other major route for birds headed north every spring in “flyover” country, and from my experience is used by more ducks than geese. It starts on the other side of the state and I don't travel that way very often any more. The Atlantic and Pacific Flyways have their own populations of waterfowl, but I have not spent enough time in either region to get to know them. Perhaps some of our readers can fill in the gaps in my knowledge and help educate us all?

Get to know your area and the resources it offers. I know a lot of my friends shake their heads when they hear about the weather I live with up here -- below zero in the winter and over 100° F in the summer -- but there are so many other things around here that it all evens out. I'll take the snow, because that means that I have very few venomous snakes to deal with. I'll live through the heat, because that means that we can grow a wide variety of crops up here. I'm content where I am because I know the region and what it has to offer, but I realize that other people have other priorities and desires so they may be happier elsewhere.

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