The ducks came up from the basement: An opening wave of mallards, numbering 4,744, followed by battalions of black ducks, mergansers, pintails, shovelers, ringnecks, and canvasbacks, with a rear guard of more than 6,000 Canada geese completing the flight. It would take most of a week for the mixed flock of 22,963 birds to conclude the last leg of a long migration, which had begun with autumn, stretched into winter, and ended here on a damp January morning at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife research center in Laurel, Maryland.
It might be more accurate to say that these were metaphorical ducks and geese, with one part standing for the whole creature, because by the time they appeared at the Maryland research station, all that remained of each teal or scaup was one frozen wing, segregated by species and stored in a basement freezer to await the 2006-07 Atlantic Flyway Wing Bee.
Norman Saake pulled a mallard wing out of a cardboard box, fanned it so that the bird’s steely blue speculum feathers flashed in the light, and broke into a smile. “You wonder how, after 30 years of doing this, a guy can get so excited about a pretty wing,” Saake said, holding it up for the admiration of three or four others scrutinizing wings at his table. They cooed like grandparents looking at baby pictures. Saake, a biologist retired from the Nevada Department of Wildlife, had crossed the continent for yet another wing bee, one of several such events crucial to the health of the nation’s waterfowl population.