by Bill Cooper
Watching masses of snow geese cyclone down into a crop field is one of the most amazing spectacles in nature. From a distance, the mix of birds leapfrogging across a harvested crop field resemble giant colonies of Army ants moving over the landscape.
Splashes of dark blue and brilliant white roll over the landscape, gleaning waste grain and stubble. Thousands of geese can clean a field with the effects of a vacuum cleaner within a few hours.
There are two color phases of the snow goose, the traditional white goose and the blue goose. At one time scientists classified the blue snow goose as an individual species. Now, however, they are regarded as a dark color morph of snow geese, simply a color variation.
“Regardless of what a person calls them, a blue snow goose stands out in the crowd,” said James Driskill, owner of Dirty Rice Outfitters in southeast Missouri. “There is no mistaking a blue goose. They are very distinctive with their white head and blue-gray body,” said James, known as JD. “As the birds age, they often develop a solid white head and the body seems to grow darker. We fondly call these old birds eagle heads.”
Blues are, indeed, a very handsome bird. Hunters who have pursued snow geese any length of time generally want to have a blue goose mounted. They add a distinct splash to any trophy room.
“Snow geese don’t separate themselves by color,” JD explained. “It is common to see snows and blues flying side by side. While I see about one blue goose per hundred white snow geese, sometimes blues do fly in groups by themselves.”
The dark phase of the morph snow goose is controlled by a single gene. The dark color is slightly dominant over white. Mating of a pure dark goose with a white goose produces an all dark goose, sometimes with a white belly. If two white geese mate, they produce white geese. If two dark geese mate, they will have mostly dark offspring, with a few white ones showing up.
The Central Arctic population of snows has grown by 25 times since 1973. According to the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory, the dramatic population increases may be in part due to global warming. The geese are depleting their own habitat by grubbing vigorously for food during the early breeding season. Females forage up to 18 hours a day once they arrive at their annual breeding grounds. Food passes through the snow goose’s digestive tract in only an hour or two, generating six to 15 droppings per hour.
The massive amount of droppings produced by an enormous flock of snow geese, coupled with the extensive damage they can cause to a winter wheat field, or other forage, has earned them the disdain of many farmers along their migration routes.
Changing agricultural practices along the migration routes of snow geese has also contributed to their population explosion.
“More and more grain crops are being grown in the midwest and south, providing superb food resources for the birds,” said Driskill.
“Rice farming has increased dramatically in the last 20 years in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. We see hundreds of thousands of snow and blue geese pouring into the harvested fields on both the southern migration and the return northern migration. We actually see large concentrations of birds flying back and forth from Arkansas as temperatures rise and fall.”
Federal wildlife officials instituted a “Conservation Order” on snow geese in the 1990s to reduce the populations by half. During the order, hunters my use unplugged guns, electronic callers and also enjoy extended shooting hours and no limits.
Despite the relaxed regulations, hunters have not made a dent in the populations, according to Driskill.
“We have been hunting snows and blues hard for years, as have thousands of other hunters. Despite our best efforts we can’t kill enough of them to make much of a difference. Snows are exceptionally smart waterfowl. They live a long time and quickly learn how to avoid hunters. Most of the birds we kill every year are juvenile birds.”
When the Conservation Order first came on the scene, many hunters thought they would harvest the wary birds by the pick-up truck load. While records indicate that several guys hunting in a party have killed over 300 birds in a day, that is rare. Most parties will take a couple of dozen birds at best.
“Snows and blues are very wary birds,” Driskill said. “It takes a lot of hard work to consistently kill these birds. We often put out over a thousand decoys. It takes a lot of dekes just to get their attention. You have to play the wind and make the sets look as realistic as possible. And, you have to be flexible and change your set if the wind changes even the slightest bit.”
Driskill knows what he is doing, and his success rates serve as an indicator. He and his experienced guides turn out 100-bird days often.
Concealment is a top priority as well. Driskill runs his hunting clients in both pit blinds and layout blinds, often referred to as coffin blinds. Pit blinds are set in the small levees running through rice fields. Although they are a few inches higher than the surrounding terrain, Driskill keeps them well hidden with rice stubble.
Coffin blinds are set in dry field situations.
“We work continuously to keep these blinds covered, even though they are made out of camo material. We actually rub a little mud on them to reduce the shine and stuff lots of rice stubble into the loops to make them blend into the ground perfectly. If geese flare, we add more stubble.”
Driskill runs a highly successful guide service out of Gobler, Missouri. Too, he produces his on line of duck and goose calls, which have earned their spot on the shelves of some of the major sporting good distributors.
Driskill may be contacted at [email protected] or (573) 757-6699. If you want to harvest your first blue or snow goose, join the growing number of hunters depending on Dirty Rice Outfitters and DRO Calls.
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at [email protected].