Of Educated Birds
November 03, 2010
Waterfowl learn, it's a natural fact.
The wind fell, and then rose again in sequences, tickling the sun-bathed stubble of prairie wheat. Bud Grant, of former pro football coach fame, rested alongside his black lab just a few feet away trading wisdoms about ducks with me for lack of anything better to do. Few men can match Grant's passion for waterfowl, and even fewer can match his ability to pessimistically pontificate when things aren't going according to plan.
This afternoon wasn't going according to plan. Six of us had limited out (one bird each) on lesser Canadas in the early hours of the morning, Bud's dog even caught one that landed in the decoys and didn't want to leave. Sometimes things just go that well. But then we'd decided to split up and try for ducks in the afternoon.
Bud and I hunted this field on the outfitter's word that it should be a good place to kill mallards, but after two hours, we hadn't seen a duck and neither of our moods was improving.
"You know," Bud interrupted the silence, "If you want to shoot ducks, you've got to be where they want to be."
I liked the phrase. "Be where they want to be." Of course, in the years since then I've heard it numerous times, but it's never had the same ring as when Bud said it. But was it absolutely true?
I thought it was true, until last year when circumstance threw mud on the glowing golden rule.
Birds, Birds And No Birds
We were hunting North Dakota, my friends Boris Popov, Bill Buckley and me, not far from the Canadian border, on fields we've had fair results on over the years. My farmer friend told me to waste no time getting to his place because his barley fields were covered up with mallards, especially in the evening, but mornings too. We arrived at dark-thirty, primed and ready.
We set up on the mile-long, mile-wide barley field with a spread that's come to work well for us on ducks, hiding ourselves in a blob of dark goose decoys while deploying a separate spread of field ducks in a side-wind fashion to bring the birds past us rather than into or over us.
When dawn began to creep across the field we were just moving the trailer out but ducks were already working the air over the barley. As they wheeled over the field, other flocks joined in until they could be heard ripping the air on every turn. The circled us, and circled some more, and a few singles and doubles left the mass to float our way. We held off. This was just the start of something good, we all agreed.
But things didn't get better, they got weirder.
Several hundred ducks settled in a low corner of a field, and we could see what was coming Soon the hoards lost altitude and joined the grounded mass, and flock after new flock that came from the direction of their river roosts dove into the security of the big group on the ground. A small group of latecomers, perhaps eight, descended on our setup and we dropped a couple of birds, sending the mass into the air, but only briefly before settling back down. Four snow geese made an uncharacteristic error in judgment, quietly sneaking in from behind us, but Bill made two of them pay for their mistake as they tried to sideslip away from the decoys. We dropped another pintail and passed on several hen pintails and hen mallards. Evening would be better, we told ourselves. We'd simply be where they want to be.
So, after a picking up the rig and finding a remote gas station that actually cooked a fresh hamburger (made to order) we whiled away the mid day, awaiting our chance to make things right.
By early afternoon we were set up in duck central, the very spot in the barley field the ducks had chosen that morning. Arriving early and relaxing in our layout blinds, we actually had a snowy owl cross the decoy spread, which had to be a heavenly sign.
The first flock numbered about 100 birds, and they set their wings at great height and began a pinion-ripping descent toward our spread. But with 200 yards yet to drop, the leaders aborted their free fall, pumping their wings to gain altitude as they crossed too high to consider shooting. Then they beat their way out of the field entirely, heading across a road and dumping into a kitty-corner section of land a mile away. This was wrong.
Flock after flock serenaded us with ripping wings, all following the same flight plan. These were big flocks, 50 to 500 birds strong, unusual numbers to see together in mid October. Traveling high they set their sights on us, sailed downward, then picked up altitude again and headed to the northwest. There were twice as many ducks as we had seen in the morning flight. When a smaller, 50-ish group made the error of working us in narrowing circles, we waited, feeling one more pass would have put them in our laps. Instead of the 40-yard shot we had, but hadn't taken, we got no shot. I don't have to tell you how those kinds of decisions feel as the flock fails to make that last turn.
But we saw so many birds. There was hope.
No, actually, there wasn't hope, but we didn't know this yet; or refused to admit it. We felt that with so many birds working fields we had sole permission to hunt, this was eventually going to work. We needed something new for the birds to look at. We hunted the other barley field in the morning, and for some reason, the ducks didn't fly that morning. The few that did returned to our original barley field. Grrrrrr!
For the afternoon hunt, we dug out 100 snow windsocks, deciding to hide in those rather than the big dark geese decoys, and to really fool the birds. The first birds to come off the river in the afternoon were snow geese and a flock of a couple of a hundred descended on us as if they'd never been hunted. But this was afternoon in North Dakota, and you aren't allowed to shoot snow geese in the afternoon in the state. God help us!
The hunting never got any better for us on that trip. Educated birds, we reasoned, and boy, were they accredited. This shouldn't be new to anyone who has duck or goose hunted for a length of time; it wasn't new to us. What was new to us was the sheer numbers of birds, the fact that they were behaving this way relativel
y early in the season, and the fact that we couldn't crack the code on any of them.
In Alberta, they have a word for uneducated ducks and geese: "fresh" birds, they call them, and they are right out of the hinterlands. We've hunted Alberta pea fields where mallards have landed in our decoys and walked around our blinds while we sat up and talked to each other. We've had honkers come in to decoys in canola fields where there wasn't a bite to eat and the setup and calling were underwhelming. These birds aren't just fresh, they're totally naÃ¯ve, likely having never seen humans.
