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T.R.' Tips: Waterfowl Biology & Behavior
Photo courtesy US FWS
Shortly after I began guiding goose hunts I met Dr. Jim Cooper, one of the most highly respected waterfowl researchers in the world. When I met him he was an Associate Professor of Wildlife with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Minnesota, and he had been studying Canada Geese for over twenty-five years. The first time we met I told him I wanted to pick his brain about the calling, feeding habits, reaction to weather, habitat, family behavior, flock makeup and migration patterns of geese. After talking to Jim, and reading the results of his studies, it became apparent to me how important the family behavior of the flock is in understanding geese. Once I began to understand what the role of the family is in the flock, it changed the way I hunt geese.
Geese traditionally mate for life. In the winter, geese congregate in large flocks consisting of several groups or subflocks. When the geese migrate north in the spring the subflocks, consisting of several families, stay together and the young return to the same body of water where they learned to fly. If there is available habitat young female geese will nest in the same area where they were raised. The result of this is that the flock in that area is related through the female side of the family. They stay together throughout the year and recognize each other by sight and sound. In the fall groups of families from nearby areas often band together to form the subflocks. If there are several subflocks together at one site, the individual subflocks remain apart from each other. Although subflocks may be made up of hundreds of geese, the families within the subflocks remain together, and the individuals within each family remain in close contact with each other. On the ground each family of from two to twelve or more birds requires its own space, apart from the other families. In the air the geese fly in family groups.
Geese are primarily grazers. They eat succulent greens likes sedges, grasses and forbes (wild flowers) when they are available. Even when there is abundant corn I have seen geese eating grass on city parks and golf courses while most of the ground was covered with snow. If you can find a green field of grass, alfalfa or clover it is one of the best places to decoy geese. Geese also eat the leaves and seeds of small grains like oats, barley and wheat. They will also eat the new green sprouts of sugar beets, and leftover sugar beets. In the fall Canada geese seem to prefer oat and barley fields over wheat fields. After forbes, sedges, grasses and small grains have lost their chlorophyll in the fall geese will also eat larger grains like corn and soybeans.
Feeding Habits and Resting Periods
Geese generally fly out to feed twice a day, once within an hour of daylight, and again within an hour of sunset. When they are don feeding geese may fly back to their nighttime roost to rest during they day, or they may rest on other lakes, ponds and sloughs. During the day geese often loaf or sleep on the water or nearby land. In urban areas geese will often spend the midday hours at city parks, golf courses, and lakes and ponds with homes around them.
Weather affects geese in a number of different ways. Noted waterfowl biologist Dr. Jim Cooper says that because geese have numerous air sacks in their body they have the ability to detect subtle barometric pressure changes. Because of their ability to feel barometric pressure changes geese often feed heavily before or during the first few hours of a storm, and again after a storm lets up. When severe fall storms approach late in the fall geese often stop feeding and begin to flock-up as much as two days before the storm, and if the storm is severe enough, and the food sources are depleted, they may migrate. Heavy precipitation and strong winds make it difficult for geese to fly, therefore, unless they are migrating, they may not fly as much or as far as they normally would. When there is precipitation with high winds geese often fly lower than normal. In heavy rain or snow geese may fly out only once late in the morning, or they may not fly at all.
When temperature or wind-chill is above 20 to 25 degrees geese normally fly out to feed within a half-hour of sunrise, and again within an hour of sunset. When the temperature or wind-chill is below 20 degrees Canada geese often fly out later in the morning than normal; or they may not fly out to feed in the morning, but wait until late afternoon to feed. When the temperature or wind-chill is below 20 degrees geese often spend a lot of time resting or sleeping to preserve their energy. When the temperature or wind-chill is below 10 to 15 degrees giant Canada geese often remain on the roost all day, or they may take short flights before returning to the roost. According to Dr. Jim Cooper, if geese fly in extremely cold weather they may actually lose more calories than they gain in feeding. His studies show that giant Canadas can go 30 days without feeding or leaving the roost.
Because geese rely on their sight to detect danger they don’t like to feed or rest on land in low light conditions. They usually wait to feed until there is sufficient light for them to feel secure. However, geese will often feed long into the night when there is a full moon and no clouds. As a result of this they may not fly out to feed in the morning during the full moon. Clouds, rain, snow or fog generally cause geese to fly out later in the morning than normal because of reduced visibility. New snow or fog disorients geese and they may fail to recognize refuge lines and feeding fields, which makes them wary of anything that doesn’t look right. When they are going out to feed they often follow other flying flocks, and look for fields that have flocks already feeding in them before they land.
