Advanced Duck Calling

As a guide, researcher, speaker and writer, I have always been interested in learning about the animals I hunt: how they react to the weather, which calls they use and why, and when and how they mate; so that I could use the information to become a better hunter. Even though I’d cut my eye teeth on a duck call, and I’d been hunting ducks for over thirty years I knew I didn’t know it all. So, when I met well known waterfowl biologist and goose researcher Dr. Jim Cooper a few years ago I decided to pick his brain. I specifically asked him what calls were best for hunting. He told me that if I really wanted to learn about duck behavior I should read the book Handbook Of Waterfowl Behavior by Dr. Paul Johnsgard. He also suggested the book Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. What I learned from my conversations with Jim, and from those two books, has dramatically changed the way I hunt ducks and geese.

While I was reading Johnsgard’s book I was amazed to find out that ducks don’t use the Chuckle to signify that they are feeding, or to entice other ducks to join them while they are feeding. I had grown up thinking that ducks used the Chuckle as a feeding call, that they used the Hail or High Ball to get other ducks to come and join them, and that they used the Comeback to get ducks that were flying the other way to turn around. And that is the problem with most game calling. Many hunters don’t understand the meaning of the calls they use.

 Duck Social Behavior

In order to properly understand why ducks and geese use the calls they use, you have to understand their social behavior; especially mating behavior. Waterfowl biologists refer to the mating behavior (courtship behavior as opposed to actual breeding) of ducks, geese and swans as pair bonding. Most waterfowlers know that geese mate, or pair bond, for life. After they pair bond the male and female stay together during nesting, and the young stay with the parents through the fall and winter. The young geese don’t usually leave their parents or begin to pair bond until they are on the wintering grounds during their fist or second year. This means that, during the hunting season, most geese are still in family groups consisting of the male, the female, and their young.

Ducks, on the other hand, do not mate for life; they regularly form a pair bond with a new partner each year. But, the male and female don’t stay together to raise the young, and the young don’t stay with the females very long. The drakes of most duck species leave the hens as soon as they start to nest, or shortly after. The hens then raise the ducklings by themselves. During the summer the hens molt (which leaves them flightless); and the young ducks grow their first flight feathers and begin to fly. After the young ducks learn to fly they may no longer associate with the hen, and they are generally on their own.

The young ducks then begin forming loose pair bonds from late summer through early winter. (Pair bonding by Mallards may begin as early as mid-August. Pair bonding by other puddle duck species occurs from mid-October through winter, and by divers from mid-winter through early spring.) This pair bonding is often accompanied by aerial courtship flights and displays, and by calls that are associated with pair bonding behavior. As a result of this social behavior, ducks are not normally in family groups during the hunting season; they are usually in groups consisting of unrelated individuals and newly bonded pairs.

Duck Vocalizations  

During the fall most puddle duck hens of the genus Anas (Mallard, Black Duck, Gadwall, Blue-Winged Teal, Green-Winged Teal, Widgeon and Shoveler) use three calls; the Social Contact Call, the Decrescendo call, and the Incitement call. The Social Contact call is used by the hen to keep her family together; it is also used by hens to make other ducks aware their presence. The Decrescendo Call is used by hens to announce a willingness to pair bond. It may also be used by hens as general conversation. Although breeding doesn’t usually occur until spring, the hens use the decrescendo when they begin forming pair bonds in the fall. The Incitement Call is used by the hen to get her mate to drive another drake away from her. It’s a threat call, with the hen telling another duck that if it doesn’t leave her alone it may be attacked by her mate. Since most puddle ducks respond to the calls used by Mallards, they are the calls most commonly used by hunters, and they are the puddle duck calls discussed here.

Hen Social Contact Calls

The hens of most puddle duck species use a slow, shortened version of their Decrescendo as a Social Contact call; Mallard hens use a simple quack. This call may contain one or more drawn out notes spaced evenly apart; quaack…quaack…quaack. To imitate this call cup your hand over the barrel of the call like you were holding a bottle, and say quack. Your hand should remain cupped while you say the qua portion of the call; open your fingers on the ack.

Hen Decrescendo Calls

The Decrescendo call sounds just like it’s Latin name implies; it starts out loud and then becomes quieter as the duck runs out of air. The decrescendo of the hen Mallard is referred to by hunters as the hail, high ball or greeting call. It usually consists of five to ten notes, with the second note being the loudest and each successive note being softer.But it may be longer; I have heard a hen Mallard string seventeen quacks together while performing the decrescendo.

To correctly perform this call the first note should be short, and the second note the loudest, with

each of the following notes becoming softer qua-quack-quack-quack-quack-quack-quack. Most callers leave their hand open while performing this call. Eli and Rod Haydel, of Haydel’s Game Calls, use a variation of this call with an exaggerated, drawn out first note as a pleading call; and a sharper, more insistent version as a comeback call; quaaack-quack-quack-quack-quack-quack.

