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Do Ducks Think?

If you've suspected that waterfowl wise up down the flyway, there is a case for your hunch.

Do Ducks Think?

Ducks and geese are indeed capable of abstract thinking. (Neal Mishler photo)

I love talking with good people. Especially, honest people willing to share their knowledge. Knowledge that has been gleaned through a lifetime of learning and service. Ducks Unlimited Biologist, Dr. Mark Petrie, is one of those people.

Live Long and Prosper

The two of us had just finished up an interesting conversation about the Light Goose Conservation Order. Put in place in 1999 to reduce light goose numbers by half over a 10-year period through liberal bag limits, use of electronic callers and unplugged shotguns, the order isn’t making much of a dent. The reasons why are numerous, but one in particular stood out to me.

“These birds are long-lived, and they are flat difficult to kill. Hunters are doing their job and getting into the field and doing their best to harvest light geese across the country, and harvests are high. However, most of those harvests are juvenile birds,” Petrie told me.

For good measure, Petrie looked up some data while we were chewing the goose fat. He was spot on. Before the conservation order was put in place, it was estimated hunters harvested about 2.5 percent of all adult lesser snow geese, or one in 40 adult birds per year. Currently, estimates show a slight uptick, but not enough to make a serious dent. Only about one out of every 37 lesser snow geese harvested is an adult bird.

flock of snow geese
Adult birds are the hardest to kill, they've seen plenty of tricks and have learned to avoid the gun barrel a time or two. (Skip Knowles photo)

“Adult birds have been there and done that,” Petrie continued. “They are wary birds and are hard to kill.” The “hard to kill” part stuck me as odd. How can these birds be so smart? I asked, and down a very cool rabbit hole Petrie went. “There are patterns to waterfowl behavior we all notice,” Petrie said. “Ducks and geese change over the course of a season. Opening day birds are more trusting than those found during the late season. Hunters long for a mid-season cold front and the days that follow. Birds seem to work decoys with a recklessness that allows hunters to have a great harvest. This is due in part for their need to feed after a serious cold front.”

While any waterfowl species can fall victim to a spread of well-placed fakes that promise safety, food and social opportunity, some species are just more likely to commit on a more regular basis than others. According to Petrie, whether a bird cups the wings and drops the feet depends partly on the willingness of that waterfowl species to take risks.

Live Fast, Die Young

Look at teal,” said Petrie. “Teal often seem to approach a spread of decoys with vigor. They buzz in close and often land right in the spread. Teal are short-lived birds, which means they have fewer opportunities to breed. They are also smaller birds and need to hit the groceries often to have strength and stamina to find a mate. For these reasons, teal can be a lot easier to decoy than longer-lived birds like mallards and pintails.”

Put to the test by a group of waterfowl researchers in California, which ranked multiple species of dabbling ducks based on their average lifespan and annual reproductive output, it was proven shorter-lived and more productive species like teal gave hunters more opportunities in the decoys than longer-lived puddlers.

Deep Dive

What about diving ducks compared to puddle ducks? Doesn’t seem like divers love to buzz along line spreads on a regular basis? In fact, most serious diver nuts I know replace decoys on a regular basis because shots are usually taken when birds are right in the decoys. Petrie made some excellent points about why most diver species want to join more decoy parties than other puddle duck species.

“A diver’s food is often below the surface. When a group of divers sees other birds, it tells those birds food is in the area, which makes them more likely to commit. Dabbling ducks can likely evaluate their foraging opportunities from above. If your decoys are sprinkled amongst a popular food source that dabblers are craving, you may be out of luck.”

The Mallard Mingle

What about those lone January mallard drakes that seem to respond to the call, make a swing and rapidly shrink the distance between ground and sky? Petrie pointed out that though these lone mallards are savvy birds, they know their chances of finding a mate are shrinking, which makes them more apt to take risks. A lone drake’s social needs may trump his uneasiness about dropping into a decoy spread.

Now think about those January drake and hen mallard combos. They can be tough customers. They have been there and done that, and their need for social interaction isn’t pulling on their brains. In fact, Petrie pointed out that most of these pairs want to be alone and away from the social scene.


Outsmart and Outlast

As noted earlier, waterfowl behavior changes throughout the course of a hunting season. The reasons for this are many, but according to a recent study in The Journal of Science, it appears possible that ducks are abstract thinkers. Yes, this is a trait usually reserved for highly intelligent animals like dolphins, apes and crows, but it seems ducks have it too.

Goose hunter with two snow geese
It doesn't take long for birds to smarten up and learn to stay away from hunting spreads, but one of the keys to success is to hunt fresh birds that haven't read the script yet. (Skip Knowles photo)

“A duck that spends time in areas of heavy hunting pressure will likely develop two ways of thinking,” Petrie said. “The first is literal and focused on the physical world. A duck is fired at over a distinct point of land in an area of heavy hunt pressure. That duck immediately associates that exact location with danger and never crosses it again. This is concrete thinking. During a season, that same duck has similar experiences in grain fields, marshes and the list goes on. He notices other ducks were in the area but were very still. That there was some movement, but it seemed unnatural and occurred within a geometric shape not common in nature. It’s possible this duck is acquiring the building blocks for abstract thought.”

This could be a reason waterfowling can be so good when new birds arrive pre- and post-front to a new locale. Newly arrived birds aren’t used to local “danger zones” and it takes them a few days to learn them.

What about shovelers? I remember as a youngster, my new-to-decoying crew and me loved to see shovelers. We knew they would decoy, which meant we would get to shoot. In fact, much of our scouting revolved around finding shovelers and teal. Not surprising, shovelers ranked second to teal in the California study. Shouldn’t a spoony be as capable of learning as other ducks?

“I think with shovelers, it all comes down to them just being high-risk takers,” Petrie said. “Plus, much of a shoveler’s diet consists of invertebrates. Like divers, they do rely on other birds for a map to where the food is.”

Regardless of your thoughts and opinions about how waterfowl learn, this information should be of interest and help you prepare accordingly for the season ahead.

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