This story is excerpted from A Wing and a Prayer, by Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal. Copyright 2023 by Simon & Schuster. The excerpts draw on portions of the introduction and then describe the evolution of Ducks Unlimited, one of the most successful conservation efforts in the country. 

Birds are the most visible branch of wildlife, found in every corner of the globe and all too easy to take for granted. We certainly did during our first decade as birders, content to see them as gifts of nature here for our delight. 

But a series of advances in the science and technology of bird research recently led to a startling discovery. In the past 50 years, nearly a third of the bird population in North America has withered away, up against the loss of habitat, shifting climate, and growing hazards of an urban world.

That translates to 3 billion birds of all sizes and shapes, in losses stretching from coast to coast, from the Arctic to Antarctica, through forests and grasslands, ranches and farms. As one veteran biologist, John Doresky with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Georgia, told us, “We’re in the emergency room now.”

Today’s birds face a mix of peril and opportunity. The population losses have raised alarms and added urgency—even desperation—to the search for solutions. Scientists hope the stunning loss of billions of breeding birds in North America in the past five decades will be enough to ignite public and political support that’s never been easy to build.

The nonprofits, research centers, government agencies, and bird groups that have a history of mistrust and competition are recognizing the need to put away their differences and cooperate. “This is a crisis. We’re truly running out of time. There can be no tolerance for not working together,” says Nadine Lamberski, the chief conservation officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, a leading research center.

A flock of snow geese. (Anders Gyllenhaal)

Birds provide a list of services that benefit people. They are among the environment’s workhorses, pollinating all manner of plant life and acting as nature’s farmers in spreading seeds and fertilizing the land. Birds consume an estimated 400 to 500 million tons of bugs a year—a mind-boggling sum when you consider that typical insects weigh just a milligram or two. They help keep water clean, refresh coral reefs, and maintain the population balances of rodents, worms, and snails.

Now they play a new role: As the temperatures and sea levels are rising, birds are real-time barometers of environmental stability—the modern canaries in the coal mine. 

While the phenomenon of climate change may be far from home and out of view for parts of the country, the plight of birds is a visceral and concrete reminder of the crisis unfolding right in front of us. In that sense, the birds are talking to us—sending out a plea for help. 

The Success of Ducks Unlimited

The atmosphere in the Kerr Scott Building is part cocktail party, part carnival, which is fitting in this cavernous auditorium located at the North Carolina state fairgrounds. The master of ceremonies has his microphone turned way up and is encouraging everyone to check out the raffles, auctions, exhibits, and open bar. Old friends from around the state are shaking hands, slapping backs, and catching up on each other since last year’s gathering. 

The occasion is Ducks Unlimited’s annual statewide banquet in North Carolina’s capital, drawing 400 people, from lifelong hunters to first-timers recruited by the college chapters. “I think we do about 2,500 of these across the country every year,” Will Johnson, the tall, easygoing development director for the Carolinas, shouts over the noise. “But we have north of 4,000 total events when you include the shoots, golf tournaments, and stand-alone raffles.”

Ducks Unlimited banquets and tournaments are fund-raising forces—bringing in $50 million a year from dinners like this. But tonight’s crowd, which will contribute a record $187,000, isn’t here solely to raise money. They’re carrying on a tradition that blends networking, partying, and hunting that started in 1937 after the Dust Bowl nearly wiped out ducks and geese in North America. 

Since then, DU—as everyone calls it—has grown into the most successful grassroots conservation campaign on the continent, one that is passed along like an inheritance from one generation to the next. “You learn this from your father and his father before him,” explains Bennett Whitehouse, an insurance broker in his early 30s from Raleigh. 

He’s cradling a 6-week-old Labrador puppy, one of the evening’s raffle prizes he’s showing around, as if he wouldn’t mind taking the dog home himself. “Three generations of Whitehouses all go hunting together, which is really cool.”

Hunters Lead the Way

Conservationists trying to build public support for saving birds could do no better than follow the model Ducks Unlimited has created over the past 86 years. The nonprofit has 700,000 members in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, helping corral federal and private funds and establishing political clout unrivaled among environmental conservation groups. 

