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Reading Ducks

Consider duck body language when calling
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  • photo by Bill Buckley
Image of
Story at a Glance
  • Calling ducks is a two-part process.
  • Callers must know when to call and how to adjust their calling to the disposition of the birds.
  • Ducks' body language can tell you what they like and don't like.

by Wade Bourne

It was the Kansas version of the "duck snub," and I didn't like it!

DU Media Biologist Mike Checkett and I were on a mid-state reservoir, taping a segment for Ducks Unlimited TV's 2005 lineup. We were hunting from my boat-blind next to an island in the middle of the lake. For two days, mallards had traded overhead, and virtually all had ignored our best highballs and greeting calls.

"Call-shy," we had decided, so we tried calling less, then none at all. Still, the results were the same—rejection. It was maddening.

"I've had it," I announced to Checkett. "On the next flight, I'm going to blow my lungs out at them. I'm going to start calling when we see them, and I'm not going to stop until they're out of sight." I figured we had nothing to lose by trying something radical.

In a few minutes a pair of ducks appeared headed up the lake, and I cracked down on them: taaa, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, and so on until I was out of breath. I filled my lungs and started calling again. I kept it up as the drake and hen mallard passed overhead, acting as if they never heard me. I felt like blowing "Hail and Farewell" as they stuck to their flight plan.

Suddenly I noticed a slight change in the drake's wing beats. He slowed his flap speed slightly and started gliding out to the side of the hen. I poured the calling on him—even louder and faster notes.

And then it happened. The duck locked his wings, sailed in a big half-circle downwind, then came straight in to land with our decoys. We took him at 20 yards.

That greenhead gave us the key. When the next flight appeared, I called aggressively and nonstop. When I'd see any reaction whatever, any hesitation or the slightest change in wing rhythm, I'd call even more persuasively. From that point on, we worked almost every flight we saw. In the next two hours we bagged, 10 mallards and a widgeon.

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