The Waterfowl Festival's decision to postpone due to COVID-19 comes as the festival mourns lifelong contributor Debbye Jackson. Photo: Facebook

50th Waterfowl Festival Postponed, Board President Passes Away

The Waterfowl Festival, held for almost 50 years on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to celebrate wildfowl culture and conservation, is delivered a double blow.

Organizers announced Tuesday that its 50th anniversary festival will be postponed from November 2020 to 2021, because of health concerns related to COVID-19. The difficult decision comes just days after the festival shared news that Easton, native Debbye Jackson, a lifelong supporter of the Waterfowl Festival who was elected as President of the Festival Board this year, has passed away from cancer.

Jackson was the daughter of one of the festival’s founders, Bill Perry, and became involved at a young age. In a Facebook post, the Waterfowl Festival writes, “In fact, when she was a child, she volunteered to watch our live ducks and was dubbed ‘Debbye the Ducksitter’ — the nickname stuck and even today our youth are known as ‘ducksitters’.” (As an adult, she served as chair of a scholarship fund named for her father that offered financial support to youth ‘ducksitters’ who are pursuing higher education degrees.)

Jackson was proud to have been elected president of the Festival Board for its 50th anniversary year, according to the post, but was diagnosed with cancer shortly after. She stepped down to focus on her family and health, but remained Carving Committee Chair, a position she had held for decades. The Festival writes, “Debbye offered the perfect blend of passion, calm and inspiration for carvers, artists, and volunteers. With her at the helm, they brought the art of carving incredible birds to life for visitors each year.

The Waterfowl Festival will bring the tradition of wildfowl carving back in 2021, drawing upon Jackson’s dedication. Festival leaders say the decision to postpone did not come easily. Drawing 15,000 visitors and 300 vendors in the small town of Easton, the event would present major challenges in this socially-distant time.

Still, the waterfowl conservation projects supported by the festival will see a loss, as will the local economy. In 2019, Waterfowl weekend visitors generated almost $2.6 million in annual economic impact to Talbot County through shopping, lodging and travel, according to festival organizers.

“This has been a tough time for everyone, full of difficult choices,” said Margaret Enloe, Executive Director for Waterfowl Chesapeake. “This decision can feel like a step backward, however we see it as an opportunity to try new things, to grow and change.  I have every confidence that we will emerge stronger and better.”

For 2020, festival and its conservation partner, Waterfowl Chesapeake, will offer virtual programming to celebrate Eastern Shore heritage, culture and bird life. Keep an eye on as those opportunities are added this fall.

-Meg Walburn Viviano