The hunting lobby has made the most of that influence, pushing through funding legislation and safeguarding the 10 percent tax on rifles, ammunition, archery equipment, and handguns. Since its passage in 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act’s taxes have raised $14 billion for the conservation of waterfowl and other game animals. That money has mostly paid for land purchases and research. 

Beverly and Anders Gyllenhaal on the job. (Photo by Pete Cross)

Each place-setting at the DU banquet in Raleigh includes a map highlighting the land that Ducks Unlimited has protected for waterfowl. It adds up to 15 million acres in the lower 48 states along with just short of 1 billion acres under some form of protection in the boreal forest in the upper-reaching breeding grounds of Alaska and Canada. Waterfowl are the most watched bird group in the country, partly because they’re everywhere and can be found in plain view almost any place there’s freshwater—man-made ponds, lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

The duck strategies have created one of the few bright spots in the Three Billion Bird report, which reported that since the 1970s, North America has lost nearly 30 percent of its bird population. Game bird populations rose 56 percent—by far the largest increase—during the same time period many species have deteriorated.

“I don’t ever miss the opportunity to point out the game bird conservation that hunters have paid for has led to a remarkable recovery in the face of massive changes in society and development,” says Adam Putnam, the former U.S. congressman and Florida agriculture secretary who’s chief executive of Ducks Unlimited. “It’s a proven model.”

Ducks Unlimited draws admiration as well as jealousy from its fellow bird groups, including some who question why so much money and wildlife oversight goes to game birds in lieu of more troubled species. A better question is why haven’t the other bird groups copied a version of what hunters have done—and is it too late to start? Several in the crowd at this banquet, concerned about the threats to all birds, say conservation groups are foolishly failing to put the Ducks Unlimited lessons to work. 

“This is a crisis. We’re truly running out of time. There can be no tolerance for not working together.”

Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

“The Audubon folks, the Nature Conservancy folks, particularly the birdwatching folks, they have a real problem with us killing ducks,” says Brian Madison, an accountant from Winston-Salem, who’s the DU volunteer state chairman for North Carolina for the year. “We’re not the primary killer of the species. We’re saving them. We need to bridge that gap and bring us all together so that we’re on one mission.”

For Ducks Unlimited, that mission started almost a century ago, three hours to the east of these fairgrounds, where North Carolina meets Virginia in the brackish waters of Currituck Sound. That’s where Joseph Palmer Knapp, a magazine publisher and philanthropist from Brooklyn, first came up with the formula of modern duck conservation on a small island that’s a haven for mallards, northern pintails, black ducks, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, canvasbacks, and blue-winged teals.

The Spiritual Home of Ducks Unlimited

Richard Williams started guiding hunters as a teenager six decades ago and has never stopped. He’s spent his life watching the ebb and flow of waterfowl from his home on Knotts Island, this small, marshy spit of land that’s like a hand reaching down from Virginia into the middle of Currituck Sound. Its geology created a rare ecosystem and some of the world’s best duck hunting, nature’s gift to a poor community with no roads and few job prospects. 

The original Currituck Inlet connecting the sound to the Atlantic Ocean closed up in a storm in 1828, filling the bay with mostly freshwater and its shallow bottom with tall reeds and cordgrass. “Ducks and geese followed in numbers that stagger the imagination,” wrote longtime North Carolina environmental author Frank Tursi.

Forty-three hunting lodges sprung up along the sound, two of which were run by Richard Williams’s family. By the early to mid-1900s hunters swarmed the region, among them some of the country’s wealthiest industrialists drawn to hunting and whose largess would be instrumental in building the sport. 

A wood duck. (Anders Gyllenhaal)

They included the head of U.S. Steel, the founder of Eastman Kodak, members of the Dupont family, and Joseph Knapp, who sunk the deepest roots of all into Knotts Island. Presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower as well as Prime Minister Winston Churchill were among the world leaders who came here to hunt and fish. 

