By John Pollman
With their highly developed sense of vision, waterfowl can make life tough for those hunters trying to keep out of sight. In the following article, Ducks Unlimited's John Coluccy explains how ducks and geese spot danger and provides five tips on how to stay hidden and put more birds in your decoys.
1. Faces and Hands Covered
Having studied the habits of black ducks for his work with Ducks Unlimited, biologist John Coluccy knows a thing or two about wary waterfowl. Chief among the ways black ducks and other species of waterfowl keep themselves safe is using a highly developed sense of vision.
Waterfowl, like most bird species, live an aerial life at high speeds, Coluccy says, so having an acute sense of vision is a necessity for protection and navigation.
"Their vision is highly developed with adaptations that allow them to see a color spectrum that we can't," says Coluccy, who serves as Ducks Unlimited's manager of conservation planning at the Great Lakes/Atlantic regional office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "They see the same colors that we do, but what they see is much more rich and vivid."
A hen pintail, for instance, relies on her visual capacity during courtship behavior to detect differences in the quality of plumage worn by competing drakes, Coluccy says, which allows her to differentiate between a juvenile and adult bird based on the different shades of brown at the nape of their necks and colors within their wing speculums.
"If she can spot those minute differences in color on another duck, imagine what she can see when approaching a duck blind," says Coluccy. "Little things that may not appear to you or I as concerns while hunting will stick-out like a flashlight to a duck or goose."
Faces and hands left uncovered are two of the more common mistakes, Coluccy says, making a face-mask or face paint and gloves must-haves for every waterfowl hunter.
"Keeping those hands and faces covered is even more important if you've got hunters shifting around in the blind," says Coluccy. "Waterfowl possess an acute sense of vision that allows them to detect very, very slight movements, so wearing something on your face and your hands and minimizing movement is critical."
2. Finding the Right Pattern
That same ability by waterfowl to detect minute differences in color also means that hunters need to maintain an appropriate sense of fashion when selecting what to wear to the marsh and field.
"Occasionally my work as a biologist will put me in the air during the hunting seasons, and I'm amazed when I fly over a decoy spread at how a hunter sticks out when he is wearing a coat or other piece of clothing that does not fit in with the surrounding cover," says Coluccy. "Again, if I can spot those differences, imagine what a duck or goose will see."
Hunters wearing a dark brown pattern in lightly colored surroundings – or vice versa – will appear silhouetted against their surroundings, Coluccy says, and the outline of a person is as much a sign of danger as that of a fox or aerial predator.
Coluccy says that matching your surroundings is especially important when blue, sunny skies have been replaced by clouds and grey.
"The flat-light associated with overcast days really calls attention to what you are wearing and, again, to any movement in the blind," says Coluccy. "If your camo doesn't match or you're moving around, you're going to stick out."
3. Staying in the Shadows
When it comes to hiding from the watchful eyes of waterfowl, Coluccy says that shadows can be both a hunter's best friend and his worst enemy.
"Natural shadows allow you to disappear – with the sun shining in their eyes, they just can't pull you out of that dark background," says Coluccy. "Whether you're in a permanent blind or hunting in natural cover, utilize those shadows when the conditions are bright and sunny."
And while shadows cast by a full-bodied duck or goose decoy are natural, Coluccy says that field hunters are at a disadvantage when the sun hits a lay-out blind.
"The result is a shadow that, from an aerial perspective, is really going to stick out," says Coluccy. "It's going to look like a blob of dark matter that just doesn't fit."
Placing the lay-out blind in a natural depression in the field or digging a shallow foot-print to lower the profile of the blind are two ways to minimize any unwanted shadows. Hunters can also try placing decoys on elevated stakes around the blind at its highest points to break-up its outline and create an illusion that plays on waterfowl's weakened sense of depth perception.
4. Don't Let Your Guard Down
Keeping movement to a minimum while waterfowl are approaching a decoy spread is important, but so, too, Coluccy says, is to stay still when the birds are headed the other direction.
"With eyes on the sides of their head, waterfowl lack binocular vision, but they compensate for that by moving their heads from side to side, continually getting images from both eyes," says Coluccy.
"Because of this, ducks and geese can see just about any direction all the way around them. Hunters then make the mistake of shifting in the blind or sticking a head up when birds are going away, thinking it is safe to move."
Using movement – a dark flag or hat – can be very good, Coluccy adds, to gain the attention of birds passing at a distance, but with a level of vision 2 to 3 times that of humans, both ducks and geese will often reach the point where the motion may keep them out of the decoys.
"There is a breaking point when you wave that flag and the birds are too close," says Coluccy. "They are going to pick that movement apart when they are in within or just outside of gun-range. Watch the reaction of the birds; they are going to tell you if they like the motion or not."
5. Provide a Distraction
When limited surrounding cover, flat-light or other conditions affect a hunter's ability to hide, Coluccy recommends that hunters take a lesson from the birds.
"Anyone who has ever been fortunate to have a mob of ducks or geese over the decoys knows that you can get away with some things because the birds are distracted by the motion of all those wings in the air or birds hitting the ground," says Coluccy. "Hunters can use this to their advantage when they are having a tough time hiding by using well-placed motion in the decoys and, if possible, by shifting blind location."
A quiver magnet, jerk string or spinning-wing decoy will focus the attention of swinging birds away from hunters, while lay-out blinds or a make-shift blind positioned to the side of the decoys will provide quartering or crossing shots.
The shooting opportunities may be different than those provided by a traditional set-up, but with birds in the decoys rather than flaring from hunters or blinds exposed by a modest hide, Coluccy says unique shots are better than none at all.
"In a situation where it is tough to hide, you do what you can to keep the eyes of those ducks and geese off of you and on the decoys," says Coluccy. "Even in a perfect set-up, they aren't always going to give you an ideal shot. You just can't give them anything to look at and see danger, and ducks and geese see a lot, that's for sure."