The larger subspecies of Canada geese nest primarily below the 60th parallel, with western subspecies nesting as far south as northern California and Utah. The smaller subspecies nest above the 60th parallel; these geese begin to migrate toward their wintering areas in the fall when cold weather, strong winds and snow signal the onset of winter. They may migrate only as far as they have to in order to find open water, available food, and temperature suitable to their body size. Because of their large body size giant Canadas can withstand colder temperatures than their smaller relatives; they may not migrate any farther south than the northern tier of the United States.
Depending on how they are used, goose calls fall into six different categories: Agonistic, Contact, Intent, Mating, Parental/Neonatal and Social Status. Dr. Cooper refers to the Contact calls as the "Here I am, where are you?" calls. While they are in the air geese call to each other to help keep the family, and especially the juveniles, together. When the family flies it forms a line or a "V" and the birds call to each other to keep in contact. When the family joins other families in a subflock the family usually flies in a straight line with the gander at the front of the family.
The calling of a goose in the air is directly related to the speed of the downbeat of the wing stroke, which is when the goose contracts its chest muscles and exhales. While a goose is flying in formation the tempo of its call is a slow herr-onk...herr-onk...herr-onk. When a goose begins to land, its wing beat gets faster as it backpedals, and the calling is a short, loud, fast clucking sound (cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck) that slows after the birds have landed and regrouped. I have also heard geese make a quiet, drawn out herrr-onk when gliding in to land.
While geese are feeding they perform a contact call hunters refer to as the feeding gabble, or "singing" as it is referred to by wildlife biologists. The call is a deep guttural herr-onk-onk-onk-onk. It occurs while the goose's head is down and it may not be able to see very far. This call lets geese know where the other geese are, and helps to space the geese out while they are feeding. When young goslings use this call it is a high pitched peep-peep-peep.
Agonistic (as in agonizing/arguing) or Threat Calls are intense and therefore loud, starting out slow and becoming faster. Both the male and the female goose often perform these calls at the same time, with the male's calls usually lower in pitch than the female's call. The call is fast and may contain two different notes; herr-onk onk, herr-onk onk, or cluck-uck, cluck-uck. There are three different levels of aggression in geese, each level using the same basic call but defined by different body posture and actions.
Geese on the ground or water use the first level of aggression as other flying gees approach them. The geese on the ground or water extend their neck and head upward, with the mouth open and tongue out, and use a loud herr-onk onk. If the geese in the air do not land in the area occupied by other geese there is usually no further action.
In the second level of aggression the goose calls with the neck extended skyward, but the head is bent toward the ground, and the head is pumped up and down while the goose calls. The action is directed toward a subdominant goose on the ground or water, and the subdominant often moves away from the dominant.
In the highest level of aggression the neck is extended forward along the ground or water and the head is tilted slightly upward while the goose calls. If the subdominant goose does not move it is usually attacked, either by being bitten or slapped with a wing. During all three levels of aggression the mouth is open and the tongue is out.
When a predator or human approaches too close to a goose, especially when there are eggs or young present, the goose may warn the intruder with a Hiss while the mouth is open and the tongue is out.
The Preflight or Intent call is usually performed by the gander while signaling its intention to take to the air to the rest of the family. The call starts out as a slow honk while the bird's chin is lifted, its bill points skyward and it shakes its head from side to side and flashes its white cheek patches as a visual signal to the other geese. The calling becomes faster as the goose prepares to take flight, and continues as the goose rises into the air, the calling in time with the wing stroke. Once the birds are in the air the calling slows with the wing stroke and may stop altogether.
The gander uses the Triumph or Mating Call in the spring when it has claimed a territory. The call is a loud series of honks performed with the head erect. This excited call starts out fast then slows down as the mood of the goose returns to normal. During the call the neck and head of the goose are extended upward.
There has been little research on parental and neonatal calls of geese, but Dr. Cooper says that both parents respond to the soft peep-peep-peep of the young goslings shortly after they hatch. I have heard adults perform a soft, nasal unk while they were with the young, or as the family fed. I suspect that both these calls are a form of social contact call used between parents and young.
Social Status Call
The Social Status or Greeting Call occurs between two family members after they have been separated, usually when the female returns to the nest, or after a male has driven off a predator or another goose that has invaded its territory. The call starts out as a loud slow honk that becomes faster, and then slower and quieter as the goose runs out of air. During the call the neck and head of the goose are extended upward.
