Local Ducks Unlimited chapter helping fight for area's waterfowl

John Block, chairman of the Huntington Hills chapter of Ducks Unlimited, stands with the 1999 and 2000 Top Flight Awards the chapter received from the national DU organization in recognition of the chapter’s fund-raising and involvement efforts.
John Block, chairman of the Huntington Hills chapter of Ducks Unlimited, stands with the 1999 and 2000 Top Flight Awards the chapter received from the national DU organization in recognition of the chapter’s fund-raising and involvement efforts. Photo by Matt Murphy.

This spring, take a minute to watch the skies over Huntington County, as thousands of migratory birds pass through to return north for the summer.

Many of these birds, especially ducks and geese, will stop to rest in the area only to continue flying the next day. The rest will make their summer home in the county, to the delight of bird-watchers and hunters alike.

But as development continues in the county and Northeast Indiana, where will these birds rest and live, and who will ensure their survival in the coming years?

The answer: Ducks Unlimited.

Founded in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has established itself as a premier non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and managing waterfowl habitat, and has had an active presence in Huntington County for the last 25 years.

"Our goal is to provide habitat for these creatures and give them a place to live," says John Block, chairman of the local Huntington Hills chapter of Ducks Unlimited.

DU has a significant presence in northeast Indiana, notably Huntington and Whitley counties, as the entire region lies on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Flyway, a sort of "bird highway" that is one of four major migratory routes in the United States.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, birds that fly over northeast Indiana typically originate anywhere from Ontario, Quebec, Michigan and Ohio, as well as Indiana. Those birds then move southwest to reach the Mississippi River, where all parts of the Mississippi Flyway converge, and move into Mexico and the Caribbean.

Northeast Indiana provides a unique stopover point for those migratory birds, and also is a perfect habitat for some species of waterfowl that nest and reside in the region during the summer, says Dave Neal, regional director for DU in northern Indiana.

Neal says that Northeast Indiana is similar to the "prairie pothole" region, which covers swaths of land stretching from Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada southeast to Iowa and Nebraska. This region, like northeast Indiana, is full of "rolling hills and shallow wetlands," which are prime habitat for waterfowl.
Therefore, conserving waterfowl habitat in this region, including Huntington County, is essential for the survival of ducks and other migratory birds, both Neal and Block note.

"We have problems with population growth and urban sprawl," Neal says. "The [waterfowl] population is in decline, and our goal is to salvage that population and make it healthy."

Neal says that hunters and bird enthusiasts alike want DU to help the birds, as both groups will benefit from increased populations.

"Waterfowl don't look at county lines, so we have do conservation work on a large scale," Neal says.

Ducks Unlimited works to purchase and preserve land to provide habitat for ducks and other birds, and also manages land through field officers.

DU works with federal and state agencies to manage and preserve waterfowl habitat, and also works to help states achieve the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which was signed in 1986 by the Secretary of the Interior of the United States and the Canadian Minister of the Environment (Mexico joined the plan in 1994).

Often, DU will purchase land from private owners, restore it to optimal waterfowl habitat and then donate the land to a government or similar agency that will ensure the tracts are protected forever, Block says.
Sometimes, a landowner does not want to give up ownership of his or her land, but is willing to work with DU to keep that land from being developed.

"Ducks Unlimited does not take possession of the land." Block says, citing DU's role as a financial catalyst as well as aiding in land management. "We usually work with smaller blocks of land. It's usually something you could pass on a county road without even noticing it."

Tracts of land managed by DU typically range from three to 12 acres, and could involve public or private property. Locally, public lands are usually open for hunting and wildlife viewing, while private land is open for those purposes with permission, Block says.

As far as Huntington County goes, Block says that at least 684 acres of prime waterfowl habitat in the county have been preserved over the past 17 years, and the local DU chapter has raised over $162,000 to help the cause.

The fundraising efforts of the Huntington Hills chapter have previously received national attention. The local chapter has received the "Top Flight Award" from the national DU organization several times in recognition of the chapter's fund-raising efforts and its commitment to DU. Huntington Hills has received the awards in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2007.

"Ducks Unlimited is targeting a lot of their resources for our area," Block says.

And, the benefactors of Ducks Unlimited's work are not bound to birds.

"The work we do benefits deer, turkey and other animals," Neal says. "People also benefit from cleaner drinking water. Wetlands are the first natural filtration system."

But in order to continue their efforts, DU needs financial support. Several large corporations and local businesses contribute to Ducks Unlimited, but a large portion of DU's funding comes from private donations.

The Huntington Hills chapter is holding its annual banquet on Saturday, Jan. 30, at 5 p.m. at the Huntington P.A.L. Club on Riverside Drive. Games and cocktails will be provided at 5 p.m., dinner will be served at 7 p.m. and a live auction will be at 8 p.m.

The public is invited to attend.

Auctioned items include, but are not limited to, firearms, wildlife prints, collector decoys and shotguns, hunting packages, bird sculptures and dinnerware. Additional items will also be raffled.

Tickets and information are available from Block by calling 519-3357, or by e-mail at beagleman3@sbcglobal.net.

Typically, between 100 to 200 people attend, and every person who attends the banquet is considered a member of the Huntington Hills DU chapter.

All proceeds from the event will go to the national DU organization, which redistributes funds across the country. Eighty-six percent of all money DU receives goes directly to conservation and management of wetlands. Twelve percent goes to fundraising and development, and 2 percent of proceeds end up in administration.

Supporters who cannot attend the banquet may also donate directly through the Huntington Hills chapter by contacting Block or by visiting the Ducks Unlimited Web site at www.ducks.org.

"[DU] tries to be as efficient as possible to give as much as we can," Block says.