By John Pollmann
Waterfowl's keen vision can make life tough for hunters. After years spent studying the habits of American black ducks for Ducks Unlimited, biologist John Coluccy knows a thing or two about wary waterfowl. In this month's feature story, Coluccy shares his tips for staying hidden from these sharp eyes in the skies.
Like most bird species, waterfowl live an aerial life at high speeds, 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 for the Great Lakes / Atlantic Region. "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 to detect differences in the quality of plumage worn by competing drakes, Coluccy says. That allows her to differentiate between a juvenile and an adult male 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 me as concerns while hunting will stick out like a flashlight to a duck or goose."
Coluccy offers the following five tips to help you stay hidden and put more birds in your decoys.
1. Cover Your Face and Hands
"Leaving faces and hands left uncovered is one of the more common mistakes," Coluccy says. "Keeping those hands and faces covered is even more important if you've got hunters shifting around in the blind. 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. Find the Right Pattern
Waterfowl's ability to detect minute differences in color in other birds means hunters must choose the appropriate clothing for the marsh and the field.
"Occasionally, my work as a biologist will put me in the air during the hunting seasons," he explains. "When I fly over a decoy spread I'm amazed at how a hunter sticks out when he's wearing a coat or other piece of clothing that doesn't fit in with the surrounding cover. Again, if I can spot those differences, imagine what a duck or goose will see."
Hunters wearing a dark brown pattern in front of a lightly colored backdrop—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 a fox or aerial predator. Blending in is especially important when sunny blue skies have been replaced by gray clouds.
"The flat light associated with overcast days really calls attention to what you're wearing and, again, to any movement in the blind. If your camo doesn't match the surroundings, or you're moving around, you're going to stick out," Coluccy says.
3. Stay in the Shadows
Coluccy says that when it comes to hiding from the watchful eyes of waterfowl, shadows can be both a hunter's best friend and his worst enemy.
"Natural shadows allow you to disappear. When sun shines in their eyes, they just can't pull you out of that dark background," he explains. "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 layout blind.
"The result is a shadow that, from an aerial perspective, is really going to stick out. It's going to look like a blob of dark matter that just doesn't fit."
Placing the layout blind in a natural depression in the field, or digging a shallow footprint 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 staying 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," he explains. "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 their 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 catch the attention of birds passing at a distance. But, with a level of vision two or three times better than humans, both ducks and geese will often reach the point where motion might keep them out of the decoys.
"There's a breaking point when you wave that flag and the birds are too close," says Coluccy. "They're going to pick that movement apart when they get within or just outside of gun range. Watch the reaction of the birds. They'll tell you if they like the motion or not."
5. Provide a Distraction
When minimal 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," he says. "Hunters can use this to their advantage when they're 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 layout blinds or a makeshift blind positioned to the side of the decoys will provide quartering or crossing shots.
The shooting opportunities may be different from those provided by a traditional setup, but Coluccy says that when birds are in the decoys rather than flaring from hunters, or when blinds are exposed by a modest hide, unique shots are better than none at all.
"In a situation where it's 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 setup, 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."