DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 28 – Do Ducks and Geese Learn?

DU Chief Scientist Dr. Tom Moorman joins host Chris Jennings to discuss how and why ducks and geese learn

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited Podcast, the only podcast about all things waterfowl, from planning insights to science based discussions about ducks, geese and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America. We bring the resource to you. The DU Podcast with your host Chris Jennings.

Chris Jennings: Today I've got Dr. Tom Moorman, Ducks Unlimited's chief scientist here and we have kind of come across a conversation that we want to get a little more into, or at least I do and I'm sure some other people out there. It's really based around bird behavior and how ducks are getting, ducks and geese, I can't leave these out here, how they're becoming so smart as far as decoys, and maybe smart is not the greatest word to describe, I'd say wary, becoming knowledgeable about different types of decoys and think boats and because everybody's had that example where you've got a flock flying around and a couple ducks will look like they're about to dive in and two more will kind of shift them off the other side and the whole flock flies out. It happens a lot with snow geese. But Tom, can you discuss some of that, some of that I guess you would call it conditioning more or less, but-

Tom Moorman: Yeah, conditioning, learning. I'm not sure. I'm not a psychologist so I can't actually characterize it one way or the other. I'd call it conditioning and I'd sort of compare it to training a dog. That's really conditioning. Dogs learn and in fact we know most, at least most of the higher animals in the world learn and they learn new behavior and they learn avoidance behaviors and that's what we're talking about here, the condition avoidance behavior. So for waterfowl, conditioning can happen through the big noise a shotgun makes, other forms of disturbance, accessing hunting places with ATVs that spook birds up as you drive in or out. All those kinds of things are stimuli for those animals that may be associated with, for them, implications for survival.

Chris Jennings: A danger of some sort.

Tom Moorman: A danger of some kind that they need to avoid. They may know exactly what it is, but they know that when that thing goes boom, it scares them and they got to get out of there. Now, do they make the connection and associate that with a spread of decoys or blind? After years and years of duck hunting, I'd tell you, yeah, they probably do because everybody's seen blind avoidance and everybody's seen decoy avoidance. These birds are relatively long lived. At least the adults, if they survive to adulthood, the average life expectancy for mallards, pintails, that kind of thing, somewhere in the four to seven year range. The young guys get wiped out. First the half of the year's production dies in the first year. But after that, things slow down in terms of mortality. So those birds are having repeated exposure year in, year out to lots of of stimuli.

Tom Moorman: Do they remember from one season to the next, is a really interesting question. What that feels like to me having hunted in Prairie Canada and then do most of my hunting in the Deep South, it feels like at the onset of fall, early fall, say October in Saskatchewan, that all the birds are more vulnerable. I actually, I couldn't look at those birds and age them and sure there's a preponderance of immature, but there's still some adults in those flocks that get taken. So my sense is probably though that some of this carries over from year to year. I think in snow geese, there is no doubt that it's generational. It's carrying over from generation to generation. They're getting to the point where they just get really difficult to kill, period. You got to go and have gigantic spreads of decoys and all those kinds of things. It's a lot of work to make them vulnerable.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, the conditions and everything has to work right.

Tom Moorman: Everything has to come together.

Chris Jennings: To make them vulnerable. I've seen that many-

Tom Moorman: So I think we see some of that now and I think there's also likely to be a little bit of behavioral influence. What I mean by that is mallards and pintails for example, typically if you're hunting and you see mallards coming or pintails coming, they can be a little bit higher. I think they're, visually, they see things better and so they get the reputation of being more wary and maybe that's how to define that. Contrast that with a flock of green-winged teal who's scooting along about 15 yards high, knock your hat off.

Chris Jennings: That's right.

Tom Moorman: So they're maybe not quite as wary would be how people would take that. Buy maybe also they just don't see as well. I can't say they don't learn as well or conditioned without-

Chris Jennings: Yeah, there's no way to really know that.

Tom Moorman: Yeah, somebody would have to design a really incredible anddifficult experiment to really understand that. But I think it's fair to say that these birds respond, we know they respond to disturbance and other stimulus like it, stimuli like it. Very likely they get conditioned and I think for some of the longer lived birds, it probably commits to memory. Of course we can't ask them. We can put them on the sofa here next to me and give them a psychotherapy job. But I don't think they'd talk to me. But I think those kinds of things go on. So as the more intensely we hunt these birds, the more we should expect some of those kinds of responses that we see.