In decoding our North Dakota hunt at the beginning of this story, the best we can figure is that an early cold snap had forced these birds down. Once arrived, which was about a week to ten days before we arrived, they got hammered by hunters still in the popular and busy early season who robo-ducked, decoyed and pounded the snot out of them. By the time we arrived they weren't just decoy shy, they were moving into one-a-day evening flights and larger flocks as an act of self-preservation.
Ducks learn in lots of ways. They learn to avoid danger, and they learn where life is safe. In cities and refuges, life is safe. Ducks learn safe places and safe food sources as surely as they learn to avoid decoy spreads, robo ducks and men standing in fields.
My parents lived on a lake in a city suburb where ducks gathered to spend the winter at the headwaters of a creek that flowed out of the lake. Despite subzero temps, the water stayed open all winter, and neighbors fed these birds a regular diet of yellow corn. I'd often stop to visit the birds to see if I could find a black duck or some other oddity. Frequently, there would be a couple of mallards, new birds, that stayed well away from the habituated ducks and were quite obvious in their fear of people. They hadn't learned, yet, that the food and lodging were free here--but they soon would.
Similarly, ducks and geese quickly learn not to trust things that look like ducks and geese, but aren't, especially those involving loud bangs and hot shot.
Their response can be extreme. By the time the last flights of ducks and geese have moved southward to places like Nebraska in late November, they've seen enough to make them intolerant of hunting pressure. As one serious hunter who lived in Nebraska told me several years ago, "We get good field hunting for about a week, and then the birds go nocturnal." This is extreme behavior, to say the least, but demonstrates the lengths birds will go to avoid hunters and hunting.
On a hunt two seasons ago, we arrived in one of our traditional areas to find lots of water and plenty of ducks spread over wide areas. Over the years we've learned that in those situations, some good hunting can be had with a little scouting of the shallow, more easily accessed waters where a bag of decoys, a pair of waders and a good dog are all you need.
So that's the way we proceeded to hunt. But the birds were having none of it. These birds, apparently, had seen a lot of pressure on water, because they were incredibly decoy savvy and shy. We managed to take a few birds, but mostly we were frustrated by ducks that would approach the slough, make one high pass and settle in the end without the decoys.
One morning, as we hunted a spot with no hope we noticed a few birds drifting up a hillside and dumping into wheat stubble. We put an 'x" on the spot, called the landowner we happened to know, and left to return the next morning. Before dawn, we set up in the field and awaited our fate. A few birds started to filter to the spot, and with our best calling and some patience, we started to tally some birds. The hunting wasn't spectacular, but it was good. Singles and doubles were common, with a few small flocks mixed in, but the action was spaced, not fast paced. Still, over the course of a half day we were able to tally our birds. The ducks weren't pushovers, but they were huntable, which was clearly a victory considering the hopelessness of hunting water. The amazing thing was, we could clearly see the same slough we'd been nearly skunked on from our position in this field. Some birds took a look at us and promptly departed, heading over to dive into the slough, but we were chipping away at some pretty good hunting.
Lacking a better idea, and after fruitless scouting for a fresh field, we returned the following morning. The wind had picked up a bit and we tallied our birds even faster in the same spot. We reasoned that the birds we'd been hunting here were local birds, and that few if any new birds had moved into this area. The birds had had too much pressure on water, but by changing the venue, we were able to offer a new look that at least some hadn't yet seen.
Where They Want To Be
Can you "be where they want to be" and still be skewered by smart birds? Sure, it happened to us in the hunting described at the beginning of this story, and it happens commonly in places where the birds have been around long enough to know the drill. Many fowlers have learned the hard way that they can hunt the spot where ducks want to be all day, but if the ducks decide to feed only at night, they win.
This seems to be why migration and movement of waterfowl, both ducks and geese, is so important to hunting. Many of us live in places that don't produce most of the birds we hunt, so we rely on "fresh" birds to provide the action. Birds that have been around a while simply get too smart to reason with.
Growing up, I was privileged to hunt with a family of third generation fowlers who had the only duck camp on one of the best mallard lakes in Minnesota. This place was all about migrations, not a good opening day spot at all. The large lake held one long marshy point that dominated the hunting and there were few days that we didn't own "the point". Typically, it was the youngest hunters, us, who had to get up at dark-thirty to secure this spot while the elders got an extra hour or two of sleep. Sitting and freezing tail in the dark was the initiation fee handed down the line.
The spot was remarkable in that on a good day it was nothing to have flock after huge flock of mallards work to the point and set into the decoys. But they didn't all come in. Some flocks simply ignored the spot like it didn't exist. "College educated," we used to say about the birds we now know had likely been in the area long enough to know this game. If the weather patterns stalled for a while, hunting "the point" was no better than hunting anywhere els
e where birds avoided decoys.
Even fabled Alberta is subject to the trials of hunting educated birds from time to time. In 2005 the goose migration in Alberta stalled, and the place so fabled for its dark geese, so fabled for it's killing fields, was in a funk. Even all-star guides, some of the best hunters and callers in the world, had serious trouble killing geese and temporarily turned to duck hunting. We wrote about those travails in this magazine last year.
Educated birds? They happen. As an accomplished guide once told me, "The geese and ducks have to win once in a while." Sometimes it hurts, for sure, but it makes the good days that much sweeter.