Geese do not have an alarm call, but they do have an alarm signal. During alarm the head of a goose goes up into the sentry position so that it can see better, and it becomes silent. As other geese become alarmed by the action of the first goose, or spot the cause of danger, they raise their heads in the sentry position and also become silent.
This article is an excerpt from the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels. It is available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.
Understanding Duck Communication
Some hunters may not realize that communication among ducks and geese is a combination of sound, body posture and action. The meaning of a call may be more related to body posture and action than to the sound of the call. Because it is difficult to duplicate body posture and action you need to understand the call in order to correctly recreate it. According to waterfowl researcher Dr. Jim Cooper there are two major factors that determine the meaning of a duck or goose call; the frequency and intensity of the call. There are two other factors that determine the difference between different species and subspecies of ducks and geese; the pitch and duration of the individual notes of the calls.
The frequency or tempo (speed) with which a duck or goose calls is related to the action of the bird; the faster the motion of the duck or goose, the faster the call. The calling of a duck or goose on land or water is related to how fast it is moving. The calling of a duck or goose in the air is related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, which is when the duck or goose contracts its chest muscles and exhales. When a goose is calling on the ground to keep the family in contact it calling is slow. When a goose is flying, the calling is directly related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, which is when the goose contracts it chest muscles and exhales. When a goose is flying in formation its call is a slow, measured honk. When a goose is pumping its wings rapidly during takeoff or landing it calling is fast. Fast calls are a sign of a rapidly moving duck or goose.
The intensity (loudness) of the call is related to the mood of the duck or goose. The more anxious, excited, irritated or nervous the duck or goose is the louder the call is; taking off, landing, threatening and attacking are situations that may cause a duck to become anxious, which causes loud calling. If a goose is attacking another goose its calling is louder than if it is just threatening. Mating, threatening, attacking, landing and taking off are all intense times for ducks and geese, and their calling is often louder than normal at those times.
When a female duck uses a quack to keep the family together while she's feeding the call is usually soft and slow. When the quack is used to keep the family together while flying the call is louder and faster. When the quack is used to get the family back together after it has been
separated, or by a lone duck trying to locate its family or a flock in the air, the call is louder. When the quack is used as a hen jumps into the air after being alarmed it is loud and fast. When a hen uses a chuckle on the water the call is loud and slow, because the duck is not moving fast. When a hen uses the chuckle in the air the call is faster, because the duck is beating its wings rapidly. When Remember this when you are calling; loud calls may be a sign of an excited duck or goose, or a lost duck or goose.
The pitch (musical tone) of the call, and the duration (length) of the notes of the call, are related to the size of the duck or goose. Generally speaking, the larger the species of duck or goose, the larger its chest cavity is, and the deeper the pitch of its call. And, generally speaking, the larger the species of duck or goose, the longer its wing are, the slower it beats its wings, the longer the notes of its call, and the slower the timing (rapidity) of the individual notes of its call. Although Teal and Mallards use the same basic decrescendo call, the Mallard decrescendo is lower in pitch, and the individual notes are longer and slower than the decrescendo call of the Teal. The call of a giant Canada goose consists of low pitched, long notes, that are medium spaced; herr-onk ... herr-onk. The call of a small cackling Canada goose consists of high pitched, short notes that are quick paced; unc... unc. A study of Barnacle geese suggests that geese within that species, that have wider mouths, have higher pitched calls than geese with narrower mouths. This may be another reason why smaller subspecies of geese have higher pitched calls than larger subspecies of geese.
Puddle 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. Drakes of these species use a deeper version of Social Contact call for social contact and as a Mating call.
Hen Social Contact Call
The Social Contact call is used by a hen to keep the family together, it is also used by hens to make other ducks aware of their presence. The hens of most puddle duck species use a slow, shortened version of their Decrescendo call 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 Mating / Decrescendo Calls
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 Decrescendo call sounds just like its Latin name implies; it starts out loud and becomes quieter as the duck runs out of air. The decrescendo of the hen Mallard is often 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 loud (and can be long), with each of the following notes becoming softer quaack-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. My favorite calls for hen Mallard sounds are Haydel's DC-87 Double Reed Cutback Mallard, DR-85 Double Reed Mallard and the AD-98 Acrylic Duck.
