By William Flood
Nov. 10-12 brought the nation’s premiere waterfowling-themed event back to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Now in its 52nd year, the three-day event, timed to the opening of goose hunting season, attracts 18,000-20,000 sporting enthusiasts. annually.
In many rural areas waterfowl hunting is a fall ritual. When geese and ducks start appearing overhead, it’s time for donning camouflage, wrangling the hunting dog, and pulling out the decoys. That’s the way it has been on the mainly agricultural Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) peninsula since it was settled 400 years ago. The opening of the famed Chesapeake Bay bridges in 1953 and 1972 brought a rise in tourism and development that began to alter the Eastern Shore’s way of life. Sensing those changes, a handful of intrepid hunters launched the Waterfowl Festival, Inc. to celebrate and help preserve the region’s bird hunting heritage. What started as a modest event in 1971 now fills the town, drawing not just waterfowl hunters but anglers, hunting dog owners, decoy carvers and wildlife art aficionados.
Maryland’s festival may be acclaimed, but it’s not unique. A dozen others take place across the country, particularly clustered around the Great Lakes. Among them are Michigan’s Saginaw Bay Waterfowl Festival held each August and the Pointe Mouillee Waterfowl Festival near Detroit held in September. Cleveland, Ohio, has two shows on the same March weekend: the Vintage Decoys & Wildlife Art Show and the Decoy Collectors and Carvers Show. In Wisconsin, it’s the Oshkosh Waterfowl Hunters Expo held in August.
These events cater to hunting and fishing enthusiasts through a variety of activities. Maryland’s had field dog training, adult and youth wildfowl calling competitions, fly fishing workshops, and raptor demonstrations. A crowd favorite was the DockDogs(™) dock jumping and diving competitions, showcasing multiple breeds. Throughout, retailers offered everything from hunting accessories and hunting dog gear to outdoor apparel and services like taxidermy. Maryland’s event also hosted over 100 of the nation’s best wildlife artists and decoy carvers, 50 vendors of waterfowling-related antiques like vintage shotguns and antique decoys, and a popup museum displaying century-old birding decoys and other artifacts on loan from museums and personal collections.
The turnout in Maryand and at similar events is testimony to the continued popularity of migratory game hunting, despite loss of habitat and declining bird populations. Hunting of all types remains popular in the U.S. and interest is rising. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in 2023 there were over 15.9 million licensed hunters, up 3.6 percent from last year. Numbers in the Midwest are impressive. Nearly 1.3 million hunting licenses were issued in 2023 just across Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. According to Conservation Force, hunting represents “an economic impact of more than $86.9 billion a year to the U.S. economy.”
It’s no secret that farmers and landowners comprise a large group of hunting enthusiasts and a represent huge markets for everything from shotguns to hunting dog training. According to AgWeb, more than 46 percent of farmers say they like to hunt 10 or more days each year. Yet, waterfowling events are not just about outfitting – they also encourage stewardship and championing the land. From its inception, Maryland’s festival organizers supported a dual mission: to share the Eastern Shore’s sporting heritage and help preserve it. To that end, they’ve donated over $6 million for wildlife and conservation efforts, including toward this year’s project of restoring 40 acres of wetlands at a Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Maryland.
Farmers are positioned to play a big stewardship role. Bill Cooper, podcaster for Midwest Outdoors, noted, “The vast majority of land in the U.S. is privately owned and holds the best habitat for [game] birds.” A research study for AgWeb indicated that nearly 87 percent of farmers believe it’s important to develop wildlife habitats to improve hunting opportunities.
Even if they don’t personally hunt, farmers recognize habitat loss puts pressure on wildlife populations and unchecked wildlife can inflict plenty of crop damage. Hunting personally, or allowing it on their land, is good wildlife management. Festivals usually include conservation entities like Ducks Unlimited to help educate landowners about approaches like converting unproductive cropland into habitat for migratory birds and other small game.
The approaches work. Consider Bob Spiering, a farmer near Maryland’s Choptank River who’s made small changes like adding upland meadow and allowing marginal cropland to revert to wetlands. Spiering is seeing bobwhite quail on his property, a species whose population, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, has “dropped more than 90 percent over the past 50 years.”
If they choose, farmers can shift some of their land from cultivation to hunting and fishing and reap benefits. Programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pay farmers to leave some of their land as wildlife habitat. Other landowners capitalize on field sports by renting land to hunters. Some enterprising ones start full-fledged hunting lodges on their property. A June AgriTalk webinar shed insight onto such efforts – it examined 350 landowners across 37 states who’ve collectively added more than $1 million in revenue by hosting outdoor recreation. Host Chip Flory noted, “These opportunities are available to landowners across the country.”
While popular sporting events like Maryland’s Wildfowl Festival are certainly enjoyable venues to celebrate hunting traditions, they can produce multiple benefits. They are a positive force in wildlife management and conservation, and the resulting engagement in migratory game hunting can potentially mean boosted farm income.