The hen Black Duck, Pintail and Shoveler use approximately the same call and pitch as the mallard. The hen Gadwall uses the same call, but with a higher pitch. The hen Widgeon uses a qua-awk; with 1 to 3 notes. The hen Blue-Winged Teal and Green-Winged Teal use a high pitched quack with 3 to 4 notes, and the last two notes are usually cut off short. Haydel’s has a good Teal call for creating the higher pitched sounds of the hen Teal.

 Hen Incitement Calls

The incitement call used by hen puddle ducks is usually an insistent, rapid call consisting of several short notes The incitement call of the hen Mallard is referred to as the chuckle or feeding chuckle by hunters. The first time I really began to understand how Mallards used the chuckle was about ten years ago while I was sitting at the small lake near my home feeding geese with my kids. I heard the call and saw a hen mallard feeding with the geese. But, she wasn’t feeding, she was chasing away a drake mallard. It was quite obvious that the hen was using the chuckle as a form of threat call.

Although the chuckle is not a feeding call, it does occur in feeding situations where there are lots of drakes near the hens. In order for the hens to keep from being harassed by single drakes they perform the chuckle, telling other drakes that if they dot stay away they may be attacked to try to get drakes to stay away, which allows the hens to feed or swim in peace. Since ducks often hear the chuckle while they are feeding, or as they approach ducks that are feeding (whether they are on land or water) this call can be used to attract most puddle ducks. When you use the chuckle to bring in ducks, blow it as it is meant, loud, insistent and aggressive. Do not blow it like a welcome to incoming ducks, or as a pleading call to get other ducks to come down and feed. To imitate this the call, cup one or both hands over the end of the call, and rapidly say ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka while you blow into the call. I cup both hands over the call, and alternately open the fingers and thumb of the hand that is not holding the call, to create the impression of different sounds coming from different directions..

The hen Black Duck, Gadwall, Shoveler and Widgeon use approximately the same call and pitch as the hen Mallard. The hen Pintail uses a softer, more hoarse call, rrrt-rrrt-rrrt. The hen Blue-Winged and Green-Winged Teal use the same call with a higher pitch. The hen Wood Duck uses a high pitched whistle, wheet-wheet-wheet. Several call manufacturers offer Wood Duck calls for recreating the sound of a hen Wood Duck.

Drake Social/Mating Calls

The drake mallard call is simply a deeper, more reedy version of the social  contact call, usually containing two to four notes; raeb-raeb-raeb-raeb. The drake Black Duck uses the same call as the drake Mallard. The drake Gadwall uses a higher pitched raeb-zee-zee-raeb-raeb. The drake Shoveler uses a woh-woh-woh, or, took’a-took’a-took’a. The drake Pintail uses a high pitched whistle, and a burp performed with an outstretched neck, kwa-kwa. The drake Blue-Winged Teal, Green-Winged Teal and Widgeon use a high pitched whistle. To perform the drake Mallard call use the same technique as the hen social contact call, but you will probably have to use a call with a deeper pitch. Haydel’s offer a good draek Mallard call. Several manufacturers offer combination Pintail/Widgeon/Teal whistles to reproduce the sounds of the drakes of those species.

Think While Your Calling

When you are calling ducks think about what you are trying to do. Initially you try to get the duck’s attention, to let them know there are other ducks in the area, and where they are. If the ducks aren’t coming toward you, you try to get them to change their course and come closer. As the ducks get closer you try to convince them that there are other ducks on the water, that it is safe to land, and that the area is a good place to rest and feed in safety. But, the calls you are performing are not used by the ducks for those purposes. They are used to announce a willingness to mate, during courtship behavior, and as a threat. So, what you have to do, is use the calls the ducks use, but, use them in a way that will get the ducks to do what you want them to do.

You can use a loud decrescendo as a hail call to initially get the ducks attention. Even though the decrescendo is a pair bonding call, it can be used to attract ducks because they are accustomed to hearing it in the fall. You can also use the decrescendo as a comeback call to turn the ducks, and as a pleading call to entice the birds to land. But, when you are calling, remember that ducks are not very big, and they have small lungs, they can’t possibly call as loud as I hear some hunters blow their calls. The closer the ducks get, the softer you should call.

You can use a series of quacks and chuckles to convince the birds that your decoys are real, and that everything is all right. Even though the inciting call is a threat and not a feeding call, it is used by ducks in a feeding situation. You can use the chuckle or a diver growl to convince the in coming ducks that there are one or more drakes harassing the hens in your spread. To add more realism to your calling you can use the social contact calls of the drakes, and the sounds of any other duck or goose species that might be in the area.