The hen Black Duck, Pintail and Shoveler use approximately the same Decrescendo call, and the same pitch as the mallard. The hen Widgeon uses a qua-awk; with 1 to 3 notes. For all of these ducks I use Haydel's BVD-96 Variable Tone Mallard. The hen Gadwall uses the same call, but with a higher pitch; for Gadwalls I use Haydel's GW-01 Gadwall Call. Blue-Wing Teal and Cinnamon Teal use a high pitched quack with 3 to 4 notes, and the last two notes are usually cut off short. For teal I use Haydel's BT-85 Blue Wing and Cinnamon Teal call, which recreates the higher pitched sounds of the hens of those species.
Hen Agonistic / Incitement Calls
Agonistic calls are named for the fact that the animal is agonizing, or arguing. The Incitement call is used by the hen to get her mate to drive another drake away from her; it is a threat call, with the hen telling another duck that if it doesn't leave her alone it may be attacked by her mate. 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. I often hear this call in the spring, when two or more drakes are pursuing a hen mallard in flight.
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 don't stay away they may be attacked by the hen's mate). In order to be able to feed or swim in peace the hens use this call to try to get the drakes to leave them alone. 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 the sound of a hen performing this call in flight, cup one or both hands over the end of the call, and rapidly say ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka while you blow into the call. To imitate the sound of a hen performing this call while on land or water I say tuck, tuck-tuck, tuck, tuck, tuck-tuck. 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. I use Haydel's W-81Wood Duck Squealer and WW-90 Wood Duck Whistle for recreating the sounds of Wood Ducks.
Drake Social Contact / Mating Calls
The drake mallard Social Contact and Mating call is simply a deeper more reedy version of the social contact call, usually containing two to four notes; raeb-raeb-raeb-raeb. I often hear this call when one or more drakes are pursuing a hen in the air during spring mating flights, and in large flocks in the fall. I also hear it when drakes are just resting on water or land. 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 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. For the sounds of these species I use Haydel's MP-90 Magnum Pintail/ Mallard Drake call, which you can use on Pintail, Mallard, Teal and Widgeon. The drake Shoveler uses a woh-woh-woh, or, took'a-took'a-took'a.
Diver Duck Vocalizations
Although divers are vocal, calling them is not as important as it is for puddle ducks. When they are hunting divers hunters usually rely on large numbers of decoys to attract the ducks. Because of the way divers approach a landing site you don't often have to work them like puddle ducks that may swing over the decoys several times. When divers do come in to the decoys, I generally use the inciting call of a hen Bluebill, because it is louder than the social contact call of the drake. Once divers commit to landing I put down the call and grab the gun.
Hen Agonistic/ Incitement Calls
Most diver duck hens of the genus Aythya (Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead and Canvasback) perform the incitement call. Hen Redheads use a soft growled err-err. The hen Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck use a guttural arrrr. The hen Canvasback uses a grunted krrr. I imitate the incitement call of divers by using a mallard call and growling into it, like I was saying grrr while clearing my throat.
Drake Mating / Social Contact Calls
Drake diver ducks perform the courtship call, which may also be used as a social contact call. The drake Greater Bluebill, Lesser Bluebill and Ring-necked Duck use a 2 to 3 note call; scaup-scaup-scaup. The drake Canvasback uses a grunt or coo. The drake Redhead uses a catlike me-ow. Use a diver duck call to imitate the sounds of these species. Before I owned a diver duck call I used a Mallard call to imitate a drake Bluebill. I said the word scaup (scowp), while closing my hand over the barrel of the call at the end of the sound.
This article is an excerpt from the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels. It is available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.
T.R.'s Tips: Tips Waterfowl Hunting
T.R. Michels with giant Canada geese
Late Season Goose Hunting
An hour and a half before sunrise I turned the truck onto the road that lead to the hayfield where we hunted geese. As the truck neared the center of the hayfield I slowed down, and I heard my son Dallas say, "I hear geese." I'd heard the geese honking too and said, "Yeah, they roosted on the lake last night. If the wind keeps blowing from the northwest they should fly right toward us when they leave." About an hour later a flock of seven Canada geese came off the lake, heard our calling and saw our decoys, circled the decoys twice, and came in to land. Just before the geese touched down we shouldered our guns and fired, and four geese plummeted from the sky; we had our limit. A half-hour later, after picking up our geese and our decoys, we were on our way home. It's very rare that a goose hunt goes that well, and ends that fast. Sometimes it takes all day to get your limit.
