We are strolling with Jerry Harris on his 230-acre farm, Mallard Haven, when a group of ducks suddenly takes off from their marsh hiding spot. Harris, a committed conservationist and hunter, has created the perfect marshland habitat for migrating waterfowl for just this moment.
“Watching the birds come in, how they treat the marsh, how they fly around it, how they call—that whole symphony is quite intriguing to me,” Harris said. “I never tire of that.”
Harris, now 75, fell in love with waterfowl as a young boy when he started hunting, but has long seen the value of conservation over sport. On his farm, you shoot only what you can eat, and not one more. Those values were instilled in him from his first days hunting with his grandfather, Burr Love, at a family hunting cabin in the San Francisco Bay area.
”The first year when I was 11 or so, they felt I was too young to hunt, and so I got to pick the ducks. The second year, I got to wash the dishes, do the cooking, and pick the ducks, and the third year, I got to finally hunt.”
Over the years, Harris hunted with two other men who influenced his values about hunting and conservation: Louis Rapp, an old-time duck hunter and friend of his great uncle, and Ray Lewis, who taught him about the soil management technique Harris uses on his farm today.
“Over a period of 30 to 40 years, I hunted and gained extensive knowledge from all three of these people,” Harris said. “I was extraordinarily lucky to be able to partner with them over my lifetime.”
Living in New York in the early 1970s, Harris would visit Maryland’s eastern shore to hunt geese, and he recognized the area’s bountiful appeal to waterfowl. And to him. Harris, his wife, Bobbi, and their three retrievers, Maddie, Rusty, and Bo, now spend their winters on their eastern shore farmland before flying west to spend summers in Montana.
Even before he retired, Harris decided to devote much of his time to wetland conservation. He has been a member of Ducks Unlimited ever since he started a new Ducks Unlimited chapter as a student at University of California, Berkeley, and he has reached out to a variety of organizations, including Delta Waterfowl, Waterfowl Chesapeake, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, and of course, Ducks Unlimited to determine how to best use the funds from the family foundation he and Bobbi set up. Wanting to preserve vital marshlands and “to give back some,” Bobbi and Jerry created a family foundation that dedicates most of its funding to wetland conservation, with a smaller portion going to secondary education.
We’re trying to demonstrate how collectively we can all make this a better place and preserve some of the rich heritage the Eastern Shore—Maryland, Delaware, Virginia—has had from a waterfowl standpoint.
All the lessons Harris absorbed from his hunting friends and experiences have turned him into a teacher for new generations of conservation managers. He thinks of Mallard Haven as a demonstration farm to teach others how they can use their properties to attract more waterfowl and how his moist soil management system attracts waterfowl and feeds their nutritional needs.
The farm is a natural maze of dirt paths, cornfields, wetlands, and a long trench that serves as freshwater storage. Depending on the time of year, it might look like another grain farm in the countryside, but when he wants to beckon ducks, Harris and his farm manager, Sam LaCompte, will flood pockets of his farmland, or impoundments as he calls them. At the end of the season slowly draining the water encourages the growth of smart weeds that provide a diverse, appetizing food source to migrating waterfowl.
“We’re trying to demonstrate how collectively we can all make this a better place and preserve some of the rich heritage the Eastern Shore—Maryland, Delaware, Virginia—has had from a waterfowl standpoint,” he said.
Harris is also helping facilitate a course that shows wildlife managers and leaders how hunting can balance with conservation. He was impressed with a course on the West Coast that UC Davis conducted with Ducks Unlimited and a local waterfowl conservation group, so this past winter, Harris and Dr. Chris Williams, wildlife ecology professor at the University of Delaware, developed and ran a similar course for the East Coast on Jerry’s Dorchester farms.
The first class, which included 10 students, recently ended and Harris considers it a success.
“None had experienced waterfowl hunting or shooting and over that three-day period, they went from 0 to 60 miles per hour. We’ve just seen their review of the program, and it was very exciting to read their comments and how it had changed their perception to the role hunting plays in wildlife conservation,” Harris said. “And that’s our goal—to make sure the future managers and leaders understand the role that hunting plays.”
Harris hopes to keep offering the course, serving as long as he can as a mentor to others, much as he was guided throughout his life.
This year, Horn Point Laboratory will honor Jerry Harris with its 2018 Chesapeake Champion award for his vision and leadership in marshland restoration and conservation. “We could not find a more fitting partner in our efforts to ensure our marshlands are preserved for wildlife habitat and coastal sustainability,” said Mike Roman, Director of Horn Point Laboratory. We are delighted to honor our good friend and devoted educator, Jerry Harris.”
The Chesapeake Champion celebration will be held Friday, April 27th, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Waterfowl Armory, Easton. Tickets are $50, sponsorships are available, and can be purchased online or by contacting Carin Starr at 410-221-8408.
Proceeds from this year’s event will be used to launch a new Marsh Ecology and Restoration Laboratory at Horn Point Laboratory. The new Lab will conduct vital research into the role marshes play in: providing critical habitat for waterfowl, birds, plants and animals; providing green infrastructure to mitigate erosion and flooding; and, filtering pollutants to improve water quality.