Call Like A Duck by TR Michels
As a guide, researcher, speaker and writer, I have always been interested in learning about the animals I hunt: how they react to the weather, which calls they use and why, and when and how they mate; so that I could use the information to become a better hunter. Even though I’d cut my eye teeth on a duck call, and I’d been hunting ducks for over thirty years I knew I didn’t know it all.
So, when I met well known waterfowl biologist and goose researcher Dr. Jim Cooper a few years ago I decided to pick his brain. I specifically asked him what calls were best for hunting. He told me that if I really wanted to learn about duck behavior I should read the book Handbook Of Waterfowl Behavior by Dr. Paul Johnsgard. He also suggested the book Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. What I learned from my conversations with Jim, and from those two books, has dramatically changed the way I hunt ducks and geese.
While I was reading Johnsgard’s book I was amazed to find out that ducks don’t use the chuckle to signify that they are feeding, or to entice other ducks to join them while they are feeding. I had grown up thinking that ducks used the chuckle as a feeding call, that they used the hail or high ball to get other ducks to come and join them, and that they used the comeback to get ducks that were flying the other way to turn around. And that is the problem with most game calling. Many hunters don’t understand the meaning of the calls they use.
Duck Social Behavior:
In order to properly understand why ducks and geese use the calls they use, you have to understand their social behavior; especially mating behavior. Waterfowl biologists refer to the mating behavior (courtship behavior as opposed to actual breeding) of ducks, geese and swans as pair bonding. Most waterfowlers know that geese mate, or pair bond, for life. After they pair bond the male and female stay together during nesting, and the young stay with the parents through the fall and winter. The young geese don’t usually leave their parents or begin to pair bond until they are on the wintering grounds during their fist or second year. This means that, during the hunting season, most geese are still in family groups consisting of the male, the female, and their young.
Ducks, on the other hand, do not mate for life, they regularly form a pair bond with a new partner each year. But, the male and female don’t stay together to raise the young, and the young don’t stay with the females very long. The drakes of most duck species leave the hens as soon as they start to nest, or shortly after. The hens then raise the ducklings by themselves. During the summer the hens molt (which leaves them flightless); and the young ducks grow their first flight feathers and begin to fly. After the young ducks learn to fly they may no longer associate with the hen, and they are generally on their own.
The young ducks then begin forming loose pair bonds from late summer through early winter. (Pair bonding by Mallards may begin as early as mid-August. Pair bonding by other puddle duck species occurs from mid-October through winter, and by divers from mid-winter through early spring.) This pair bonding is often accompanied by aerial courtship flights and displays, and by calls that are associated with pair bonding behavior. As a result of this social behavior, ducks are not normally in family groups during the hunting season; they are usually in groups consisting of unrelated individuals and newly bonded pairs.
Tempo, Pitch, Length of Note and Volume:
According to Dr. Cooper, when you are calling waterfowl there are four main things to think about, tempo, pitch, length of the notes and volume. The difference in meaning between similar calls is portrayed by how loud and how fast the duck performs the call. The tempo, or speed, of the call is related to the movement of the duck. The calling of a duck on land or water is related to how fast it is moving. The calling of a duck in the air is related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, which is when the duck contracts its chest muscles and exhales. The down beat of the wing stroke is related to the size of the duck; the smaller the duck the faster the wing stroke, and the faster the duck calls and the shorter it’s notes are.
The pitch of the call is also generally related to the size of the duck, the larger the species of duck, the deeper the pitch of the call. Generally speaking, the larger the species of duck; the slower, lower and longer its notes are. Although teal and mallards use the same basic decrescendo call, the mallard decrescendo is slower, it lower in pitch, and the individual notes are longer, than the decrescendo call of the teal. In order to create the calling of each species correctly listen carefully to the calls of the different species of ducks, or listen to a good calling tape.
The volume, or loudness, of the call is related to the mood of the duck. The more anxious the duck is, the louder the call is; taking off, landing, threatening and attacking are situations that may cause a duck to become anxious, which causes loud calling. When a hen uses a quack to keep the family together while she’s feeding the call is usually soft and slow. When the quack is used to keep the family together while flying the call is faster. When the quack is used to get the family back together after it has been separated, or by a lone duck trying to locate its family or a flock in the air, the call is louder. When the quack is used as a hen jumps into the air after being alarmed it is loud and fast. When a hen uses a chuckle on the water the call is loud and slow, because the duck is not moving fast. When a hen uses the chuckle in the air the call is faster, because the duck is beating its wings rapidly. Remember this when you are calling; loud calls can be the sign of a lost duck or an alarmed duck, depending on the speed of the call; fast calls are the sign of a fast moving duck, which usually means the duck is in the air.
Think While Your Calling:
When you are calling ducks think about what you are trying to do. Initially you try to get their attention, to let them know there are other ducks in the area, and where they are. If the ducks aren’t coming toward you, you try to get them to change their course and come closer. As the ducks get closer you try to convince them that there are other ducks on the water, that it is safe to land, and that the area is a good place to rest and feed in safety. But, the calls you are performing are not used by the ducks for those purposes. They are used to announce a willingness to mate, during courtship behavior, and as a threat. So, what you have to do is use the calls the ducks use, but, use them in a way that will get the ducks to do what you want them to do.
You can use a loud decrescendo as a hail call to initially get the ducks attention. Even though the decrescendo is a pair bonding call, it can be used to attract ducks because they are accustomed to hearing it in the fall. You can also use the decrescendo as a comeback call to turn the ducks, and as a pleading call to entice the birds to land. But, when you are calling, remember that ducks are not very big, and they have small lungs, they can’t possibly call as loud as I hear some hunters blow their calls. The closer the ducks get, the softer you should call.
You can use a series of quacks and chuckles to convince the birds that your decoys are real, and that everything is all right. Even though the incitement call is a threat and not a feeding call; it is used by ducks in a feeding situation. You can use the chuckle or a diver growl to convince the in coming ducks that there are one or more drakes harassing the hens in your spread. To add more realism to your calling you can use the social contact calls of the drakes, and the sounds of any other duck or goose species that might be in the area.
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