Geese normally rest on lakes, river and ponds during the night, and feed on grass, clover and grain twice a day; shortly after sunrise, and shortly before sunset. The best way to find out where geese are feeding is find out where they are resting at night, and then follow them as they go out to fed in the morning. You can hunt the geese in the afternoon, but most hunters wait until the next morning to hunt. If you do hunt in the afternoon, the geese may not come back the next morning. Geese like to rest on lakes, rivers and ponds during the night, and feed on grass, clover and grain twice a day; shortly after sunrise, and shortly before sunset. The best way to find out where geese are feeding is to find out where they are resting at night, and then follow them as they go out to fed in the morning. You can hunt geese in the afternoon, but most hunters wait until the next morning to hunt. If you do hunt in the afternoon, the geese may not come back the next morning.
Geese prefer to land and take off into the wind, and they prefer to feed out of the wind. The also like to feed in open areas where one or more of the family members can see all around them. When you put out your decoys place them in the middle of an open field, on a hillside or low-lying area out of the wind if you can. Most of the decoys should face into the wind and not more than twenty percent of them should have their heads in the upright or "sentry" position. A goose with its head up is either looking for danger, or has already spotted danger. A lot of geese, or decoys, with their heads sticking up is a sign that there may be something dangerous nearby.
Geese are very family oriented. Depending on which species of goose they are the male (gander) and female (goose) mate when they are 2-4 years old. The young geese (goslings) usually stay with their parents for the first year. They migrate with their parents during their first fall, spend the winter with their parents and migrate with them back to where they were originally raised the next spring. The young females will continue to return to the general are where they were born every year. When the young males mate they follow their female partner back to where she was raised. Many of the goose flocks you see in the fall are made up of related females and their families. When you setup your decoys, place them in family groups, with 5-12 decoys in each family. Separate the decoys in each family group by a foot or more, and separate the family groups from each other by a yard or more.
In order for geese to respond to your decoys they have to see them; five or six stationary, black and brown decoys in a dirt colored field are not easily seen by high-flying geese. You can make your decoys easier for the geese to see by using bigger decoys, using more decoys, placing dark decoys in light brown fields or snow, by placing light colored decoys in light brown fields or dirt, and by using decoys that move. One of the best ways to attract geese is by "flagging." You can flag geese by nailing a 12-inch square of black cloth to a broom handle, and then wave the flag back and forth in the air. When geese see the flag they will often fly closer to investigate. Then when they see your decoys and hear your calling they may try to land near your decoys.
Photo by T.R. Michels
Randy "Flag Man" Bartz decided he wanted a more realistic looking goose flag, so he created the Lander Kite, a triangular piece of dark cloth with a tail, with a white crescent just above the tail. When the Lander Kite is attached to a 20 foot fishing pole and waved in the air, it looks just like a flying goose. By lightly shaking the pole up and down while you lower the flag toward the ground you can make the flag look like a goose landing. Randy suggests you keep flagging until the geese are within shooting range. If you stop flagging they may stop coming, or stay out of range. By using the fast cluck of the honk of the clucking landing
Geese use variations of several different calls to communuicate. The calls you should use when you are hunting include the social contact call, the landing call, the threat call and the feeding call. Most of these calls are honking sounds, but depending on how loud and how fast the calls are, they mean different things. When geese are worried or excited they call louder than normal. The Landing and Threat calls are louder than the Social Contact or Feeding calls. The faster the geese are moving, the faster they call. When geese are flying or running they call faster than when they are walking. While they are flying geese normally call at the same time that they flap their wings; the faster their wings beat, the faster they call. When geese flap their wings fast in order to slow down before landing their call is short and fast; when they glide in to land, and don't move their wings, their call is long and slow.
The Social Contact call is used to keep the family together, whether they are in the air or on the ground. Most of the slow honking that you hear when you see a flock of geese flying, or while they are feeding, is the Social Contact call; its usually a two note call that sounds like herr-onk. Use this call when the geese are far off and you are trying to get them to come closer. The farther away the geese are, the louder you may have to blow the call, so the geese can hear it. The Landing call is a louder, shorter and faster version of the Social Contact call, that geese use when they are flapping their wings as they land; it is usually a series of fast, short, one note honks; honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk . Hunters often refer to this call as Fast Clucking. Use this call when the geese are close and you want them to come closer and land.
The Threat call is used by geese to tell other geese to stay away; that they are getting too close. It is usually a loud, short, fast double honk; honk-onk. Hunters often refer to this call as the Hut-Hut call. This is the call you hear geese on the ground make as a flying flock of geese gets close to them. You can use this call in combination with the Landing call to get geese to land, because flying flocks almost always hear the Threat call as they prepare to land near another flock of geese. The Feeding call is used as combination social contact and threat call. It helps to keep the family together while spacing the families out while they are feeding with their heads down and they can't see. It is a series of deep sounding, gravely honks; onk, onk, onk onk. Use this call when geese get close, to convince them that your decoys are actually feeding geese.