The wealth of waterfowl made the sound a perfect place not just for hunting but also for studying ducks. So when the game populations began to disappear following the drought of the 1930s and into the 1940s, Knapp decided to figure out what could be done.

Williams was just a boy in the last years that Joe Knapp had the three-story, 37-room mansion he used as a retreat to hunt and entertain friends from New York. In those days the island was reachable only by boat, and Knapp’s impact was easy to feel even for a child. 

He created a school for islanders and gave every child shirts and either dungarees or a skirt as well as bags of candy and fruit at Christmas. Williams’s great-uncle was Knapp’s chauffeur and boat captain for years, and his great-aunt was Knapp’s cook. But only after growing up did Williams realize the businessman’s full influence.

Richard Williams. (Anders Gyllenhaal)

Knapp ran the New York publishing house that included Collier’s weekly and the Sunday newspaper supplement This Week. He chaired the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which his father helped start, and he invented a new generation of printing presses. 

But the work that mattered most on Knotts Island, and to duck and geese regions around the continent, was Knapp’s role in the discovery of a methodical way to rebuild the duck population. He proved it was possible to study the birds, count them from airplanes, and understand what they needed in order to multiply. 

He secured habitat in their breeding grounds and along migration routes. He supported a duck research training center and created an organization called More Game Birds in America Foundation, which eventually became Ducks Unlimited. DU was formally launched in upstate New York. But as one writer put it, its spiritual home was Knapp’s Knotts Island.

“My Lord. He was the backbone of the community,” says Williams, now in his mid-70s. “He made a big difference around here.” We first met Williams one October morning when he was easing his sedan slowly along the sandy roads in Knotts Island’s Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. 

Now preserved as part of the nation’s wildlife refuge system, the marshes look much as they did in Knapp’s day. Cattails sit atop stalks like hot dog buns swaying in the wind. Clumps of needlegrass and thick green reeds of giant cordgrass line the waterways. It’s just a short walk from where Knapp’s estate stood before it was leveled to create the bulk of the refuge. Williams patrols these back roads every day watching the ducks, songbirds, geese, and swans that stop over from one migration to the next.

Williams’s years here reflect the growth and impact of ducks and DU on one of the nation’s premier hunting grounds. He grew up between the two hunting lodges, each one started in the 1920s by a different set of grandparents. As a teenager during the academic year Williams spent several hours a day in a school bus—loaded onto a ferryboat—because that was the most direct way to reach the Joseph P. Knapp High School on the mainland. 

“We’re not the primary killer of the species. We’re saving them. We need to bridge that gap and bring us all together.”

Brian Madison, volunteer state chairman for Ducks Unlimited in North Carolina

He’d already started guiding by then, occasionally producing a doctor’s note to skip school in peak season. He watched as hunters from around the country came for the three- and four-day stays of early-morning hunts and country-style dinners. 

Though populations rebounded in the 1940s and 1950s, waterfowl remained susceptible to both extreme weather and the impacts of rapid development. The postwar boom gradually consumed about half of the wetlands across the country and by 1980, ducks, geese, as well as other wildlife were in jeopardy once again. 

In response, Ducks Unlimited helped put together the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, followed by congressional passage of the North American Wetlands Protection Act that provided funding for land preservation and conservation efforts. These expanded partnerships to protect ducks generated an estimated $6 billion in government spending and matching state and private dollars, and eventually added 30 million more acres of wetlands under protection. 

In Eastern North Carolina, that has translated into vast stretches of game lands, including nine National Wildlife Refuges scattered along the coast that have kept Currituck Sound and other inland waters healthy hunting destinations. The preserves are more important than ever now that marshes along the sound are slipping away at a rate of 70 acres per year due to development and sea level rise.

Hunters Funding Conservation

Ducks Unlimited executive Adam Putnam said that what stands out about hunters is a willingness to pay their own way. “Hunters and anglers are frankly the primary funders of conservation in the United States,” he says. “It’s really an untold story. I think a lot of that is because, candidly, it’s Ducks Unlimited, and it’s considered a hunting organization, and I don’t think people are going to give total credit for conservation achievement of that scale to a bunch of duck hunters.”

