Movement is one of the prime factors in persuading pest birds to approach a decoy pattern, as Mat Manning proves when he tries out a new flapper on a challenging day.
After spending more than three decades trying to improve my decoying results, I like to think I know a thing or two about this challenging form of shooting.
My early years resulted in more failures than successes, but the hundreds of hours of trial and error have provided me with a pretty good understanding of what works and what does not.
I’m always happy to share my findings with other shooters, and I hope that it might help them to avoid some of the pitfalls that I have fallen into over the years.
The number one rule of decoying, especially when using an airgun, is to manage your expectations. Persuading a wily bird that lives on instinct to land in striking distance is a real achievement. Just being able to achieve that is something to feel pleased about, and actually managing to shoot a few is cause for serious celebration.
To do it properly, decoying entails an investment in additional kit, both for hide building and the decoys themselves. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that having all the gear will automatically result in clouds of birds hurling themselves into your carefully prepared landing zone.
More often than not, decoys are used to convince birds that it is safe to return to an area that they were already visiting, and very rarely will imitation birds convince pigeons and corvids to drop in to a place where they don’t want to be.
And just to make things even more frustrating there will be times when you do everything right and the birds still refuse to play by the rules. You simply have to take those days in your stride.
Another really important lesson that I have learned is that movement is a great way to enhance the appeal of a decoy pattern. Shell decoys with sprung ground pegs that make them bob in the wind are effective, but real birds set up on bouncers and flappers are even better.
The FF6 Remote Combo Pigeon Flapper by Flightline Decoys is regarded by many as the best animated decoy available. At £139.99 it is not cheap, but it has several neat tricks up its sleeve, some of which make it particularly well suited to airgun shooting.
Having recently got myself an FF6 I was eager to get out and give it a try, although the quiet period between autumn and spring seed drillings meant opportunities were very thin on the ground.
Driving around my permissions, I eventually spotted a few birds gathering on a young crop and it didn’t take long to spot several thin and bare patches around the area they were targeting.
With fewer farmers growing rape because of increasing problems with insect pests, my guess is that the birds were desperate for some winter sustenance and had turned their attention to these tender shoots. There weren’t many piling in, but they had certainly caused some damage.
I rang the farmer to explain what I had seen and he was delighted to hear I was eager to arrange a shooting trip for the following day. Apart from getting out in the fresh air with my airgun, I was excited to have a chance to put the FF6 through its paces.
Heavy rainfall through the night meant that I was greeted by a soggy field in the morning, and there were only a couple of pigeons showing an interest in the crop. I was determined to have a crack at them and, as the rest of the day was supposed to remain mostly dry, I carried on as planned.
My ambush was going to focus on the bare area where the birds had already been feeding, and I quickly set about building a hide in the hedgerow along that side of the field.
The FF6 wasn’t the only new piece of kit that I had with me. Nick Tait, the man behind this legendary flapper, also makes Sniper Hide Poles, and I had decided to treat myself to a set of them.
Apart from being extendable and very well made, Sniper Hide poles also feature an incredibly sturdy twin ground spike with a goalpost top so you can push them in with your boot, plus a bottom hook to fasten your hide net.
That bottom hook doesn’t sound like much, but it is extremely handy being able to fix the bottom edge of the net without having to carry pegs or use sticks to stop if from flapping conspicuously in the wind.
My hide was soon in position and I decided not to weave any vegetation into the netting. A couple of birds had passed by while I was setting up, so I didn’t want to be out in the open for any longer than was absolutely necessary. My camo net was a pretty close match with the overgrown hedgerow, which provided a reasonably good backdrop, so I decided to stick with that.
Flapper decoys require shot birds, and I usually keep a few in the freezer for that purpose. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any on this occasion so I had to start out with my ever-reliable full-body Enforcer Decoys, which would hopefully enable me to shoot a pigeon to put on the FF6.
Because there hadn’t been a lot of birds hitting the field I felt that a huge decoy pattern would probably look unnatural so I opted for just two groups of three or four decoys – similar to how I had seen the real birds behaving on the previous day.
Set about 30m from the hide, my hope was that any incoming birds would land either on the edge of one of the two groups or in the wide gap between them.
With the trap set, I slipped into the hide and loaded up my Daystate Red Wolf. This .22 calibre FAC-rated airgun has a muzzle energy of just over 30 ft-lb when set on full power. That’s not particularly powerful by today’s standards, but it’s a great all-rounder and performs much better in the wind than a sub-12.
Inside the hide, things took longer to get going than I had hoped and the first pigeon didn’t commit to the decoys until a good half an hour after I’d settled in.
It was a solitary bird which approached along the hedge line and then glided down to land out in the field behind the right-hand decoy pattern. At about 35m it was a challenging shot, not least because much of the bird was concealed by a slight incline, but I managed to roll it over with a solid whack to the head.
The dead pigeon came to rest with its legs in the air. A belly-up bird is extremely off-putting to others and so demands an immediate retrieve; no inconvenience on this occasion because I was going to break cover to put it on the FF6 however it ended up.
I quickly mounted the pigeon on the animator’s frame, remembering to break its wings first for maximum movement, and then connected the battery before clambering back into the hide.
My favourite thing about the FF6 Remote Combo Pigeon Flapper, and the feature that first made me think it would be great for airgun use, is the fact that it is remote controlled.
That means that you can use the remote from the hide to set it into action to draw passing birds’ attention to your decoy pattern and then stop it as they approach to land. In my experience, crows and pigeons often spook (possibly because they are startled by the noise) when they get close to an active flapper.
There is no chance of that happening with this one, because you can stop it before they get too close. The remote also enables you to change the speed of the wingbeats from fast for pigeons to slow for crows, which makes the motion look extremely convincing.
With the flapper set up, I used the remote to get it moving every time pigeons flitted past and it wasn’t long before one was attracted by the movement.
The inquisitive bird landed in the area between the two patterns of Enforcers and was duly added to the bag. Thankfully it expired the right way up so I didn’t need to break cover to sort it out.
Two more pigeons helped to boost my tally to four over the next hour or so, and I even managed to bag a bonus crow. I set the FF6 into motion as the corvid was winging its way past and I am convinced that the movement made it curious and persuaded it to drop in for a closer look.
That crow was to be my last shot of the session. A couple of downpours followed and the birds refused to flight, probably choosing to take shelter in thick cover to avoid the deluge, while the rain was coming down. I was well pleased with how the session had gone though.
As I said at the outset, it pays to have modest expectations when heading out decoying with an air rifle. On this occasion I think it also paid to have a few tricks up my sleeve and I certainly believe that the flapper helped me to put a few extra birds in the bag on a tricky day.
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