When geese are in a large flock on land there is a lot of squabbling among families, accompanied by loud threatening honks and attacks. At the same time the geese that are feeding are performing the gabble. Family members that have been separated are also calling back and forth to each other, using the Social Contact, "Here I am. Where Are You?" call in an effort to get back together. All these sounds together make up the sounds of a feeding flock of geese. The more geese there are, the more noise they make. There is not one single call being performed, it is a combination of different calls.
Geese on the ground or water do not pay much attention to geese in the air until it appears that the flying flock may land in the area occupied by the resting flock. The resting or feeding geese may then begin to use the double cluck threat call, telling the approaching geese to stay away and not land near them. The aggressive, threatening double cluck is what the flying geese expect to hear, because it is what they hear from other flocks every time they land. In fact, Dr. Cooper says that the louder, more aggressive the calling is, the more the geese in the air want to land. But, remember, when you are performing the double cluck, you are not asking the geese to come and feed with you; you are actually telling them to go away or they will be attacked. Your calling should be loud and aggressive, not friendly, pleading or begging.
While they are landing the geese are often backpedaling to slow their descent, and they call rapidly in a "fast cluck; "cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck. When approaching geese hear the fast cluck of the landing call, along with the double cluck threat call, it signals that geese are landing and are being threatened by geese already on the ground, which means this must be a good place to eat. In this sense these calls are like security calls.
Large flocks in the air do not call to locate other flocks, they are only calling to other family members within the flock to stay in contact with each other. But, there are times when geese in the air (often juveniles, or non-nesting pairs) have been separated from the flock. When this happens the may geese use a long, drawn out, pleading honk in an effort to locate the flock; cluck-aaah, cluck-aaah. This is simply another form of the "Here I am. Where are you?" and is often referred to by hunters as the "comeback call."
The best way to understand geese and goose calling is to know what each call sounds like and what it means. Find someplace to watch and listen to geese. Watch the action of the geese as they use the call and the reaction of the other geese. Many hunters listen but they don't observe. If you don't understand what the geese are doing you may misinterpret the call. Pay close attention to the action of the geese while they call and you can learn. An excellent reference is the out of print book (that can be found in larger libraries) Handbook Of Waterfowl Behavior, by Dr. Paul Johnsgard.
This article is an excerpt from the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels. It is available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.
One of the biggest misconceptions in goose calling is that geese on the ground call to geese in the air to come down to feed. Based on his years of research Dr. Cooper says geese do not call to other geese to come down and feed. Therefore, you cannot call to geese in the air to come down and feed. This doesn’t mean that calling will not attract geese, but it is not what the calling of the geese on the ground is meant to do.
When you are calling geese remember that the geese on the ground or water do not call to the geese in the air to join them. They pay little attention to the geese in the air until it looks as if the geese in the air are going to land within the space occupied by the feeding flock. When the feeding flock does call they are actually threatening the flying flock, letting them know that if they land in or near the feeding flock and its food source they will be attacked. Some hunters refer to this threatening call as the Double Cluck Call. The Double Cluck is call should be loud and aggressive, getting faster as the flying flock approaches. Meanwhile the geese in the air are performing the fast "Here I am, where are you?" Contact Call as they prepare to land. These two calls together are what flying geese are accustomed to hearing as they approach a feeding flock. It may be that the louder, more aggravated the calling is, the more the geese in the air want to land!
When large numbers of geese are feeding there is a lot of squabbling over the best food places. Some geese perform the threat call, some the contact call and others the feeding gabble. There are the deep sounds of the males, the higher sounds of the females, and the broken voices of the young. All these sounds occur together and make up the sound of a feeding flock of geese. If you are trying to simulate the sound of a feeding flock of geese you need to use all the sounds; the loud aggressive threat call, the softer contact call and the still softer but deeper feeding gabble. Once the geese get close you can begin using the landing call the "fast cluck" as I call it. This is the sound of landing geese and may tell the flying flock that other geese are landing and give them a sense of security.
When you are calling, think of both the mood and action of the goose that would be making the call, then imitate it. Remember you are not calling to the geese, but trying to simulate the sound of feeding and flying geese under specific conditions. The best way to understand geese, and goose calling, is to know what each call sounds like and what it means. The best way to do this is to find someplace where you can watch and listen to geese. Watch the action of the geese as they call, and watch the reaction of the other geese to the calling. Many hunters listen but they don’t observe. If you don’t know what the geese are doing, or don’t understand, then you may misinterpret the call. Pay close attention to the action of the geese while they call and you can learn.