A blue winged teal. (Anders Gyllenhaal)

Whether or not DU gets full credit, its peer groups recognize the hunters’ impact and are openly envious of the revenues that taxes and hunting licenses provide for ducks. 

“Ninety percent of the money goes to 5 percent of the species,” says Pete Marra, the Georgetown University scientist who helped put together the Three Billion Bird report. “And so one of our battles is how do we change that ratio and get 90 percent of the money to go to 90 percent of the species.” In a later conversation, Marra said he’s not suggesting that fees paid by hunters should be shifted to other birds. But he said the system built up over decades hasn’t adjusted to the reality that while ducks prosper, 57 percent of other North American bird species are in decline.

Such an entrenched system isn’t likely to pivot, especially since most conservationists historically have been hunters, going back to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, known for his love of hunting and creation of parks and preserves. The 567 National Wildlife Refuges built across the country continue to prioritize hunters and their quarry. 

Will Johnson, the development officer with Ducks Unlimited, wonders why birders—who’ve never been as united or activist-oriented as hunters—don’t recognize the simple concept of paying a price for your hobbies. 

He runs through all the potentially taxable items needed for watching birds: binoculars, scopes, tripods, travel expenses, and guides, not to mention feeders and an estimated $4 billion in birdseed sold in the United States each year. “None of that is ultimately going back to the source. It would be great if there was that same kind of commitment to the cause that hunters have.”

Birding enthusiasts tried at one point to increase dedicated funding for nongame species. In the mid-1990s, 30 conservation groups came together to lobby for a 5 percent tax on a cross section of birding products, nicknamed the “binocular tax.” The proposal came close to passage, but it was eventually blocked by lobbyists for the outdoor industry. 

Conservation groups then sought a way to share in the use of the Duck Stamp, the document behind hunting licenses that raises conservation funds for states. The stamp’s illustrations are chosen from paintings by noted wildlife artists in an annual contest. Not only are the $25 hunting licenses a gift to conservation, but the stamps typically become collectibles.

Paul Schmidt, one of the top U.S. Fish and Wildlife leaders at the time, thought that alternating each year between illustrations of ducks and nongame birds would broaden the appeal and produce even more conservation dollars if the stamp appealed to a wider audience. 

A bald eagle. (Anders Gyllenhaal)

Not only was the proposal rebuffed, but the Fish and Wildlife Service staffers who run the contest went a step further. They passed a rule that future Duck Stamp images must include a gun or other hunting emblem. The directive didn’t last long. Artists complained that putting shotguns or archery bows in such small renderings was awkward and unattractive. One entry included spent shotgun shells, which on the stamp looked like litter. But the message was clear: Hunters didn’t want extraneous birds infringing on their turf.

The tension between hunters and birders seems to overlook how often their goals overlap. Ashley Dayer, a professor at Virginia Tech who works with nonprofits including Ducks Unlimited to widen support for conservation, says hunting and birding groups would clearly benefit from teaming up. “I think they’re perfect partners,” says Dayer. “They should be working together.”

When a cross section of representatives from game and fishing organizations, bird groups, and business interests did come together in a push for better wildlife funding, it proved to be the most successful bid of its kind in years. A blue-ribbon panel, led by former Wyoming Governor David Freudenthal and John Morris, who founded Bass Pro Shops, assembled a pointedly bipartisan group in 2014 to study how to correct the shortages and imbalances in wildlife funding. 

The panel’s recommendations turned into congressional legislation called the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act, which passed the House in June 2022 but remained stalled in the Senate in early 2023. The proposal would provide $1.3 billion annually for wildlife funding mostly through state agencies.

It’s the first attempt in years to deliver new money for birds and other wildlife especially aimed at troubled species of all kinds. Supporters still hope the legislation may advance and demonstrate the power of combining forces for birds. “I think this is a noble effort,” Freudenthal tells us. “I do think this begins to reflect the notion that the traditional divide between sportsmen and the others is going to have to be bridged.”

Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal were journalists at The News & Observer, The Miami Herald, and other publications. They live in Raleigh.