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Chris Jennings: There's certainly not a study by any means, but I don't think there's any duck hunter out there that wouldn't tell you that 15 years ago, a spinning wing decoy was much more deadly than it is now.

Tom Moorman: Yeah, down in the southern latitudes for sure.

Chris Jennings: Absolutely.

Tom Moorman: They're still a pretty effective in the north, but mostly on younger birds. So yeah, those things change over time. Birds are much more educated so those devices don't work nearly as well as southern latitudes. There is actually some science starting to show that, published papers on that.

Chris Jennings: Every different species I'm sure is different. That can be behavioral, just like you mentioned the pintail. The snow geese are the most frustrating for me. But I'm also seeing white fronts, which typically even just seven, 10 years ago, fairly easy to kill in the areas that I hunt. Now, they are levy shy. What I personally, no science involved at all here, but they're following the snow geese. That's my conspiracy is that the snow geese are teaching the white fronts. But it is. It's all conditioning. They're probably ... We used to be able to shoot at full limits as many times or several different occasions and now they're getting a little tougher.Tom Moorman:Yeah. One of the things you watch is those birds move around these winter landscapes. I've seen this more than once and actually pretty commonly. Snow geese are like a big billboard. If they're real live snow geese, it's a big billboard that says, "Hey, things are pretty safe right here because we're standing on the ground," and when there's 10,000 snow geese, 20,000 eyeballs in their feet. So what do you see in their periphery? You start to see lots of white fronts. So I think there's some of that going on too, some of that sort of inner specific playing off of each other a bit. Alternatively, I also still see lots of groups of white fronts sitting around and I do think they are getting conditioned in their own kind of way.

Tom Moorman: Fortunately for duck hunters, as you know it's not all bad news here. Ducks still have to arrive. So if you're hunting on the days that populations arrive, they still have to explore in sample habitats. If you happen to be one of them, then you're going to get some ducks in your decoys. You still kill ducks. We're almost making it sound like they're impossible to kill. They're not, obviously. But they are getting a little harder in some instances, getting a little tougher to kill. Some of it is condition related. If it's bluebird days, typically no wind. Decoys just look like decoys and ducks aren't totally stupid. I mean, they can see that stuff and it's like, "No, don't think so. Doesn't look real enough to me."

Tom Moorman: Hence the motion decoy. So the spinning wing one? Yeah, they get a little ... Start to maybe ignore those a bit or at least be able to not get sucked in by them. The ones that squirt water and ripple water, maybe a little bit better, but I'll bet they'll figure that game out too before it's all said and done.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, I mean they're, like you said, they're learning. It's a conditioning process. We can't necessarily say they're getting smarter and by no means we want people to assume that you can't kill them, by any means.

Tom Moorman: That's right. If you can do it the successful way, the most successful way I've seen the to hunt ducks is to scout them, put them to bed. You know they're there. That's where they want to be. You go in there and they'll probably be there the next morning. But a lot of us don't have that luxury because we're confined by a lease of say a rice field or something like that. So all I can tell you there is go duck hunting, man.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. You can-

Tom Moorman: Go enjoy it.

Chris Jennings: Go when you get the opportunity.

Tom Moorman: If you get that flight day, you're going to have some good days.

Chris Jennings: That's awesome. Well, I appreciate it, Tom. I know that's not necessarily a certain scientific topic but it's definitely a topic that hunters talk about and something that will come to mind throughout the season and maybe people can email into the show and submit some questions and we'll go through them at some point in time. But Tom, I appreciate it. Thanks for joining me.

Tom Moorman: Thanks Chris.

Chris Jennings: Special thanks to Dr. Tom Moorman, our guest today and a special thanks to Clay Baird, Ducks Unlimited Podcast producer who does a great job putting this show together. I'm your host, Chris Jennings. Thanks for joining us and thanks for supporting Wetlands Conservation.

Clay Baird:Thank you for listening to this episode of the DU Podcast. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the show and visit www.ducks.org/dupodcast for resources based on today's topics, as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.