When you are hunting geese pay close attention to the pitch and the length of the individual notes of the calls of the geese. Different species and even subspecies of geese make different sounds. If your call is too low or too high, tune it, or use a different call. While all geese may respond to the sounds of most goose calls, there are times when a particular species or subspecies may not respond to the call you are using. If the geese you are hunting use a slow quick call, and you are blowing a long, drawn out call; they may not respond. When they don’t respond, listen to the geese, and then adjust the tempo, pitch, and length of the notes of your calling to match the calling of the geese.
When I first see a flock I start calling slow and loud to get their attention. As they get closer I begin the contact call of geese in flight, the "Here I am, where are you?" I call more excitedly as they get close and I use the double cluck threat call. I change my hand position on the call to imitate the sound of many different geese. At the final approach, or if the geese look like they aren’t going to land, I imitate the fast cluck of landing geese. If the geese swing away from the decoys I use the comeback, a long, drawn out pleading cluck-aaah, cluck-aaah. I have heard geese make this sound when coming in slowly and unalarmed. It may work as a security call. If geese come to your call keep it up and don’t get excited. If they need more coaxing get more excited by using the double cluck and the fast cluck.
The first time I used the fast cluck I had a flock come in and swing over the decoys three times. The lead gander just wasn’t sure and finally headed back to the lake. When he got about a quarter of a mile away I decided to try the fast clucking of landing geese. It was just I like had put a hook in the corner of his mouth and reeled him. He swung the flock around and brought them right in. If you aren’t willing to try new techniques and make mistakes, you aren’t going to learn.
On windy days I use a goose flute or megaphone model that is loud, or use a call that has a high pitch. Normal calls don’t carry upwind on windy days, and you have to blow loud and often to get the attention of the geese. I have had goose flutes echo off silos in farm country and sound like an entire flock of geese. On days when there is limited visibility (fog, clouds, rain) call every few minutes. The only way the geese can find you if they can’t see your decoys, is by the sound of your call. Foggy days can be great. You call and hear nothing, then suddenly you hear geese and they appear out of nowhere. Usually they decoy because they can’t see anything that might spook them, and the security of another flock of geese is reassuring. With "smart" geese, or at the end of a long season when geese are "call shy," you may want to quit calling altogether; use a different call than everyone else is using; or call softer, less often and use less or more decoys than anyone else.
There are too many brands of goose calls on the market to mention; most of them work. Use your own personal preference of two or three calls; don’t rely on just one call. Be competent and comfortable with them. I don’t feel there is any one call that is superior to any other. Most of the good, more expensive calls work; well made inexpensive calls also work. Not all geese sound alike and neither do the calls. I don’t use fancy cocabola or laminated wood calls. To me a call is a tool to be used and it may get abused, nothing more. I am not a call collector other than I have many calls.
For calling Giant Canada geese I use Haydel's H-81 Honker, the MH-00 Magnum Honker and the CA-01H Cocacrylic Honker. My personal favorite is the H-81 Honker, that I tune myself and sell in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog. For smaller species of Canada geese I use Haydel's VTH-90 Variable Tone Honker, GF-88 Goose Flute and the BF-99 "Black Foot" Short Reed Canada Goose (which I also hand tune for Giant's and sell). For Snow geese and blue geese I use Haydel's B-81 Blue & Snow Goose call, the MSG-96 Magnum Snow Goose call and the SD-97 Snow Goose Diaphragm. For White-fronted Geese (Specklebellies) I use the CS-92 Cutdown Speck, the S-81 "Specklebelly" Goose and the XLS-83 Extra Loud "Specklebelly" Goose calls.
My best advice on learning how to call is to get an instructional tape or CD from Haydels or an Ultimate Game Calling System CD-ROM, listen to it, and practice with several calls until you are comfortable with them. All of these products are available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog at the book of this book.
If you have questions on ducks or gees or hunting ducks or gees log on to the T.R.'s Tips Talk forum / Message Board.
For more goose hunting tips log on to T.R.'s Hunting Tips; Duck & Goose.
