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.
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.
“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.