Pity the plight of the poor bird plucker.
Here it is, the middle of winter, when ducks and geese should be moving regularly from water to cornfields in search of food, giving shooters a sky full of targets and keeping the people who pick the feathers plenty busy.
But the temperature has been so mild, the birds aren't hungry or cold and they aren't going anywhere. One day last week, when temperatures flirted with the 50-degree mark, the pickers along with the hunters were grousing.
"I tell you one thing," said Charlie Babes, 58, sometime waterman and sometime bird picker, "the weather's too good for the geese and stuff. They sit right on the water, won't even go to the blind. There's a big farm back here. I don't think they killed more than three geese all year."
Explained Norman Haddaway, a frustrated hunting guide, "There are thousands and thousands of birds, but they're just staying in large bunches in a few places. We've done fair on ducks, but most people are going after geese. You need weather before you can kill 'em."
Hunters converge from all over the world on Maryland's Eastern Shore to lie in wooden blinds in the middle of cornfields and await sunrise when, they hope, the birds will come to feed.
Said Jesse Jump, a hunting guide who works for Haddaway, "You need nasty weather. The best hunting is when it's unbearable in the blind. Our main problem is a lot of geese this year stayed north in New Jersey and Delaware. Ain't had no [bad] weather to drive 'em down, and the geese down here are sitting in bunches."
Hunting season for geese runs from Oct. 25 to Jan. 31. There are five duck seasons, ranging from a week for canvasbacks to almost four months for sea ducks. Legal shooting hours are from 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset. And waiting in the wings are the pickers.
They generally get $1.50 a duck and $3 a goose and, in turn, sell the feathers and down to out-of-state buyers for $5 to $10 a pound.
They work by machine, a revolving cylinder with rubber fingers that can clean a bird in a matter of seconds, or by hand, slower to be sure but, some say, better. "I bought a machine, and I don't even use it," said Babes. "You can't get all those fine feathers off."
In Chesapeake Bay country, there are contests for oyster shucking, crab picking, muskrat skinning and goose calling. But bird pickers -- whose job requires just as much skill and dexterity -- aren't similarly prized.
Not even the Waterfowl Festival, held near here in the Talbot County seat of Easton each November, celebrates the plucker. But certainly, plucking a bird is as much an art as carving a decoy or painting a picture of one.
Easton has a handful of pluckers, all mechanized but no less skilled. In a former grocery store, sisters Susan Maxwell, 26, and Ann Engle, 29, who is also the county animal control officer, use a band saw, plucking machine and stainless eviscerating table to cut and clean the birds.
Maxwell had seven ducks to dress the other day, while her 5-month-old daughter, Kathryn, nursed on a bottle in a nearby carriage. First, she did the required paperwork, recording the name and address of the hunter and the species of each bird. Then, she went to work.
She cut off the wings with the band saw. She proceeded to the two-horsepower picking machine. The feathers were sucked through a tube into a canvas bag behind the contraption.
She singed the bird with a propane torch to remove the last feathers, clipped its feet and scooped out the organs over the metal table, which had a hole in the middle for waste.
"There are a lot of men who come in here and can't quite stomach watching," she said of the hunters. "A lot have to leave."
Maxwell placed the plucked bird in a water-filled sink to soak and then hung it on a hook to dry. It then is usually frozen until the hunter picks it up. "This duck probably cost the hunter about a thousand dollars," she said, taking into account air fare, hotel and food bills and $400 for two days of the hunting guide's time.
"Some of these guys get skunked," she said. "It's kind of depressing when you come here and you don't kill anything."
Maxwell's husband, Dickie, tends bar in St. Michaels at the Carpenter Street Saloon. Middays in season, the small bar is occupied by men in camouflage suits and caps who engage in fowl talk.
"You can't kill what don't fly," said Haddaway, a Carpenter Street regular who recalled better times. "This time last year, it was froze up. We were killing [many]. Now they're feeding by night 'cause the moon is full. They're just not flying" by day.
Haddaway had taken two New Yorkers out that morning, and they had bagged only two ducks. He took the birds to the home of handpickers Betty Jump, 55, and her son Dave, 27, who is also a waterman and Jesse's younger brother.
"If you got the good fingers, the power is in your hands," said Betty Jump, with 15 years of experience. "You can roll 'em right off."
One day last week, after chopping off the wings with a hatchet, Dave picked a bird clean in 52 seconds.
"I like being out here alone," Dave said. "Usually, I like being in the shop picking away, singeing away, gutting away -- excuse my French. I just most like being out here by myself, thinking about everything."
He's a picker, not a hunter. "Right before Christmas, a friend of mine brought 17 ducks in, one alive," he said. "Me, I don't like to kill animals and stuff like that." But he did what he had to anyway.
There are three other households here with pickers. On Talbot Street, the main road, Weldon Holland, 65, operates St. Michaels only taxi, and he dresses birds. But the pickings have been slim lately, his wife said.
"We haven't been doing any picking," she said. Actually, her husband hadn't. "I'm from Washington. I don't know how to do it," she said. "I knew how to pick a chicken a long time ago, but nothing like this."
On an unpaved back road at the edge of town, Charlie Babes described this as "the worst season we've ever had. The best season was six years ago," he said. "The first day I took in about 300 geese. This year, I took in 80 the first day. I haven't had any today. And I didn't have any yesterday."
But the bad news for pickers has its good side, too. Mused Babes, standing next to his wood pile, "I don't know if I want it to get colder" so more birds will get shot. "If it gets worse, I burn all my wood up then."