Calling Puddle Ducks

When I first see ducks a long way off I use a loud, long hail or high ball call (decrescendo) to get their attention and let them know where I’m at. I also use loud, long calls on windy days, when the ducks can’t hear as well, especially if they are upwind; and when I’m hunting flooded river bottoms, where sound doesn’t carry very far. If the birds don’t come my way, or if they turn off before the come in, I use a more drawn out version of the decrescendo, to try to convince the birds to come my way. While I call I watch the birds. If they respond to the call I’m using, I keep it up. If they don’t respond I try something else; a loud decrescendo, a soft decrescendo, a long, drawn out decrescendo, a string of short quacks, or a chuckle, whatever it takes. Sometimes I quit calling all together, to see if that works.

Once the ducks get within a hundred yards or so I use softer, shorter hail calls and slow, loud quacks, trying to sound like a contented hen. Most duck hunters have heard the early morning quacks of a hen Mallard across the water; that’s the sound you should imitate when your calling ducks that are in close. When the ducks are close don’t blow loud, fast quacks, that’s the sound a duck uses as it jumps into the air when it’s alarmed. And don’t over call. If the ducks are coming toward you, put the call down, grab the gun, and let ’em come. If they look like they might swing off use slow, soft quacks or the chuckle to keep them coming.

Be Adaptable  

I always carry more than one brand of Mallard call, each call with a different pitch. If the ducks don’t respond to one call I try the others, until I find one they do respond to. I also carry several calls so that I have a backup when the call I’m using gets wet and won’t blow. While I really like the sound of a good wooden call, they sometimes have a tendency to freeze up on cold days. I always have a couple of non-wooden calls with me. Plastic, poly-carbonate and acrylic calls may still freeze up, but, you can usually clear out the ice by blowing into them hard, or by knocking them against you hand.

To keep from sounding like every other hunter on the marsh, especially when the ducks don’t seem to be responding to my hen Mallard hail calls, quacks and chuckles I use a drake Mallard call. When the ducks won’t respond to a Mallard call I use a Pintail/Widgeon/Teal whistle or a Wood Duck whistle, which may be all it takes to get the ducks to respond. If I’m hunting lakes, rivers, sloughs or marshes that are big enough for divers to use I also keep a diver call on my lanyard. I include decoys of these other species in my decoy spread just in case some of them show up. After being hunted for several days or weeks the ducks often get call and decoy shy. When this happens I may stop calling altogether, use fewer or more decoys, or move to a new location.

Use Good Calls

If you really want to sound like the ducks you’ve got to have calls that can produce the right sounds. There are a lot of calls on the market that don’t produce the right sounds, or that can’t produce a wide range of tones. If a call doesn’t produce the right sounds, or is not able to produce a wide range of sounds, you won’t be able to reproduce realistic duck calls with it. If you have limited experience with a duck calls stick with a double reed call, although they are more limited in their range of tones than  single reed calls, they are easier to blow, and they will get you blowing the right sounds more quickly, and more consistently. After you become proficient on a double reed you may want to get a custom single reed call.

Purchasing A Call

Before you buy any call I suggest you give it a try. Blow a loud high ball, a softer quack and a chuckle, to see how the call performs. If you are one of those callers who likes to tune their own calls, ask before you start fiddling with the reed; some stores will let you and some won’t. If you’re looking for good over the counter calls Big River, Haydel’s, Hunter’s Specialties, Knight & Hale, Lohman, Mallardtone, Primos, Quaker Boy and Sure Shot all make good inexpensive calls; I use calls made by each of them. If you can’t find what you want at your local store Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, Herter’s, Wing Supply and several other catalogs offer a wide selection of calls and instructional tapes.

As with most things you pay for, the more expensive the materials of the product, the higher the price. The price of custom calls made of laminated wood, cocobola wood and acrylics start at around $70. I don’t suggest you buy an expensive call through the mail, unless you know the maker, because you may not be able to return it. The best way to buy a custom call is to meet the maker at a show, and try several calls, then choose the one you like. If you don’t like the sound of the call most of the makers will tune it while you wait. Watching a call maker tune a call, and asking questions about how and why they do it, is also a good way to learn how to tune your own calls.

Duck Hunters

  Each fall as the cold descends upon the northern lands many species of waterfowl begin their migration south to warmer climates. Duck hunters also begin their yearly migration. They leave their everyday lives as farmers, laborers, clerks, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and the thousands of other jobs that occupy their lives for long hours. They leave behind their normal existence to experience a renewal of their mind and spirit. They gather together boats, canoes, waders, camouflage clothing, decoys, calls, guns, shells, thermos bottles and dogs, and load them into all manner of vehicles. Then they take to the backroads that lead to the sloughs, ponds, lakes, streams rivers and backwaters where ducks and geese feed and rest.

