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Using pigeon decoys while hunting

PUBLISHED: 16:41 11 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:41 11 October 2018

It's up to you to find out which crops you have growing on your permission.

It's up to you to find out which crops you have growing on your permission.

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This month, Phil continues his hunting masterclass with decoying woodpigeons

Firstly, let me explain what decoying is to those of you who haven’t heard of it. It’s the act of luring birds down into a kill zone, using plastic ‘decoy’ birds. When the incoming bird sees what it believes to be a flock of its fellow kind, down and feeding safely, it decides it wants to get in on the action and will come dropping in and land right where you want it, and you are ready and waiting to dispatch it as soon as it does. That is the theory. Anyway – the reality is a little different.

Woodpigeons are not easily fooled, so setting up a decoy pattern just anywhere will not work. Firstly, you need to find the correct area and you can only do that by getting out there and looking. I prefer late summer when the fields are brown and only a couple of weeks away from being cut, which is when the woodies start building up around them in large numbers. If you watch, you will find them sitting in nearby trees and telegraph wires before dropping down to feed, and the more you watch the more you will learn. You will soon see which fields are being raided the most, and these are the fields you are looking for. The most productive fields for summer harvest tend to be wheat, barley and rape, so these are where I’d concentrate most of my efforts.

Hours spent watching the birds and fields is essential to successHours spent watching the birds and fields is essential to success

Invisible highways

Once you have identified an area that is attracting pigeons in numbers, it’s time to do some serious reconnaissance. Woodpigeons use invisible highways in the sky to navigate, known as ‘flight lines’. These flight lines help them to get from place to place and serve the same purpose as our road systems. Some are major routes, similar to motorways, and the birds use these to travel great distances. Others are smaller and used less often, and can be tricky to spot, but given enough time spent watching, it becomes pretty easy to see which flight lines the birds are using to enter and exit the field. Whilst you’re doing this, you can also try to identify any trees or hedges the birds are using to perch in before launching their attack on the crops, because some days these can be almost as fruitful as the decoy pattern itself. I would advise that you try to get out on a few days and at different times, so you can really build up a picture of what the birds are doing and when. I like to start this a few weeks before the field gets cut so I can build up as detailed a picture of what is happening as possible, with everything accounted for and little left to chance.

Place your decoys out to mimic a flock of feeding birdsPlace your decoys out to mimic a flock of feeding birds

Hide construction

The next stage in your preparations is finding a position from which to shoot. You can construct a hide, or use natural cover that you will use on the day, but either way it’s vital that you get its position right. You want it underneath, or as close as is possible to an incoming flight line. You want the very first thing those birds see as they arrive to be your decoys, with no exception. In the past, I have used everything from a few cleverly placed bails, to a full-on, purpose-built hide, right down to a patch of long grass that I lie behind. The more comfortable your hide, the more comfortable you will be during the session, but do not under any circumstance be tempted to place your hide in a more convenient place at the expense of having it close to a flight line. It’s more important to have a poor hide in the right place, than it is to have a lavish, luxury hide in the wrong place. The easiest way to construct a hide is to use a piece of camouflage netting. This is ready-made, designed for the purpose, and can be stretched across a couple of fence posts, hide poles or even draped over a bush. You can weave in some natural material for added cover, taken from each side of the hide, to help it to really blend in and this will suffice in most cases, but be careful that no light is shining in from behind, or the birds will spot you moving against it and are sure to spook.

Good concealment is essential be it a hide, or a bush, you need to remain hidden.Good concealment is essential be it a hide, or a bush, you need to remain hidden.

Which decoy?

So, which decoys to use? These days there are a vast array on the market, ranging from plastic, painted shell decoys, through to flock-coated, full-bodied versions and even neoprene fold-up types that can be set up in differing poses. I’m yet to try all of the different types, but over the years I have had a lot of success from using a mix of full-bodied and shell decoys. The full-bodied ones look more realistic, but are bulky to carry, so I tend use them for half of my pattern and for the other half I use shells. This gives the appearance of some with their heads up alert, while I sit the shells lower to look like they have their heads down, feeding. The shells will not fool birds for long so I try to hide them in the longer bits of stubble or keep them low in tractor tracks. Whichever type you choose will depend on how you plan to transport them, and also your budget. I generally use between six to 12 decoys in my pattern, and on mine I have repainted the white wing and neck bars to make them more visible to incoming birds.

The white wind and neck bars make the birds stand out; I repaint mine every yearThe white wind and neck bars make the birds stand out; I repaint mine every year

Set-up pattern

The actual pattern depends on the day. If you have a good breeze coming in from one fixed direction, then you will need to face them into the wind. Birds do not like the wind blowing up their backsides, and any facing the wrong way will look unnatural and spook the real birds long before they land. Don’t set them up all facing the exact same way, though – have a few slightly at an angle to the wind, just enough to make it appear natural. If there is no wind you can face them in all directions at random. I try to make my pattern look as realistic as I can. By studying flocks of feeding birds, you can get a good idea of what looks realistic, which can help you to create convincing decoy patterns. I leave a yard or so between the decoys to allow the incoming birds space to land, but over time as they do and are shot, these gaps will close with fallen birds so you might need to keep an eye on that. You’ll know pretty quickly if the birds do not like the pattern your using because they will jink away at the last minute, or fail to land despite a lot of interest, in which case, rearranging the pattern usually does the trick. I tend to situate my decoys around 25 yards from my hide, with the furthest decoy sitting about 35 yards away and the closest around 15.

Decoying success

Try to spot the birds early and ready the rifle before they land. When they do touch down they will pause for a few seconds looking for danger before beginning to feed, and this is the perfect chance to take your shot. When you do shoot a bird, pay particular attention to how it fell. If it slumped forward, resist the urge to retrieve it because there might well be other birds incoming, and a shot bird lying belly down only serves to add more realism to your pattern. However, be sure to retrieve any shot birds that land on their backs because a bird lying belly up will send out a huge warning sign to the rest.

Replace with real birds

As the day progresses, you can gradually replace your plastic decoys with real shot birds; a sharpened stick placed through the bird’s chin and into the ground ensures a good, realistic pose. I replace the plastic birds with shot real birds as soon as I can because nothing can beat a real bird, no matter how good your decoys are, but you need to start off with something. Once they have served their purpose get them in and let the real birds work as decoys – they are way more effective. Many hunters before you, have sat in a bush, thrown out some decoys and waited...and waited...for hours, and had no success at all because they made the mistake of assuming that the actions on the day decided the outcome, which is the complete opposite of the truth.

Final thoughts...

The work you put in weeks before, that is the key to decoying success. Trust me, once you get the hang of it, bags beyond your wildest dreams become possible, so don’t give up if it doesn’t go to plan right away.

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Read more from Phil Hardman...

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