‘Quack Quack’: Meet Maryland’s Proposed State Waterfowl

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The state of Maryland has a host of symbols, ranging from iconic, such as the Baltimore oriole and the diamondback terrapin, to trivial, like the state’s official sport of jousting or milk as the state’s official beverage.

Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti, D-Harford, is proposing a bill that would add a new state symbol: the canvasback duck, also known as the “King of Ducks,” as the state waterfowl.

The duck would be the first state symbol added officially since 2008, when walking became the state’s official exercise and Smith Island Cake became the state’s official dessert.

“The canvasback has a very special history on the Chesapeake Bay,” Lisanti told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “It is native to the Chesapeake Bay, it has been recorded here since the time of Native Americans. In addition to it basically just living here, it represents the hunting culture of the area.”

Lisanti, whose office is littered with duck decoys, hails from Havre De Grace, Maryland, the home of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. The museum, according to Lisanti, was constructed “to illustrate the folk art that has survived in Havre de Grace and really all up and down the Eastern Shore of Maryland of creating these decoys.”

“The symbol of that culture is the canvasback,” she added.

Canvasback ducks have a longstanding history in the state of Maryland, according to Chris Sebastian, a public affairs coordinator for Ducks Unlimited.

Canvasback ducks, which use the Chesapeake Bay as a winter migration destination, have a “strong connection” to the bay, Sebastian said in an email.

“Historically, the bay supported more than half of the continental population of canvasbacks during winter. Groups of people will gather near Cambridge, Maryland, along the Choptank River to see large flocks of birds.”

Today, the largest threat to the birds is the “deterioration of water quality in North America,” Sebastian added.

The ducks’ preferred food, sub-aquatic vegetation, is becoming scarce in the Chesapeake and, as a result, they are beginning to shift their migration patterns further south into the lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley.

Diminishing water quality in the 1970s led to a significant drop in the number of canvasback ducks in the area, Lisanti said.

“They disappeared. We didn’t have a lot of them,” Lisanti said. “Now that the bay is turned around with a lot of our environmental regulations that have taken hold they’ve come back. (Canvasback ducks) are not only a symbol of our past but they are also a resilience symbol of the health of our bay.”

In 1955 and 1956, the bay held 54 percent of all the canvasbacks in the country, according to data from the annual midwinter survey conducted in January by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2014, the bay held just 26 percent of U.S. canvasbacks, while in 2015 the bay held 12 percent.

Data from year to year is not directly comparable because the count of the migratory birds is affected by a number of factors, including weather conditions.

According to Josh Homyack, a waterfowl project leader the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the midwinter survey has been conducted since the mid-1950s and is normally carried out by states on behalf of the federal government. Homyack said that the data should not be compared year to year but rather examined as five- to 10-year trends.

The traditional annual survey used for the species count of canvasbacks is normally taken in their northern breeding grounds, throughout the northern Plains, Canada and Alaska, during the summer.

Giving these ducks state symbol status would not affect conservation efforts, Lisanti added.

The next step for the bill, for which Lisanti hopes to garner bipartisan support, is a hearing before the House committee on Health and Government Operations. A hearing had not yet been scheduled as of Friday afternoon.

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