They drive through the early morning darkness, the headlights of the vehicles leading the way to their destination. Once they arrive they unload the carefully stowed gear and often reload it in the watercraft and launch it onto the water. The excitement begins to build. The entry to the water is like opening a door to another world. All the pressures and worries are forgotten as thoughts of where to setup and how to place the decoys occupy the hunter’s minds. The decoys are eventually put out and the hunters retire to a stand of brush, grass, cattails or a blind to await the appearance of dawn and the coming of the ducks. As the hunters check their guns and pour a steaming cup of hot coffee a hen mallard quacks lazily across the water; quack, quack, quack, quack. Somewhere a coot splashes in the water, and a muskrat swims slowly by.

As the first light of dawn approaches a flock of Wood Ducks swings overhead, whistling as they fly; wheet, wheet, wheet. If it is late in the year and conditions are right the hunters may hear the rush of wings as a flight of bluebills passes by, sounding more like a jet than a flock of ducks. On special late season days there is the lonely cry of the swans as they move south; whoo, whoo, whoo. Or maybe the guttural sounds of a flock of Sandhill Cranes. The Marsh Wrens begin to flit in the grass or cattails, and occasionally, an owl can be heard. Often there are the sounds of blackbirds and grackles as they stream by in their seemingly endless flocks, stretching in waves across the sky. The noise blocks out all other sounds as the birds call incessantly.

The hunters peer intently through the cloud of birds, knowing that a flock of teal or mallards may slip in unnoticed, and there, beneath the blackbirds, is a trio of Bluewing Teal. The hunters crouch low, avoiding the wary eyes of the ducks. They reach for their calls and try to coax the birds in. For a while there is the sound of calling. The teal buzz the decoys once, twice, and then bank into the wind and out of sight, hurtling past like miniature fighter planes. But, as if the calling has attracted more ducks, a flock of Mallards appears, and before the hunters can relax, the birds begin to descend from the sky. Again the hunters crouch low, cupping their calls and guns.

This time the ducks respond without hesitation and head for the “hole” in the decoy  spread. The hunters wait in anticipation as the flock gets closer, hoping they come into range. They can see the bright green of the drake’s heads as the sun glints off their iridescent plumage. The ducks get closer until the hunters see their red feet as the birds cup their wings and extend themselves to land. Unable to wait any longer the hunters rise up, shoulder their guns and barely feel the recoil as the concussion of the shells pounds the air. Two of the greenheads fold and fall, splashing as they land on the water. The remainder of the flock speeds away into the sun, and once again there is a stillness in the air.

Then the black Labrador leaves the blind, front legs reaching out as he leaps into the water with a splash. The hunters talk about how the ducks came in, and how they lead them before firing. They talk excitedly, not thinking about their lives, the news, work or the urgency of civilization. For the time being the hustle and bustle, the stress of life is forgotten. The only thing on the minds of the hunters is enjoying these brief hours spent with friends who understand and enjoy the time spent on the water.

These duck hunters are a strange breed, almost despising the warm beautiful days of autumn. Instead they look forward to the miserable days. They embrace stormy weather with cold winds and biting sleet, rain or snow. They revel in frozen oar locks, ropes and hands. Ice covered decoys, clothing and equipment is expected and spoken of proudly as they recount their hunts, because others of their like know and understand that this type of weather brings the ducks, keeps them flying low, and willing to come to the decoys and the call. It’s almost as if the hunter who has not gotten wet, cold, frozen and gone home empty handed has not earned his stripes. He has not paid his dues in the duck blind. He has not earned the right to be called a duck hunter until he has spent long hours in a blind waiting for the ducks to fly. Until he has endured and withstood the weather, and gone home countless times, after many hours, without even firing a shell, he is not a duck hunter.

The duck blind is the proving ground; the long hours and harsh weather the test; the water soaked clothing, and the frozen cheeks and toes the badge of honor; the experience and endurance the essence of memories. The duck blind is where hunters of all ages and backgrounds pit their stamina, courage and will against, not the ducks, but nature. Even though it is not a place for the weak of heart, the impatient, or those frail of body, it is a place where the young, the old and even the disabled venture in search of the experience.

The duck blind cannot be about shooting ducks, for there are too many times when no ducks are shot, no ducks are even seen, for shooting to be all that matters. The duck blind is a place to get away, if only for a few hours. The hunt is a short vacation, a respite from everyday life. It is a place to spend time with a wife, husband, son, daughter or hunting partner. It is a place to relax, unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature and the environment that God created. The duck blind is something only a duck hunter can understand.