January 30, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead
When late Texas sporting artist John P. Cowan was alive, the former Rockport resident painted numerous Gulf Coast scenes filled with decoying pintails, timeless images that contained a lot of shallow water, a weathered duck blind sitting in inches of H2O, and plenty of decoying pintails.
That’s understandable since the heyday of Cowan’s career in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s featured an era rich with bull sprigs cautiously circling decoy spreads over the marshes and flats of the rich and voluminous Texas Gulf Coast region stretching from the Sabine River to the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Curiously enough, with Cowan’s work also showcasing mallards, snow geese, bobwhite quail, and redfish, all species found throughout the 3,359 miles of coastline that the state offers, few, if any, detailed one of Texas’ other iconic waterfowl species, the redhead duck.
Seeing Red in the Lone Star State
That’s a bit of a curiosity since these days, as much as 80-percent of North America’s continental population of redheads (Aythya americana) spends the winter in the coastal waters of southern Texas and northeastern Mexico according to Joshua Rapp, a science writer for The Wildlife Society. Arriving in Texas early every autumn and departing the state by mid-March at the latest, any duck hunting trip to the storied region—especially in the Lower Laguna Madre estuary lying south of Corpus Christi and north of South Padre Island—will feature redheads, redheads, and more redheads today.
In fact, one could say that the coastal flats of southern Texas and nearby northeastern Mexico are Redhead Central, something confirmed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest report for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, a survey issued late last summer.
That report noted that in Texas, there were 44,119 redheads taken by hunters in 2019-20 and some 69,233 redheads taken during the COVID-19 pandemic influenced season of 2020-21. That’s impressive given the fact that the USFWS says that there were only 188,793 redheads taken in the United States in 2019-20 and 234,304 in 2020-21, respectively.
Obviously, redheads are a big deal in southern Texas, even if their harvested numbers fall well below the 2.8 million mallards killed nationwide in the two seasons mentioned above, as well as a long way below the 1 million plus gadwalls and green-winged teal that fell to hunter’s shotguns both times during that two-year window. And that’s not to even mention the 1.1 million blue-winged teal and cinnamon teal that were fetched by retrievers in 2020-21 and the 1.1 million wood ducks that found their way to the dinner table during that same season.
While redheads aren’t as plentiful, as say, the mallards that winter in pin oak flats and rice fields across eastern Arkansas, on reservoirs and stock tanks of Oklahoma and North Texas, in hardwood bottomland habitat across East Texas, or even on the shallow playa lake depressions of the Texas Panhandle, that’s not to say they aren’t significant players in the Central Flyway and elsewhere. Thanks to flocks that can number in the tens of thousands riding the wind whipped waters of the Laguna Madre each winter, they are an important species to many hunters, have found their way to the Federal Duck stamp on occasion, and are a sight to behold over a decoy spread, or serve as a delectable treat on the dinner table.
But there are ill winds that can blow for the species. While the Laguna Madre flats happen to be filled with acre after acre of shallow water, the idea that H2O is in endless supply for the redheads that winter there at the bottom end of the Central Flyway is a bit more complex than it appears at first glance. Because as voluminous as the saltwater flats are in Texas, redheads wintering there also need plenty of freshwater too.
The reason for that, as Rapp noted in his news release, is that redheads typically forage in these ultra-salty waters, feasting on the rich underwater shoal grass meadows in the Laguna Madre region south of Corpus. But as they ingest this grass—which makes them solid table fare, much like the celery eating canvasbacks were during the hey-day of market hunting—such a dietary component means that redheads ingest a lot of saltwater. Too much, in fact, since this drives up the salt concentration in their blood streams, forcing the handsome diving ducks to fly inland in search of freshwater.
In Short Supply
The problem, as any fan of John Cowan’s great artistic work is likely familiar with, is that freshwater is in short supply across much of the region, even in a so-called wet year. If you’ve ever seen a well-known Cowan watercolor painting like the deer hunter’s favored Windmill Whitetails or a hot dove hunting scene like The Waterhole, then you’re familiar with the trickles of water—mudholes, even—that dot the region and draw in thirsty whitetails and doves. And as it turns out, redheads too.
For what it’s worth, the redheads don’t really mind water so scarce that it might hardly drown a rattlesnake, as long as they can find someplace to land and drink. And that’s good news according to Bart Ballard, a professor at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, not far from the Baffin Bay flats where plenty of South Texas redheads spend the winter.
