Duck, duck, goose egg

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The essence of hunting, I’m beginning to think, is figuring out how animals know you’re trying to kill them. Leave the house without a gun, and the creatures of the earth ignore you. They go about their creature business without regard for your proximity, noise, or smell. Go out with a firearm and murderous intent, though, and they give you a wide berth.

When you hunt deer, you have to go to great lengths to become part of the woods. You have to wash your clothes in special detergent to avoid smelling either like a human or like detergent. You have to sit motionless to avoid making any noise that would spook a deer. You have to be in the woods at the crack of dawn because that’s when deer are active.

So why is it that, at mid-day, you can roar down the Taconic Parkway, in a car belching exhaust, and get within twenty yards of a deer every time?

Now that my hunting experience has extended to waterfowl, and I’ve determined that ducks are just like deer, I’m ready to generalize up and down the food chain. Animals understand hunting.

Eric's decoys. They looked convincing to me.

Take this morning. At 5:00, when the thermometer read 19 degrees (which was a pleasant surprise since the overnight temperatures had been predicted to drop to single digits), I woke up and dressed for ducks. I had my clothes laid out, and I pulled them on, layer after layer. I had a quick cup of coffee and a piece of toast, and headed out to meet Eric.

Eric is a duck hunter. If there’s a line where avid crosses over to rabid, Eric probably walks it. Despite having a responsible job and a young family, he manages to go out for waterfowl twice a week, all season long. He loves ducks.

And he graciously agreed to take me hunting.

Our spot was just off Rick’s backyard. Rick, the mutual friend who introduced us, lives on one of the Cape’s many brackish ponds, and there’s a little promontory near his property that meets the requirement of being 500 feet from any dwelling.

When I got there, about an hour before sunrise, Eric was almost all set up. He had broken through the ice, and set up about two dozen decoys – mallards, mergansers, Canada geese – in a surprisingly lifelike tableau. His golden retriever, Hank, was suited up and ready to retrieve. His duck calls were around his neck.

He pulled his canoe into the brush at the edge of the marsh, and pulled out two stools. We sat down behind some brush and waited.

And that’s mostly what we did. Waited. We saw ducks – black ducks, mostly – but there weren’t many and they weren’t close. Eric tried to call them in, but they weren’t having it. “Black ducks aren’t very user friendly,” he said. At one point, he saw one land just to the right of us, and went over and rousted it. He had one shot as it flew away, and that was the only shot fired that morning. We bagged zero ducks between us.

Collecting, after the hunt

“This isn’t the script I wrote for you,” he said, apologetic as we rounded up his decoys so he could get to work on time. He’d really wanted me to at least get some shots, if not some actual ducks.

“Funny about ducks and scripts,” I said. “They don’t seem to like to read.”

Although I certainly would have liked it if the ducks had been more cooperative, it was very good simply being out with an experienced hunter. It helps you go from knowing nothing to knowing something, and that’s a big step. You learn what a duck hunt looks like, what to expect, what to look for, what to listen for, and how to dress. I started to learn about decoys and calls, and a couple of interactions with actual, genuine ducks taught me the value of sitting still until the very last moment, when you’re ready to shoot.

That last one was tough. The couple of times a duck headed our way, and looked like it might come in range, I mounted the gun too early and it veered off.

Eric had warned me about motion, and also about keeping my head down because upturned faces scare ducks away.

So why was it that, later in the day, as I went for a run along the Cape Cod Canal, the ducks didn’t give a damn? There were brigades of eiders and mergansers and brants, swimming and diving and flying. They were unperturbed as I ran by and looked them full in the face, a mere twenty yards away. Okay, I’m a slow runner, but not so slow that they’d think I was motionless.

They knew. Just as the black ducks in the morning knew. How the hell do they know? How can a duck, or a deer, learn to recognize when humans pose a threat and when they don’t? It’s awfully tempting to conclude that they can read the regulations, but even the most generous estimation of animal wherewithal doesn’t extend quite that far.

Some of it, of course, is confirmation bias – that tendency all us humans have to see what we believe to be true. Once you get it in your head that ducks come close when you can’t shoot them, and stay away when you can, that’s what you notice. But that can’t account for all of it.

Can they figure out that it’s safe near a house? Or in the summer? Or around someone who isn’t carrying a funny stick that makes a loud noise?

As I write, there are mergansers and coots in the water out my back door. Several times today, big Vs of Canada geese have flown low over the house. I find I’m looking at them with new eyes.

Ducks napping in our backyard

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Comments

  1. I am going to have to paraphrase this because frankly I can’t be bothered to look it up, but in The Secret Life of Plants (that’s the book with the plant polygraph, right?) they did an experiment with lettuce on an airplane. When the people in the front of the plane started eating their salads, the salad greens in the back got so agitated they passed out.

    Next time you go out with Eric, silently chant in your head “Rabbit Season. Rabbit Season. Rabbit Season…”

  2. Kim Graves says:

    I think you’re absolutely right – animals can tell when the hunt is on. We saw zero deer on our property during hunting season. Yet Masha woke up the other morning after the season was over to find deer outside our front door. But it’s not just people animals are aware of. I’ve seen video of predators lazing around while there usual pray graze peacefully around them. You would think that when the hunt is on, you give off a smell or “tell” of some sort. When fly-fishing, in order to catch a fish, I always found it important that I not care about whether I caught a fish. You gotta believe your body chemistry changes.

