US Fish & Wildlife Service


Date of this Version

June 1947


Conservation in Action, NUMBER TWO


The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is New England's most important contribution to the national effort to save the waterfowl of North America. Many million Americans have a direct stake in the success of this effort: the 2,000,00o waterfowl hunters, the millions who find recreation and esthetic pleasure in observing and photographing the birds, and all those, whom there is no way of counting, who understand the value of preserving wildlife as part of America's natural heritage.

During the several generations in which the United States has been converted from a land preeminently wild and unsettled into an industrial and agricultural country, the waterfowl have been driven from most of the areas where they once lived. During the same span of years, we have seen the rise and decline of market gunning and the steady and continuing rise of hunting for sport.

In this period there have been at least three major declines in the waterfowl population. From the first two, which reached their respective low points in 1915 and in the 1930's-- there was a partial recovery. The third great decline began in 1944. The downward sweep of such a cyclic decline-perhaps this, or the next, or the next-may reduce the flocks of waterfowl to so low a point that there can be no recovery.

To save the wild fowl, one of the most important things we can do is to reserve for their use areas which provide them with the marshes and ponds, the natural foods and the sanctuary that they need in order to live in the midst of our civilization. Two hundred national waterfowl refuges scattered over the United States now provide these things. Whatever else waterfowl conservation demands, this is essential.

PARKER RIVER lies some 30 miles north of Boston in the coastal marshes of Essex County, Mass. The refuge was established late in 1942, but its active development to bring out its maximum usefulness had to be delayed until near the end of the war because of manpower and materials shortages. However, in this brief time, its use by waterfowl has increased sharply. In the spring of 1944, about 2,000 waterfowl used the refuge. Two years later, the spring count was nearly 15,000. Regular patrons of the refuge include 19 species of ducks, of which the great majority are black ducks, and I species of goose, the Canada. Greater snow and blue geese are reported casually. About 70 birds of other species make regular use of the refuge and many others occur as transients.

The Essex County marshes are within the Atlantic flyway, which is one of four great geographic divisions into which the North American continent may be divided according to the ways of waterfowl. The term "flyway" as ornithologists use it today includes the breeding and wintering grounds and most of the migratory paths that connect them. Birds have a hereditary attachment for one particular flyway and as a rule never transfer from one to another.

A striking fact about the Atlantic flyway-a fact which dominates the conservation problem -is the extremely limited area of its winter range compared with the vast extent of its breeding grounds. The nesting area extends from Greenland across much of northern Canada; the wintering grounds are confined to a narrow strip of coastal marshes along the east coast of the United States. A map of the flyway looks like a huge, distorted funnel with a long slender stem. Imagine that for one-half of the year all the contents of the funnel have to be contained within the stem and you can understand the compression of birds within their winter range. This fact makes wildlife refuges especially important on the Atlantic flyway.

Parker River is the only Federal refuge operated principally for waterfowl on the northern part of the Atlantic flyway. It lies in the path of a great many of the ducks and geese that fly south in the fall from the eastern Canadian Provinces and from northern New England. Some of these birds follow a route roughly corresponding to the outlines of the seacoast; others fly overland from inland breeding grounds and make their first contact with the coast in the vicinity of Parker River.