Oklahoma lost one of its most successful conservationists last month with the death of Raymond Beck of Marlow.
Beck, 91, was my mentor and longtime friend. We shared a love for the outdoors, a desire to improve wildlife habitat, a National Wetlands Conservation award and countless homemade apple pies at his dinner table.
His enthusiasm for wildlife and the outdoors was contagious.
I first met Raymond more than 30 years ago. I had heard a story about a naturalist in Stephens County who raised hundreds of wood ducks each year and I wanted to meet him.
The sky was full of wood ducks that spring morning when I arrived at his home just east of Marlow. The reason became clear when Raymond showed me the “condominium projects” that he had build for the colorful birds.
The population of wood ducks had plummeted by the mid-half of the 20th century because of the loss of hardwood trees.
Wood ducks, which do not quack but make a high-pitch scream similar to a whistle, build their nests in tree cavities close to water.
As more and more of those trees were cut down, there were fewer and fewer wood ducks.
Measures were taken to protect the remaining habitat and the creation of man-made nest boxes were helping the wood duck population recover.
Beck built 155 wood duck boxes and placed them on wooden poles about 12 feet above the ground.
The conventional wisdom was that wood duck boxes needed to be at least 100 yards apart. In Raymond's wood duck condominiums, some of the boxes were just 3 feet apart. His design proved the birds thrived in a clustered community.
“I don't know if that will work everywhere, but it worked there,” said Rod Smith of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
More than 1,000 wood ducks were raised each year on the acres around Raymond's home. He also built and gave away many wood duck boxes, bluebird boxes and goose nest platforms.
“He was kind of a Johnny Appleseed,” Smith said.
For decades, Raymond was the supervisor of Duncan's city lakes and raised fish at the hatchery ponds adjacent to Duncan Lake, even though he did not have a college degree.
When asked about his qualifications, he would smile and say, “I have a bailing wire degree.”
He was an early pioneer in attempting to cross the Florida-strain bass with Oklahoma's native largemouth bass.
Raymond liked to experiment, and when the bass raised in the hatchery wouldn't nest on grass sod, he was able to get them to spawn on brown shag carpet.
“It was really primitive looking, but it was pretty darn successful,” Smith said.
Raymond exemplified that everyone, regardless of scientific education, can make a profound difference.
“He had no formal education at all. He just had a huge interest, did a lot of reading and had a desire to make things work,” Smith said.
“He was an example of many Oklahomans who benefitted wildlife through desire and a tenacious work ethic.”
Raymond Beck and the plywood cow
Raymond Beck's ingenuity almost proved costly once while hunting geese.
He and a friend had unsuccessfully tried several times to sneak up on a group of geese in a wheat field with no success.
That night Raymond made a plywood cutout in the shape of a cow for camouflage. He built handles and gun racks on the back side of it.
The next day the hunters carried their version of a Trojan Horse into the wheat field, tip-toeing toward the group of unsuspecting geese as they stayed concealed behind the plywood bovine.
They were almost in gun range when a large bull charged from across the field. They escaped unscathed, but their plywood cow was stomped to pieces.