  3. …or maybe start packing a side arm on your runs? That way you can give off the I-don’t-care vibe, but still be ready for them? Or is that just too unsportsmanlike? Or just illegal….?

    I admire the fact that you get up early and go out in the cold to sit around still for awhile and freeze your tuckus off, just to go hunting. Maybe if my next meal depended on it, I could do it, but at this writing, I couldn’t. I’m no where near as hard core as you are in the first hand food thing.

  4. It gets worse, Tamar. As came up in a recent discussion on my blog, animals sometimes seem to sense predatory intent even when they can’t see you.

    Hunters recount being out in the woods with a gun, seeing a deer, and deciding they wouldn’t shoot. The deer comes closer, relaxed. Then the hunter changes his or her mind and decides to shoot. In that instant, without the hunter moving, the deer goes on full alert.

    Ain’t no Scent-Lok jacket gonna do diddly about that. An Intent-Lok hat, though? That might sell.

  5. Two things going on here:

    1) Ducks go where they want to go. When they choose an X for the day, they won’t stay away. If you’re not on the X or near it, most won’t come near.

    2) Yes they sense intent and it’s not your imagination. Can you sense someone watching or following you? Often, yes. This is why duck hunters joke incessantly about how the best way to bring in ducks is to pour coffee or drop your waders to take a leak. (In fact, in one forum recently, one hunter asked a question about best decoy spreads for hunting wildlife refuges, and another answered, “I bring a silhouette of a hunter pouring coffee.”)

    The motion of those actions attract ducks’ attention, and being highly curious and social animals, they’ll come take a look. And the fact that you’re focused on coffee or peeing means you are putting out zero vibes about them, so they’ll come really close. This happens so consistently that if you hunt ducks long enough, you’ll know it’s not your imagination.

    Fortunately for us, some ducks don’t have a good sixth sense.

    And oh yeah, divers don’t appear to follow the same rules, so your first hunt may have lulled you into believing ducks might be either stupid or insane.

    3) About standing to mount your gun: I often wait too late to do that, and I end up with an overhead shot, which I suck at. Funny thing is ducks often DON’T flare when you stand – especially if they haven’t sensed you. Point being, don’t kick yourself about that 🙂

  6. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think you did great. You got outdoors, got some exercise, I hope you had fun “hunting” even without the “harvesting” part, and got the material for a really cool post. Not a bad morning at all, that I can see. By the by, that really dark, nasty looking, old beeswax from your hives (You saved it, I hope.) will be wonderful for removing down if you decide not to skin some waterfowl. A couple of quick dunks in molten wax and allowing the wax to harden will make the down and pin feeathers much easier to remove. Peel the wax and remove the down. Repeat if needed.

  7. You could not possibly miss a duck as badly as I miss my girl.

  8. This is too funny for words. Thanks! You made my day, and reminded me of many hunting trips, stories heard, and head shaking questions. And the above comment is heart melting. I think you won either way.

  9. Hoosierbuck says:

    Hey Tovar, I recognize that comment. 😉 For the record, I would not hunt with ANYBODY who was wearing a tinfoil (intent-lok) hat. That’s one of those proverbial red flags.

    I believe it Tamar, I really do. Seen it happen too many times not to believe it. That’s why it is so ridiculous when a non-hunter says, “Where’s the sport in that? They just stand there and let me walk right past them in the park. It would be too easy to kill them.”

    Don’t get discouraged.

    HB/Chris

  10. Thanks for the moral support, from hunters and non-hunters alike. And thanks for the suggestions and observations from the hunters. As you know, these are my very first brushes with wild animals as prey, and getting either confirmation or contradiction of what I see out there is incredibly useful.

    Not to mention all those constructive suggestions! The Intent-Lok hat! The hunter pouring coffee decoy! And my favorite, the idea that you’ll hunt better if you’re not thinking about hunting. When I was a kid, my mother used to challenge us to sit in the corner and not think about a white bear. It’s the same kind of thing.

    And, to my husband, who has been away for more than a week, I’m sorry there will be no ducks here on your return, but I will be here, very glad to see you.

  11. Paul Roberts says:

    Amateur photographers often say, “Oh, if I only had my camera!” Grouse hunters say that too. “I was just hiking, no gun, and I could have shot three grouse!!”

    Our minds are selective. We can’t carry our cameras and guns all the time, and if we could, how many shots could we really have made good on? Luck/contingencies are always in play. The realization over time is that things are very real, and those “magic moments” … the “magic” is not in our heads.

  12. Paul Roberts says:

    “…animals sometimes seem to sense predatory intent even when they can’t see you.”

    I don’t believe that. Try video taping that hunter. That deer does not have ESP, it has very acute sensory perception.

    But how you move in the woods, how you behave can have amazing affects on those VERY perceptive animals. One way to put animals off is to act aggressive, or intense; The sound (cacophony) of a hunter trying to be sneaky can alert animals. Believe it or not, walking rhythmically can relax animals. It’s also possible to walk like a deer, with great practical effect. It feels like magic, and may look like YOU have ESP. You don’t, you’re just expanding your senses, and giving them meaning.

    What’s interesting to me is how we can ferret this stuff out -actually get inside and “pick about the gravel”. Tells me, once again, we are “of this world”.

  13. Paul Roberts says:

    Oh… I meant to add…

    I don’t believe that. Try video taping that hunter. That deer does not have ESP, it has very acute sensory perception. And the hunter is not sufficiently self aware.