Public Land Playbook: Whistle Power

Aggressive calling with your duck whistle might make all the difference in turning wary flocks

© Michael Furtman

Just about every elementary school teacher with a few years of experience carries a good whistle. It’s a tool emblematic of the profession because when it’s time for lessons but youngsters are running amok, nothing commands their attention as decisively as a shrill, piercing whistle.

A whistle can have about the same effect on ducks, too. Most waterfowlers carry a whistle of some sort on their call lanyards, and they often use them supplementally, pairing aggressive hen mallard routines with softer mallard drake calls, teal whistles, and pintail trills. Whistles are frequently recommended for new or younger hunters, too, since it doesn’t take much skill or air pressure to use them.

All that is great, but you might be missing out on working extra ducks if you’re using a whistle only as a backup. I started taking my whistle more seriously a few Octobers ago, when a couple of buddies and I were tucked into layout blinds overlooking a half-acre puddle in a sprawling North Dakota cornfield. We’d been bumming around on public ground and knocking on doors, and had gotten permission to hunt the farm a few days earlier. We had scouted the puddle with optics the evening before, and it was crawling with ducks at sunset. After it got dark and they lifted, we snuck in, dropped an onX Hunt app waypoint so we could find the place in the predawn dark, and then spent a restless night waiting on our alarms. 

The next morning, the weather was changing fast. We shot a few ducks early, but a merciless cold front was roaring in from the north. We had a couple of dozen decoys and two spinners out, and the wind blew so strong that it snapped one of the spinners right off its support stake. Meanwhile, we watched one bunch of mallards after the next trade across the field several hundred yards upwind. We hailed at them with hen calls, but it was obvious they couldn’t hear us—or at least they weren’t interested.

When a surprise flock of pintails banked around from behind, we switched to our whistles, peeping and trilling aggressively until a big bull sprig could stand it no longer. My buddy folded him as he was floating over the decoys in a headwind—and the shot flared a flock of 20 mallards that were circling too. When the next bunch of ducks appeared upwind, we switched from quacks to obnoxiously loud, aggressive whistles, and the ducks turned our way. I’d have called it a fluke had we not whistled in multiple flocks after that and finally filled our limits of greenheads and pintails. It was the type of DIY hunt you dream of when you go to North Dakota.

A whistle is a versatile call under any circumstances.

I didn’t forget how well those ducks worked a whistle, and I’ve continued using it in the same aggressive fashion during every duck season since. I’ve seen hard whistling turn flocks of mallards and gadwalls on the Tennessee River, and last winter, while hunting stock ponds in central Texas, it was like a siren song for luring in wigeon and green-winged teal. My hen mallard call stayed in my blind bag.

I believe a whistle is effective for a few different reasons. One of the most obvious is that they are not as commonly used as hen mallard calls, at least as a primary sound. For public hunters, anything that sets you apart from the rank and file is often advantageous. In addition, for many duck species—particularly teal, wigeon, pintails, and wood ducks—whistling is a natural sound. Even gadwall meeps begin with a nasally, ascending whistle, and a mallard drake’s gweeb could best be described as a blend of a whistle and a quack. Ducklings of numerous species use whistles to communicate with one another and their mothers as well.

I also think that at least in certain conditions, ducks can hear whistles better. If you’ve ever listened to a large flock of ducks on the water at night, maybe in a flooded crop field or on a refuge, you know the birds produce plenty of noise. Quacking, splashing—and almost constant whistling from various species. If you back up, some of the noises will fade, but you can still hear the whistles from a good distance away. When comparing duck sounds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology found that a hen mallard quack has a frequency of about 0.1–8 kHz, while a whistle has a higher average frequency of 2.5–3.7 kHz.

The observations from the field are purely my own. And to be clear, there’s a lot we don’t know about ducks’ hearing. It’s obviously pretty good, though. There have even been studies suggesting that sea ducks and other diving species use their hearing to locate food deep underwater. Yet, despite their ability to hear it from a distance, a whistle has another hunting advantage: I haven’t seen even loud, aggressive whistling flare ducks in the way that overdoing it on a hen mallard call can.

Practically speaking, one of the best things about whistles is that they’re cheap, especially compared to a custom acrylic duck call. The basic ones have no reeds or moving parts—just a bell, a mouthpiece, and a hole on top. Plenty of call companies sell them, and most of them cost less than $10. By varying your finger placement, air flow, and cadence, you can use these simple calls to replicate teal, wigeon, pintails, mallard drakes, and wood ducks—although the pintail calls might require a little extra practice.

My favorite whistle is the Primos High Roller. I’ve had one for years, and it costs a bit more than a regular whistle (though it’s still inexpensive at $16). But the built-in roller bar makes it easy to imitate all the above sounds simply by covering or uncovering the holes on the whistle, and blowing. It could be called a whistle with training wheels. My only criticism of the High Roller is that mallard drake and wigeon sounds can be replicated a little more realistically with a standard whistle. Since whistles don’t weigh much, you might as well carry both styles on your lanyard.

The whistle isn’t a replacement for quacks and comeback calls, but at times, it’s much more than a supplement too. If you find public ducks—or any ducks—are ignoring your usual sounds on a given day, get a little whistle-crazy on them.

Just don’t be surprised when they turn and head your way.