Decoying crows: The Countryman

Wily corvids are seldom easy to outwit, but their scavenging nature can be their downfall, as Mat Manning demonstrates as he sets up with hide and decoy tactics.

The quarry: carrion crow & jackdaw

The carrion crow is a notorious scavenger and the ones here have homed in on an easy food source around the farm. Jackdaws have joined the feeding frenzy and the farmer wants the birds thinned out.

Carrion crows and jackdaws are renowned for their wariness of man, so Mat’s going to have to keep a very low profile on this shoot.

Gear for a hide and deek corvid ambush

Decoying from a hide is a specialised technique which requires specialist tactics, and having the right kit can make a big difference.

Decoy selection can play a major part in the success of your outing. Shiny plastic decoys can glint unnaturally in sunlight or when they get wet, so Mat has chosen one with a matt-flocked finish.

Although Mat often makes his own hide supports from long hazel sticks, purpose-made ones are more versatile so he’s opted for a height-adjustable set with foot pegs that make it easy to get them into hard ground. He’s using the poles to support a lightweight modern camouflage net that’s finished in a Realtree pattern, which needs minimal dressing to make it blend in with the countryside.

8:15 – creating concealment 

Rather than setting up on the farm and spooking the birds after a couple of shots, Mat has decided to target them in the trees that they use as a lookout as they fly in and out of the yard.

It usually pays to set up your hide a day or two in advance for this sort of ambush to cut down on the disturbance, but Mat is planning to take advantage of a quiet spell. The crows and jackdaws here usually descend on the farm at first light and then flight back to the surrounding fields later in the morning, before returning to the farm when things tend to quieten down around lunchtime. Mat hopes to avoid putting too many birds on alert by constructing his hide when most of them are distracted by their breakfast binge.

The hide is a simple affair: just a basic camouflage net draped from some purpose-made poles. The important thing is that it’s positioned against a backdrop of natural cover to help keep Mat’s silhouette hidden when he’s inside.

8:35 – pulling the birds

Although the corvids here are finding easy pickings on the farm, these birds are always on the look-out for dead meat – it’s how carrion crows got their name. Mat’s setting up a dead squirrel to grab the attention of passing birds, and has slit open its guts to make it even more appealing.

Although a dead squirrel or rabbit is usually enough to lure passing corvids in for a closer look, Mat has added a decoy to the arrangement. The imitation bird will give incomers the impression that there is no danger present, and can also provoke them into swooping in when they spot what looks like another corvid helping itself to a tasty meal on their patch.

The bait and decoy are set up about 25m from the hide to ensure that any birds that drop in for a closer look are comfortably within range. Mat has also made sure that there are a couple of sitty trees within striking distance of his hiding place, because crows and jackdaws often like to observe the decoy arrangement from the apparent safety of the treetops.

8:50 – final preparations

Crow shooting from a hide can entail long periods of inactivity, so Mat tries to make it as comfortable as possible. He’s got a foam-filled beanbag seat which not only serves as a comfy cushion, but also creates a welcome barrier between his backside and the cold, damp ground. Mat has also packed some sandwiches and a flask of tea, so at least he’s got something to eat and drink while he’s waiting.

After settling into the hide and loading up, Mat completes his preparations by putting on a camouflage headnet. It’s not always necessary to cover your face when shooting from a hide, but crows and jackdaws have excellent vision and will shy away if they spot patches of pale skin showing through the camo screen. For this reason, keeping your face and hands covered can make a big difference when targeting corvids.

Mat’s preparations are now complete, so all he can do is sit and wait. There’s never any guarantee when targeting corvids, but Mat is confident that passing birds will see the decoy and bait – and hopefully they won’t spot his hiding place. Inside it, Mat is wearing full camouflage, including a headnet and gloves, and making the most of the natural cover.

9:35 – opening opportunity

A long quiet spell at the start of the session initially had Mat concerned that the birds might have been too suspicious to come within range after seeing him building the hide – but crows gradually flight closer and closer, and are clearly interested in the decoy setup.

Two birds begin to circle high above the bait. The wily old crows are reluctant to get too close, but one of them eventually peels off and swoops into the uppermost branches of one of the sitty trees. The crow is clearly distracted by the bait, enabling Mat to shoulder his rifle and get on aim without being spotted.

At about 30m, it’s not an easy shot, but the bird is clearly presented and the windless conditions mean there is no drift to take into account. Assisted by his stable sitting position, Mat settles the crosshairs on the crow’s skull and drops it with a direct hit to the head.

10:50 – time for the magpie rattle

The first crow dropped into the undergrowth, out of the sight of passing birds, so Mat decides to leave it where it fell rather than risk being spotted by breaking cover to make the retrieve. The decision proves to be a good one, and Mat goes on to bag another crow and a jackdaw before things go quiet.

The silence is eventually broken by the chatter of distant magpies. These little corvids are just as likely to fall for the bait and decoy trap as crows and jackdaws, so Mat gives his homemade caller a try in an effort to lure them in.

Mat’s caller is a simple rattle made by putting a dozen or so heavy pellets inside an old camera film canister. Give it a shake and it makes a rattling sound like the chatter of agitated magpies. The ruse works and draws the birds’ attention to the dead squirrel. One eventually swoops into a sitty tree for a closer look, offering Mat the chance to make a bonus addition to the morning’s bag.

Key technique: pegging your hide net

Most hunters know that weaving a few scraps of vegetation into a hide can help it to blend in with its surroundings, but many neglect the importance of pegging the base of the net.

If you don’t fasten the bottom section of a hide net to the ground it will flap in the breeze, creating movement that will draw attention to your hiding place and put wary quarry on edge. The problem is easily remedied by pegging it down, and you don’t even need special kit for the job – a few sticks foraged from the woods or hedgerow are all you need to pin your net to the deck.

Pegging down your hide net doesn’t just make it less conspicuous, it also makes it more efficient to shoot from. Tensioning the net creates more space on the inside of the net so you’ll feel less cramped, and also makes it easier to thread the muzzle of your airgun through the holes when taking shots.

Expert tip: mix it up

Corvids are clever birds and will soon learn to steer clear of anything that appears to pose a danger. For this reason, the same tactics seldom work for very long in the same situation.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use the same hide site for several outings, but your results will be a lot better if you vary the bait and decoys that you use.

If you give the birds a couple of pastings by using a dead squirrel as bait, try using broken-up slices of bread to create a different scenario next time. Similarly, if the birds start to shun your crow decoy, try using a magpie, or even a mixed flock of imitation corvids to keep them guessing.

Changing your timings can also help you to catch birds off guard. If a few productive morning sessions make them suspicious of your target area during the early part of the day, try ambushing them later in the afternoon instead.

12:15 – pack up and plot the return

Patience and the occasional use of the caller help Mat to account for a couple more birds, but a very uneventful hour eventually convinces him that it’s time to stretch his legs. The session has been a fairly productive one, though, and more than three hours cooped up in a hide is a long stint by anyone’s standards.

Mat bags up his birds and packs away the decoy and dead squirrel, but the hide will be staying in situ. There are more birds to be had from this spot and Mat wants to try targeting them at different times before he moves on. Getting into position before daybreak and intercepting the birds as they fly out at first light is definitely worth a try, and it’s also worth experimenting with different bait and decoy combinations.

Leaving a hide in position is a great way to make corvids more trusting. Even if the birds spot the screen, they’ll soon accept it as a harmless landscape feature after a few days with no shooting pressure from you.

More from the countryman Mat Manning

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