Having a hoot with magpies! Using an owl decoy is a great way to catch territorial corvids off-guard during the spring months, as Mat Manning demonstrates
Mat’s out on a woodland permission that’s managed as a pheasant shoot. When the birds start to breed, their eggs and chicks will be vulnerable to corvids. Mat uses different ruses to control these scavenging birds throughout the year, but an owl decoy is usually a good bet when they become territorial through the spring.
Magpies are notorious nest thieves, and they’re persistent too. Like the rest of the corvid clan, magpies are extremely wary, and persuading them to settle within range is seldom easy. They rarely fall for stalking tactics, and a hide is usually a must.
One weakness these birds have is their territorial nature. Place an owl decoy close to a magpie nesting site and the defensive birds are very likely to swoop in and mob it.
Gear for a spring magpie ambush
Although Mat often cuts hide poles from hazel sticks, purpose-made ones are quicker and easier to use. Today he’s opted for an adjustable set that’s easy to spike into the ground.
Decoying tactics revolve around the all-important imitation bird. This session it’s a little owl, with piercing eyes to aggravate incoming magpies.
Finally, it’s no fun sitting it out in a hide if you’re cold and wet. Mat has chosen a jacket with a proven record for sealing out the elements, so spring showers won’t stop play.
This jacket boosts stealth thanks to its super-silent fabric. Apart from being rustle-free, the abrasion-proof material also seals out wind and rain. Features include a large hood, generous cargo and chest pockets, and Velcro clip cuffs.
This owl may be small, but it’s extremely lifelike and punches well above its weight when it comes to pulling in magpies. Equipped with those all- important shiny yellow and black eyes, it’s great for stirring up territorial corvids.
This set includes four steel hide poles which extend from 1.2 to 2m by means of a quick-lock collar. Supplied with a carrying bag, they feature hooks to hold netting securely in place, and a foot bar to make easy work of hard ground.
Two days before the shoot: Keeping concealed
Magpies are known for their sharp eyes and distrustful nature. They have a remarkable ability to spot anything out of the ordinary, and they’ll steer well clear of anything that could pose a threat. Consequently, it’s tricky to get close to these crafty little corvids.
Mat knows it’s vital that he goes unseen, so he’s building a net hide for added concealment. He’s picked a site where he’s already spotted a pair of magpies. There’s an open area where his decoy will really stand out, and a nearby sitty tree where incoming birds should present themselves within range.
Even a basic camouflage net can arouse suspicion from magpies. Mat has incorporated his into surrounding cover so it doesn’t stand out, and he’s dressed it with vegetation for further concealment.
14:20 Setting the trap
Magpies struggle to resist an owl decoy. During the spring, when they are particularly territorial, they’ll often rush in to mob an imitation bird of prey. These boisterous corvids can’t tolerate the sight of a plastic predator – probably because they suspect it of sharing their hunger for the contents of other birds’ nests.
It’s important to place the decoy in an area where it’s sure to be seen, so Mat has chosen to prop his on a post. The plan is that the magpies will be so distracted by the sight of the intruding raptor that they’ll fail to notice the discreet hide and lurking hunter nearby.
Just to ensure that there’s no chance of incoming birds missing the setup, Mat has also added an imitation magpie to make it look as if a mobbing is already under way.
14:30 Final preparations
Building the hide a couple of days before the shoot is a great way to minimise disturbance, and Mat is eager to settle in as quickly as possible to avoid undoing all his hard work.
But even with all the care that’s gone into its positioning and construction, this hide alone is unlikely to provide adequate concealment to outsmart wary corvids. These birds are adept at spotting light as it catches patches of pale skin, even through a camo net. To improve his chances of going undetected, Mat will be wearing a camouflage head net and a pair of gloves to ensure a full cover-up.
With all of his preparations made, all Mat can do now is make himself comfortable and hope that the magpies fall for his owl decoy ruse.
Expert tip: Right place, right time
It’s vitally important to set up in an area that you know to be frequented by magpies. Using a decoy owl is a very effective tactic, but it’s unlikely to attract birds from other territories.
Time spent on reconnaissance should help to steer you in the right direction. You’ll need to look carefully as magpies’ black-and-white plumage camouflages them surprisingly well in the treetops – and listen out for their distinctive rattling call.
Magpies like thick cover, such as scrubby patches of overgrown blackthorn, so keep your eyes peeled for this sort of habitat. These corvids make a large globe-shaped nest of woven twigs – set up close to one of these and you should be on to a winner.
Timing is also important. If you don’t get any action during a midday ambush, try to intercept the birds during their morning rounds at daybreak or just before they settle down to roost at dusk.
15:20 Magpie mobbing
Things take a while to get going, but the distant rattle of an agitated magpie eventually confirms that the birds have clocked the intruding owl. The birds’ squawking and rattling intensify as a pair of magpies come bouncing in along the woodland edge and eventually into sight.
Mat already has the muzzle of his rifle threaded through the hide net, so there’s very little risk of movement to attract attention as the magpies close in on the decoy. These birds don’t usually keep still for very long, so he’ll need to react quickly if a shot presents itself.
Rather than weighing up the situation from the apparent safety of the sitty tree, the magpies bundle straight onto the ground and start barracking the decoy. Mat swiftly settles the crosshairs onto the nearest bird and flops it over with a smack to the chest. The other bird naturally takes fright and flaps off into the woods.
16:10 Making things happen
Mat breaks cover and retrieves the shot bird to prevent it from spooking the others, then sits it out through a long quiet spell.
With nothing happening, he decides to try calling in the magpies with a rattle made from a plastic film canister filled with heavy .22 pellets. He gives it a few quick shakes to mimic the clacking call of an inquisitive magpie, then waits.
The caller initially fails to prompt a reaction, but Mat persists and the intermittent rattling eventually gets a response. Mat continues calling as the bird closes in, then stops as soon as he believes it’s close enough to see the decoy setup: he doesn’t want to attract attention to his hiding place.
There’s a flutter of black and white as the bird swoops gingerly into the sitty tree to survey the scene below. Mat wastes no time getting on aim, and quickly topples the unsuspecting magpie from its perch.
Key technique: Obvious intruder
There’s no need to be subtle when you’re setting out your owl decoy. The aim is to stir up an angry response from magpies when they spot what appears to be a marauding raptor within their territory – and it needs to be clearly visible for that to happen.
Try to find an area of open ground where your decoy won’t be obscured by long grass and other foliage. Better still, set it up on top of a fencepost or tree stump to really show it off.
When choosing your owl decoy, you’ll find a wide selection of large and small designs representing various species. Size isn’t so important, but make sure you go for one with piercing shiny black and yellow eyes. The brighter and more contrasting they are, the more they signify the presence of a threatening raptor.
17:05 Wrap up and return
Mat clambers out to make another retrieve, but after a long wait it’s clear that the action is over for today. Further efforts with the caller attract no response, but Mat’s happy to have bagged a brace of birds – especially when he’s been targeting wily magpies.
The decoys are gathered up, but the hide is left in situ. It might have gone quiet for now, but Mat reckons there are probably more birds to be had from this spot. It makes sense to use the same hiding place again, as it’s worked well today.
Decoying with an imitation owl is a top method during the spring, so Mat will kick off using the same ruse next time. However, if any magpies witnessed today’s losses, a change of tactics may be needed to overcome their suspicion. A fake nest is another reliable way to lure them in, and scavenging magpies will also swoop in to investigate a dead rabbit or squirrel.