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Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) was founded in Winnipeg in 1938 by private Canadian hunter-conservationists, in collaboration with the More Game Birds in America Foundation. It was an early example of the international approach to continental nature conservation in Canada and the United States, developed in response to declining waterfowl populations and the widespread loss of wetlands across North America. As a conservation organization, it was distinguished by its innovative use of business principles and promotional techniques for nature conservation, and its investment of private American funds in Canadian conservation projects. It was also known for fostering of a sense of belonging to a cross-border North American system of wetlands, and its ability to mobilize a large force of volunteers and citizen scientists known as “Keemen.” During its first 40 years in operation, DUC also helped pioneer wetlands ecology, mounted one of the first large-scale surveys of breeding waterfowl in Canada, brought the importance of wetlands to the public’s attention, and played a leading role in the conservation and management of more than 860,000 hectares of waterfowl habitat.

DUC was preceded by a private foundation in the United States, known as the More Game Birds in America Foundation, which was founded in 1930. After conducting a major census of the continent’s breeding birds in 1935, More Game Birds decided to focus its resources on restoring, securing, and managing habitats for breeding waterfowl. In 1937, it established Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DUI) in the United States to raise funds, while DUC was to deliver habitat programs on the nesting grounds of Prairie Canada. With this transition completed, More Game Birds in America ceased operations in 1940.

DUC applied business principles and promotional techniques to nature conservation. It managed wetlands as if they were “factories” and published regular reports on waterfowl numbers for investors. From the beginning, effective public relations and communications strategies were essential to its work. Through marketing campaigns that fostered a sense of belonging to a common ecosystem and raised awareness of the importance of wetlands, it encouraged multi-year pledges and project sponsorship from private citizens and conservation-minded fish and game clubs in the United States and Canada. In 1938, DUC undertook its first waterfowl census, surveying the bird population in the West by air and on the ground with help from thousands of volunteers known as “Keemen” or “Kee-Men.” In the years that followed, they provided DUC with much-needed labour and information about the state of waterfowl populations, which supported the work of staff scientists.

In the early years, DUC engineers led the restoration of marshlands by damming drainage channels, building dykes, and thereby re-engineering prairie landscapes at places like Big Grass Marsh in Manitoba, which was the site of “Duck Factory No. 1.” Many of these projects were associated with major wetland complexes in the boreal forest zone, including the Cumberland Marshes, the Carrot River Triangle, the Reader-Root Complex, and the Summerberry Marsh Complex in the Saskatchewan River Delta of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. At the same time, DUC advanced scientific understanding of waterfowl and wetlands ecology through projects that included the Wetland Inventory Program and the Marsh Ecology Research Program.