“They typically come in to drink right after sunrise,” said Ballard. “They hit the water and feverishly drink for several minutes.” But the liquid gold in the arid region of southern Texas and northeastern Tamaulipas, Mexico, is scarce in good years, being confined to cattle stock tanks and small ponds, both natural and manmade. And in a drought-fueled year like 2022—as of this writing, a fiercely hot and dry summer was unfolding in Texas, joining the infamous years of 1980 and 2011 as the worst heatwave/drought years in the state’s modern history—such spots are as rare as can be.
That’s not good news, either for the electric bills of Texans sweating in the shade or for waterfowl surging down the flyways. And with an outbreak of avian influenza taking place in many places this past spring and summer—in mid-July, problems had reportedly surfaced in important breeding spots like Alaska, leading biologists to worry about the impact of bird flu on juvenile geese population numbers—leading to fears that drought conditions will affect this year’s breeding success, as well as impacting hunting success this fall and potentially concentrating migrating waterfowl more and more this year, something that waterfowl managers don’t want to see as bird flu continues to loom.
For Cowan, the artist who was born in 1920 and died in 2008, water was always an easy fix as he painted ducks sweeping into decoy spreads in coastal watercolors like Pintail Alley, Sneakin’ In, and Coming Home. A scarce commodity on parts of the Texas landscape, a few streaks of blue and gray color dabbed on canvas went a long way for Cowan in a career that saw his work help generate around $2 million dollars for conservation causes, as well as being named the Texas State Artist of the Year in 1978-79 and the Ducks Unlimited International Artist of the Year nod in 1977.
Seeking a Solution
But obviously, a framed painting is one thing and the voluminous turf in Texas is another. And with that in mind, what’s the solution to a problem that can’t be cast away with a few simple brushstrokes? Simple—the same thing that fueled much of Cowan’s life mission, the idea of conserving scarce resources and preserving our wildlife species for another generation. And while Ballard may not have a secondary career in mind of painting images for art galleries or Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl fundraising dinners, he is certainly a champion of the idea of conserving water in a place that doesn’t have much to begin with anyway. In fact, Rapp notes that the work of Ballard and his colleagues in recent months has been centered around that idea as the biologists take a closer look at the winter ecology of redheads in the region.
With aerial surveys showing available freshwater sources near the coastline, as well as which ones will dry up in a drought year, Ballard and his colleagues have published their findings in the Journal of Wildlife Management. After analyzing the data, they hope to help wildlife managers supply additional water for redheads, especially in dry fall and winter seasons like the ones that may be coming to Texas in 2022.
That’s a tall order to some degree when you consider that Ballard and his partners have reportedly identified 3,624 hectares of foraging habitat in the Laguna Madre area that have no coastal ponds within a 10-kilometer radius of the estuary’s shoreline. That means limited freshwater resources for redheads, even during a good year, thanks to a number that comprises some 21-percent of all foraging habitat there.
But if landowners will work with biologists like Ballard and others, the result could be the creation of more artificial ponds and stock tanks, along with the drilling of water wells, to help supply redheads with more freshwater as well as lessening the stress on the shoal grass beds lying a short flight away. If the big rafts of redhead ducks could be spread out more thanks to better habitat in the Laguna Madre region, the end result could be better wintering prospects and redheads that fly up north for the spring breeding season in better overall shape, not to mention happier duck hunters who might eventually put a few more of these divers into their daily bag limits.
And the good news according to Ballard, is that landowners aren’t faced with building sizable water bodies that can support a duck boat and outboard engine churning across acres of big water. In fact, even in arid South Texas, it doesn’t take much to make things better.
“They aren’t picky as long as it’s a decent sized trough close to the coast,” said the biologist. A trough of water straight out of a John Cowan painting, in fact. And something tells me that the late sporting artist—a man who championed conservation and helped spur the creation of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (now the Coastal Conservation Association)— would be all smiles at that idea.
The idea that with a little imagination and elbow grease, something beautiful can be created, helping conserve one of the iconic wildlife species that annually call Cowan’s adopted state their own home, at least for a few months out of each year.
Perhaps, if Cowan were alive today, he might be inspired to paint another watercolor scene, a work straight from the Laguna Madre and one possibly dubbed Redhead Alley.
Now that’s a wildlife painting that would draw some serious attention and even a few George Washingtons at a Texas waterfowl conservation banquet this fall, don’t you think?