Flagging is one of the best methods to attract ducks and geese to your spread. I first used a black flag while hunting Bluebills back in the fifties. Then I began using flags to hunt geese in the 80's. The first flags we used for goose hunting were simply a large piece of black cloth stapled to a broom handle or long pole. Then my good friend Randy "Flag Man" Bartz began designing goose shaped wings and attaching them to a short dowel with fiberglass struts: he called it the T Flag. Eventually he came up with the Lander Kite, a more realistic version of a goose's wings and tail. It wasn't until later that he added the white crescent to the Lander Kite; and it is the white crescent that revolutionized goose flagging.
The first time I really noticed the white crescent on a goose I called Dr. Cooper and asked him if it was a visual signal. He told me that the white crescent on a goose's tail serves the same purpose as the speculum on a ducks wing; it causes an involuntary nervous system response to flock; not voluntary, involuntary. When geese see the white crescent they want to get up behind it. When geese see the white crescent below them, looking like a goose landing, and hear the landing call (the fast cluck), it signals to them that other geese are landing. The sight and sound of landing geese makes flying flocks feel secure, and makes them want to join geese below them. Randy "Flag Man" Bartz heard me mention this in a seminar and added it to his Lander Kite, and a flagging revolution began.
The Lander Kite can be used with a short pole, or placed on a long fishing rod to gain more height and visibility. I put mine on a 20-foot telescoping fishing pole. You can attach two or more kites to the fishing pole to simulate a pair of geese. The Lander can also be attached to your gun barrel. When you use flags attached to your barrel you can flag with the gun while you are concealed by the flag. Any movement you make will go unnoticed by the geese, because the flag is in front of you. When you are ready to shoot, shoulder your gun and pull the trigger. For more realism you can also attach Flapperz wings to your goose decoys to simulate geese flapping their wings.
For ducks there are several different models of wind activated and motorized decoys available. However, there is talk of regulating or prohibiting their use in some areas. Research in California shows that while motorized wing decoys may increase the number of ducks hunters decoy, they may also result in higher crippling rates when hunters take longer shots than they should.
I begin flagging as soon as I see ducks or geese in the distance, holding the flag high in the air with one hand to simulate a flying duck or goose. In the other hand I have my call, and I use it. Remember, you want to recreate both the sight and sound of flying ducks or geese. When I am hunting geese, and the birds are far away I flag slowly, and call slow and loud. As the birds get closer I keep flagging, but I start calling faster, imitating the sounds of anxious landing geese and the clucking of threatening geese on the ground. As the geese get closer I bring the flag closer to the ground and shake it with my wrist, like a goose landing. I don't stop flagging until the geese are within range. I have seen flocks swing away if I stop flagging before they are over the decoys. When the geese are almost in range I drop the flag and the call and grab the gun. Flag Man goose flags and other products are available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog at the back of this book.
Hunters may not realize that communication among ducks and geese is a combination of sound, body posture and action. The meaning of a call may be more related to body posture and action than to the sound of the call. Because it is difficult to duplicate the body posture and action of ducks and geese, you need to understand the meaning of the calls in order to correctly recreate them. Two thing to keep in mind when you are calling ducks is that the pitch of the call, and the length of the individual notes of the calls of different species of ducks, are affected by the relative size of the duck. Generally speaking, the larger the duck, the deeper the call and the shorter the individual notes are. While Mallards, Teal, Black Ducks and Gadwalls all use similar sounding Social Contact, Decrescendo and
mating calls; the calls of Mallards and Black Ducks are deeper pitched than the calls of Gadwalls and Teal. Because of their larger body size Mallards and Blackducks also call slower than Gadwalls and Teal. While most puddle ducks will respond to the calls of a Mallard, if you are primarily hunting species other than Mallards, you should use the right call for the species you are hunting.
When I first see puddle 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 am. 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.
Most of the calls used for hunting diver ducks can be performed on a standard mallard call by growling into the call to produce the rrrr of the females. You can produce the scaup of the males by cupping your hand around the call and blowing a short eouuk while closing your hand at the end of the sound. I use a Haydel's MG-84 Marsh Guide Mallard for a high pitched call, and a Haydel's DR-85 Double Reed Mallard for lower pitched calls. Lohman offers their Model 450 Diving Duck Call specifically for hunting divers.
When you are calling ducks, think about what you are trying to do. Initially you try to get their 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. However, the calls you are performing are not used by the ducks for those purposes. They are used to announce a willingness to mate, used during courtship behavior, and used 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.
I always carry more than one 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, polycarbonate 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 your 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.
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 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.
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 Haydel's Game Calls makes several of them. I carry a complete line of their calls in the Haydels's scection of the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog.
As with most things you pay for, the better the call, the higher the price. The price of custom calls made of laminated wood, cocabola 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.
T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983