In some Tuesday editions, incorrect directions were given to the Maryland wildlife areas for Canada Goose. The correct directions are: Rt. 4 east, then Rte. 301 south. After a few miles turn left (east) on Rte. 382 (Croom Road). The turnoff to Jug Bay is left on Croom Airport Road. The Merkle tract is about two miles farther on 382. Follow signs at St. Thomas Church Road.
In 1963 Ed Merkle had a war on his hands. Canada geese were vying with a prize-winning herd of Black Angus cattle for the food on his 400-acre farm in Prince George's County.
"The geese were eating up all the grazing land for the cattle," Merkle said. "One or the other had to go, so we sold our entire herd of 80 cattle in preference to giving up the geese."
By then the Merkle geese had established a firm foothold in the farmland that borders the ageless Patuxent River. Ask just about anyone who knows about the comings and goings of waterfowl how Canadas came to winter here and he'll say, "Ed Merkle did it."
"I was a duck hunter on the Patuxent from about 1920 on," said Merkle, who will celebrate his 81st birthday next month. "We always used to hear that there were no geese on the western shore of Maryland, that all the geese were on the Eastern Shore.
"In the 1930s, when the goose population started to pick up on the Eastern Shore, I studied up on them and Mrs. Merkle and I decided to raise geese." s
Merkle lived then (and still does) on Queens Chapel Road in Avondale, just outside the District line. He had 19 acres in the '30s on which he began raising ducks, quail and geese.
He would buy pairs of Canada geese from breeders in the Midwest and pinion their wings so they couldn't fly. When the geese had young the Merkles would take the goslings to their farm on the Patuxent, just south of Upper Marlboro.
"The young stayed with their parents for two years and then headed north," said Merkle. "After they reached the age of three they would have young of their own and bring them back to winter where their parents were."
So began the Merkle flock, which now numbers 10,000 to 15,000 wintering Canadas, according to the Maryland Wildlife Administration.
These geese originated from about 40 pairs of mates the Merkles bought over the course of three decades, Merkle said. "There's geese from St. Mary's County to Frederick that came from that initial flock. This is how we spread happiness all over the state," he added.
It is indeed a stirring sight to see vast flocks of Canada geese close to home in the big city. The Merkle flock came to my attention when Christmas visitors demanded to see the famous Canada geese of Maryland, but balked at the prospect of a two-hour drive across the Chesapeake to Blackwater or Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuges.
"Well," said I, "we can swing by the Patuxent and see if anything's down there." Jug Bay Regional Park, about two miles upriver from the old Merkle farm, was closed for the holidays but the road ran by a grass field. In the grass field were thousands of Canada geese. The visitors stood in awe.
"You should have gone to the Merkle tract," said Tom Cofield, public information officer for the state wildlife administration, "and really seen some geese."
Cofield explained the saga of the Merkle flock, adding that about 10 years ago the state bought Merkle's 400 acres and 500 adjoining acres and designated the area a refuge for geese.
No hunting is permitted, which is no great change. Merkle said he occasionally hunted ducks in the marsh around his farm but as long as he was raising geese, he didn't hunt them.
"I never had any interest in shooting geese because they're beautiful and they're like a family to me," he said. "I still go down to the farm in the evening and spend a couple of hours watching them and listening to them. They know they're safe and no one will molest them."
Merkle said he sold the land to the state because "I love the geese and I know the state will keep it going. It will always be the Merkle Wildlife Management Area and the geese will always go there."
"The number of geese in the area has been increasing yearly since we took it over," said Bud Halla, head of the state Wildlife Administration. The increase is due to rising numbers of Canadas in the Atlantic flyway and the state's emphasis on managing the 900 acres specifically for geese. he said.
"since Merkle did such a super job of getting it started we simply expanded it with the idea of providing gunning opportunities on the western shore, as well as the esthetic value of just having the geese around," Halla said.
The gunning has yet to materialize, though a few landholders near the Merkle tract are known to be pondering the value of installing goose blinds in fields and along the river.
The esthetic advantages are in place. The Merkle Wildlife Area is open to the goose-watching public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Jug Bay Regional Park, just up the road, is open the same hours seven days a week. At one place or the other, flocks of wintering Canadas, perhaps the most graceful of all waterfowl, are likely to be massed on any given day.
Both spots are within a 30-minute drive of the city. Take Rte. 4 east, then Rte. 301 south. After a few miles take a left (east) on Rte. 382 (Croom Road). The turnoff to Jug Bay is a left on Croom Airport Road. To get to the Merkle tract go a couple of miles further on 382, then follow the signs at St. Thomas Church Road.