Corvid control – Mat Manning tries new tactics

With silage-stealing crows and jackdaws growing suspicious of his usual approach, Mat Manning tries a shift in tactics.

Controlling corvids with an air rifle is often challenging. Birds like crows, rooks, jackdaws and magpies are sharp-eyed and very suspicious of anything out of the ordinary, so persuading them to land within striking distance can be tricky to say the least.

I think it’s fair to say that a shotgun is usually the best option when corvids turn up in really big numbers. Where I live, it is not unusual for large flocks of crows, rooks and jackdaws to decimate freshly planted crops after the spring drillings, and efforts to drive them away with the 12-bore frequently produce bags well in excess of 50 birds and often significantly more.

So when a friend contacted me to say he was having problems with corvids around the silage clamps on his farm, my initial outings saw me using a shotgun over decoys. The first two days each yielded more than 60 birds, but because of the noise of the shotgun, I had to set up out in the open field, well away from the farm buildings and livestock. 

As my results show, it worked well enough, but plenty of birds were ignoring my decoys and heading straight for the silage – even when I set up flags in an effort to scare them away from there.

Apart from eating a lot of maize silage, the assorted corvids were also posing a disease risk – which was abundantly clear from the amount of white droppings splattered all about the place. As my bags with the shotgun began to dwindle it became apparent that I needed to work closer to those silage clamps in order to pick off the crafty birds that couldn’t be coaxed away from the food source. This was definitely going to be a job for the airgun.

I set up a net hide under the cover of a hedge that runs parallel to the silage clamp at a distance of about 30m – a perfect range for airgun sniping. Being tucked beneath the hedge offered a couple of very welcome advantages: firstly, it helped to keep me hidden from the crows and secondly it provided some extremely welcome shade during a spell of searing hot weather during the early part of the summer.

My first airgun outing saw me using a mixture of full-bodied and shell-type flocked crow decoys to coax the corvids back to the clamps after the disturbance of my arrival. Bolstering my fake flock with shot birds helped to outwit crafty crows and jackdaws and I managed to account for almost 20 birds. But corvids being corvids, they quickly grew suspicious of the setup; they were far more cagey during the latter stages of the session and when I returned and used the same ruse later in the week I only managed to nail a solitary jackdaw.

From what I could tell, I was set up in the right place and the hide was providing sufficient concealment for me to go unnoticed, so it just seemed to be the decoys that were putting the birds on edge. This is something I have noticed on many occasions with corvids; they quickly learn not to trust decoys after they’ve seen a few of their mates come unstuck around them. 

The trick is to keep mixing it up, and that means chopping and changing the type of decoy arrangements you use and incorporating a variety of designs, including flappers and bouncers, to prevent things from looking suspiciously familiar. With that in mind, I decided to try something completely different on my next visit.

During one of my outings with the shotgun, I witnessed a group of crows laying into a magpie that was trying to fly past with the remains of a dead rabbit. Corvids often forget to worry about what’s going on around them when they’re getting stuck into a mobbing, so I decided to try to create a similar scenario close to my hide site.

After arriving early in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, I set up a solitary magpie decoy – very different from the large artificial flocks I had previously used – and gave it an additional touch in the shape of a squirrel tail at its feet. 

My hope was to recreate the scene of a magpie enjoying a tasty bit of carrion on the crows’ patch and trigger them into another mobbing – a long shot but worth a punt, I thought.

I clambered into the hide and made myself comfortable. I’d swapped my usual beanbag for my bucket seat as I thought the more upright position would make the long wait easier to endure if the corvids decided not to oblige. I loaded up the magazine of my .177 sub-12 BSA R-10 TH, which is currently coupled with the brilliant Zeiss Conquest V4 scope and put on my head net – even though I was more than happy with the hide, I always think it’s worth covering up any pale patches when trying to avoid the attention of corvids.

The long wait I was expecting didn’t materialise, and a jackdaw swooped in and pitched on the wall on my side of the silage clamp about five minutes after I’d settled in. The feisty little bird was clearly interested in the magpie decoy and sat chattering and squawking at it from on high. 

I threaded the muzzle through the net, lined up on the boisterous corvid’s chest and tumbled it with a shot that struck home with a solid “whop”.

Just as I was cycling the R-10’s bolt to reload, a movement caught my eye. It was a young crow gliding in, and it took up exactly the same post as the jackdaw. I still had the gun poked through the net and more or less lined up for the shot, so I hardly had to move to make the second addition to the day’s bag. The reaction to my new decoy setup seemed too good to be true, and it turned out it was.

I was buzzing after accounting for two corvids in such a short time. After reloading again I was relishing the thought of a bumper tally, but was brought back down to earth with a bump when the following hour failed to yield a shot. A couple of birds had circled and jinked away. Based on previous experience, I guessed that they were spooked by the shot birds, both of which had settled belly-up, so I decided to break cover and add the casualties to the decoy arrangement.

Nothing beats real birds when it comes to convincing wary corvids that an area is safe to visit. Simply placing shot birds the right way up can be enough to turn them into effective decoys, but they look convincing if their heads aren’t slumped down. 

The second half of the session was slow, but Mat managed to get a couple more shots by ringing the changes

I always try to carry a few 30cm lengths of stiff garden wire, which I fold in half and twist double to make them more rigid. Leave the last 25mm or so of each end apart to create a fork, push the folded end into the ground and you have a flexible prop to support shot birds’ heads to make them look more lifelike.

The quick tidy-up didn’t exactly set the world on fire but I managed to drop another crow about half an hour later and then a second jackdaw after another long wait. I added those two birds to the growing decoy pattern, but no further action followed and I decided to head for home to avoid the midday heat after another fruitless hour.

Although the session only produced a modest four corvids, it was more eventful than my previous visit and I like to think that the change in tactics enabled me to pick off a few birds that had learned to steer clear of my usual setup. Starting off with a single magpie decoy next to a squirrel tail was very different to the tactics I had been using on earlier outings and I can’t help wonder if it would have resulted in a better tally if I’d tried it on my first session with the airgun. I’m afraid we’ll never know the answer.

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