Duck hunting is appreciated most by those who possess a natural bent for visual stimulation. A mallard backpedaling against an autumn wind, wings cupped over decoys. A bluebill wheeling to a waterfowler's call. A wood duck settling quietly at sunset onto a glazy pond. These are masterpieces in motion, and sights that Friday night many Minnesota waterfowlers will dream of in anticipation of yet another duck season, which begins Saturday.

This is true even though long gone are the good old days of waterfowling, when ducks blackened the skies during spring and fall migrations. Witnesses to these grand passages, when lingering skeins of birds rode the backsides of low-pressure systems to points south, are aging now or well gone, their fortuitous timing matched only by those who were alive when buffalo roamed and passenger pigeons soared.

Ethical behavior, the late conservationist Aldo Leopold once said, is doing the right thing when no one else is watching, even when doing the wrong thing is legal.

Leopold was speaking to, and generally about, cretinous farmers who plow ditch to ditch, leaving nothing for wildlife; tone-deaf developers whose blacktopped subdivisions are little more than pollution runways; and misanthrope "sportsmen'' who believe that without killing, hunting has no point.

But, in fact, these individuals and groups aren't the only ones responsible for the fortunes, or misfortunes, of ducks and other wildlife. We all are. The hunter who shoots over his limit or otherwise offends game laws is only the most obvious scofflaw. No better are the vast majority of Americans whose happy indifference to everything except their own well-being exacts an incalculable conservation cost, the bill for which, ultimately, will come due.

"We abuse land,'' Leopold said, "because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.'' To which he added, "I do not imply that this philosophy of land was always clear to me. It is rather the end result of a life journey."

Hunters often develop similar philosophies more quickly than the citizenry at large because to succeed afield, hunters must immerse themselves in, and learn about, nature.

Are wood ducks more likely to fly early on sunny mornings, or cloudy? If divers such as bluebills prefer freshwater shrimp over other foods, where can these morsels be found? If mallards feed in a cut-corn field at night, what chance is there they'll be in the same field in the morning?

"Conservation,'' Leopold said, "is a state of harmony between men and land,'' and it is this harmony that hunting provides, or can provide, to the sportsman or woman who sees the pastime as a canvas upon which they can paint their own masterpiece — ideally one that portrays taking from, and giving back to, nature as two sides of the same coin.

Yet people — we, each of us — learn slowly. For which wildlife and their habitats have paid dearly.

We say we cherish ducks.

But historically, we've slaughtered them with punt guns, killed them over bait and bought hook, line and sinker biologists' and other cheerleaders' overly generous population estimates.

We say we cherish ducks.

But we've drained their wetlands and plowed their grasslands in such quantities it's fortunate any of these birds have survived.

Thanks to human nature — specifically, cognitive dissonance — we fool ourselves into thinking we're conservationists, while more accurately we're the drainers, the plowmen and otherwise the inflictors of death by a thousand cuts on ducks and other critters.

Roy Chauvin is a retired Louisiana game warden whose recently published book, "Slave of Conviction, Diary of Corruption,'' details how for a time in Louisiana, duck hunters shot grossly over their limits and commercial fishermen illegally caught netfuls of shrimp, redfish and speckled trout, in part because they thought these resources were endless and in part because their behaviors were accepted by the local culture, including its political leaders.

Chauvin based his book on daily diaries he kept during 27 years as a warden. "When I became a warden, I decided from the outset to be fair and honest,'' he said. "Once I did, there was no turning back.''

The question in Minnesota as duck hunting begins anew is twofold: Do we want to learn from our past behaviors, which Leopold said is necessary to develop a land ethic?

And, taking from Chauvin, how honest do we want to be in assessing those behaviors, and deciding what actions will be necessary to bring about change?

How we answer these questions is important because in vital ways our fate is tied to that of ducks and other aquatic wildlife. No wetlands for them means no clean water for us, nor flood retention. Similarly, grasslands retain the topsoil and encourage the organic matter necessary for crops.

A change of values, and priorities, is needed.

As Leopold argued, "Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays.''