Parallel to the 19th century near extinction of immense herds of bison on the sea of grass called “The Great Plains”, a similar wanton destruction of waterfowl and sea birds was playing out on our bays. Mind you, no one intended to nearly wipe out any of aviary species as they had with the buffalo. The buffalo herds were systematically destroyed by design. Politicians and Generals in Washington felt that cutting off the major source
of food, clothing and shelter of the “Hostile’ tribes such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow and others, they could be “Pacified’’ and their territories taken for minerals, steer and sheep ranching.
Market gunning on our bays along the East Coast was far more innocent but had deadlier results. From 1800, the growing cities of the East and the popularity of wild game as a food source increased dramatically. Immense flocks of wood duck, teal, black duck, Canadian geese, brant, merganser and other shore birds flew in flocks so large they could block out the sun. These coastal birds became a source of revenue for fisherman and farmers that worked our bays from Maine to Long Island, from Barnegat to the Chesapeake and on down to Florida.
From the lowly tables of roadside taverns and inns to sumptuous meals on 5th Ave. The fowl and birds harvested by “Market Gunners” were served up along with seemingly unending supplies of succulent oysters, clams, scallops, lobsters and finfish. These market gunners were a hardy breed. They learned the patterns and seasons of flight over the Great Atlantic Flyway that seasonally funneled these birds down from the Arctic regions and up from tropical areas of Florida and beyond. These men were multi tasked. Most were also engaged in farming, fishing, harvesting eel grass and boat building. They built gunning shacks in the bays (some still exist) so they could stay on the bays longer when the birds were in season and crafted low profile skiffs camouflaged with reeds.
Learned early from the local Indians, families passed down the art of carving decoys which were deployed in the bays and coves to lure flocks in. The Veritys, Ketchams, Combs, Seamans and others became famous as master decoy carvers. Antique decoys, where you can find them, command high prices and are extremely collectible. There are still decoy carvers out working today and it is considered an art. One of them is George Combs who has his shop on the grounds of the Hallack Farmstead Museum on Rt.25 in Riverhead. Here George carves, exhibits and sells his beautiful decoys, most of which are for artistic display.
Through the early to mid 19th century, the main object of market gunning was to provide food. This began to stress the size of the flocks that returned every year. Unfortunately, another trend had an even greater impact on shore birds, even those that were not as popular for food consumption. Various species of long necked Egrets and Herons, desired for their long striking plumage, began to be pursued with abandon. From 1840 to 1903 the value of certain plumes and feathers had risen to a preposterous $32 per ounce. That equals $800 in today’s currency for just one ounce!!
As the country became more prosperous, women’s fashions began to include game feathers as an ornament on hats and other garments-It became the rage of the day!
The fewer birds that showed up every season, the more the market gunners sought other ways to increase their kill ratio, even as the numbers of birds on the Atlantic Flyway decreased to an unsustainable rate. As hunting for fowl became a bigger portion of the baymans income, more efficient ways to take more birds faster were tried. Large almost invisible nets were strung up in areas to catch the smaller shore birds. A giant cannon like shot gun called a ‘’Punt Gun” was used successfully to take down larger quantities. They were so cumbersome and heavy hunters began to strategically mount them on skiff boats and position them so they could shoot down entire flocks. At times hunters teamed up with these gun mounted boats so that they could approach quietly from several directions and be even more lethal.
Market gunners had none of the science we have today to suspect early on that they were contributing to the eventual collapse of the bird stocks and the extinction of at least five species of birds and fowl. Even the buffalo hunters could not make such that claim. Today you can still see herds of bison built over the last 150 years because enough survived to be able to recover some of their former range but you will never see a Labrador duck or a Heath hen. They are gone forever. Hunted to utter extinction.
When the situation finally became obvious to the market gunners and others interested in the health of the bays and the bird populations that action had to be taken the U.S. Government passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 with Canada. State environmental programs also put strict controls and seasons on water fowl hunting and eliminated the hunting all birds that were in the slightest jeopardy. Today most shore birds including herons, egrets, sandpipers, plovers, and oyster catchers are fully protected by both state and federal laws.
When we put the story of market gunning into historical perspective it serves as a warning. Today the “Market Gunner’’ has been replaced by another type of serious exploitation. It is the rape of our oceans worldwide. If history teaches us anything it is that we cannot continue to exploit and exploit without giving anything back. Today birdlife on our bays has largely rebounded. It took 100 years. But what do we do about the immense hauls of fish of all types that will eventually turn the seas into deserts? Major studies show that at the current rate of fin fishing most of the biomass of fin fish will totally collapse by 2030.
The writing is on the wall. The lesson is in the devastating effects market gunning. You cannot take and take. You have to step back. We must all advocate for this and perhaps the successful rebuilding of the flocks of birds will become a model to restore our oceans.
Think about it! Do something about it! Call your Congressional Representative NOW!
C. 2017 Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved
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