With flocks of corvids threatening to decimate the spring drillings, Mat Manning sets up a hide and decoy ambush to deal with the unwelcome pests.
On the farms in my locality, fields of maize grown for cattle feed are usually harvested in the late autumn and new crops are then quickly drilled in their place.
However, wet weather made last year’s harvest extremely difficult. Some farmers had to leave it much later than usual and many fields were then too wet to use the heavy machinery to sow the following crop.
Today I am shooting over one of these late harvests that is yet to be redrilled. Lots of corvids and a few pigeons have homed in on the remaining maize kernels, which offer them an easy food source at a time of year when natural pickings are hard to come by.
Although the birds aren’t doing particularly costly damage to the remnants of last year’s crop, the farmer is planning to redrill this field very soon. With so many of the feathered pests gathered in the vicinity, the new crop will be annihilated before it has a chance to establish unless action is taken.
I am planning to spend a morning shooting over decoys. The field is far too close to houses to consider using a shotgun, so an airgun is the obvious choice.
That means I will need to persuade birds to land fairly close to me, which can be challenging, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve to help with the task.
The concealment provided by a good hide is very important when targeting wary corvids, but the way you use your decoys can also make a big difference.
If there is one thing I have learnt over the years it is that movement is a key factor when trying to convince incoming crows that imitation birds can be trusted, so I will be using decoys that bring some motion to the setup.
THE QUARRY: CARRION CROW
PEST STATUS: A major problem for farmers, especially in the spring, crows peck the eyes from newborn lambs. They also feed on the eggs and chicks of other birds.
HABITAT: Crows have a wide range of habitat, but feed mostly around farmyards, in woodland and on crops. They favour nesting sites in tall trees either in woods or along hedgerows.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Crows are sharp-eyed and very wary of man. Getting within range usually takes a high level of fieldcraft and concealment.
08:10 – SUPPORT ACT
The first job is to quickly create some concealment, but it’s important to do it in the right place. After watching over the field for a few minutes, Mat can see the main routes the birds are using to access their feeding grounds and the places where they are landing.
Mat picks a hide site close to one of the busiest incoming flightlines, where a patch of scrub creates a useful backdrop that will help to conceal the outline of the hide and also prevent too much light from shining in through the back and revealing his outline.
Although you can prop up a hide with sticks cut from the hedge, Mat prefers to use purpose-made poles as they provide a quicker solution and firmer support for his camouflage nets.
Today he is using Sniper Hide Poles which boast some neat features. They have sturdy ground spikes that you push in with your boot, the attachment hook at the top and a clever little hook at the bottom, which keeps the net nice and tight and stops it from flapping in the wind.
They are also extendable, and the screw that works the mechanism has a cord that attaches to the pole, making it impossible to lose it.
08:35 – ADDED APPEAL
Decoys generally do a reasonable job of convincing pest birds to return to their feeding grounds, but there are plenty of things you can do to make them more attractive, and one of the most effective is to add some movement.
Nothing catches the eye quite like motion, and it’s what incoming birds expect to see. An affordable way to get movement into the pattern is to use shell decoys with pegs that incorporate a sprung section enabling them to dip and bob in the breeze. If you want to spend a bit more, a motorised flapper has an even more realistic and eye-catching motion.
Mat is using a combination of moving shells and an FF6 flapper from Flightline Decoys. With a dead crow from a previous outing mounted in its cradle, the motorised unit creates the impression of a feeding bird fluttering about amongst the stubbles.
One problem that airgun shooters face is that of birds spooking when they get close to the flapper. The great thing about the FF6 Combo is that it has a remote control, so you can stop it as soon as incoming birds get near.
A pattern incorporating eight shells, two full-bodied decoys and the flapper seems about right for today. Mat places the closest decoy 20m from the hide and the furthest one about 35m away, where they will serve as useful range-markers. The flapper is set just outside of the main decoy pattern where it really stands out.
08:50 – READY FOR ACTION
Wind direction can play an important part when setting up for a hide and decoy session. Birds tend to take off and land facing into the wind, so it is important to reflect that in your decoy pattern.
When shooting with a shotgun, Mat usually likes to have the wind coming off his back so birds tend to approach from in front and offer the easiest shots.
It is a little different with an airgun because birds have longer to scrutinise the hide site as they fly in to land. With this in mind, you are less likely to be noticed if they are approaching from the side.
Content that his hide and decoys are set up properly and in the right place, Mat starts to settle in. He has a beanbag seat to keep him comfortable while he waits for chances to arise and is also using shooting sticks to help him shoot with precision.
Mat’s final job before putting on his head net is to load up his 30 ft-lb Daystate Red Wolf with 16 grain Rangemaster Sovereigns. It is not unusual for crows to land out in the field just behind the decoys.
This a hard-hitting setup which will help Mat to combat the breeze which is pushing across the field when tackling longer shots and should deliver serious impact and clean kills.
Successful decoying hinges on being in the right place at the right time, always keep your eyes peeled for signs of gathering birds.
Ploughing, harvesting and seed sowing are key farming activities that can generate serious interest from pest birds. If you have a farmer who has the time and inclination to let you know what is likely to be happening when you’re on his ground then you have a major advantage when it comes to
getting your timings right.
When birds start to gather on fields, try to line up a day’s shooting as quickly as you can. This will enable you to deal with them before they cause too much damage and will also improve your chances of getting some good shooting before they move on to new feeding grounds.
09:05 – FIRST OPPORTUNITY
Decoying takes patience and can also be hit and miss. Be prepared for long waits between shots and don’t be too disappointed if bags are smaller than expected – some days the birds will shun your decoys for no apparent reason, so blanks are a possibility and something you need to take on the chin.
After the disturbance caused by building the hide and setting out his decoys, Mat is expecting the crows to take a while to drift back. Thankfully, the wait doesn’t turn out to be too long and a single crow is soon wheeling over the field. Mat gives the FF6 a quick flap to focus the curious bird’s attention on the decoys and the response is just what he wanted.
The crow swings around and sets a direct course for the decoy pattern. Its final approach is on fixed wings as it glides down and pitches towards the back of the imitation flock.
It doesn’t usually take crafty crows very long to realise that something is not quite right when they land close to decoys, and their standard reaction is to fly away and not come back. That means that shots need to be taken quickly, but without rushing.
Mat already has the gun shouldered so he only has to make tiny adjustments to his aim before he picks up the crow in his sight picture. The bird is standing bolt upright with its chest facing towards Mat and is clearly unsettled.
In a steady, unhurried motion, Mat flicks off the Red Wolf’s safety catch, settles his crosshairs on the heart and lung area, applying a touch of aim-off to compensate for the breeze, and instinctively pushes through the trigger. The pap from the Red Wolf’s muzzle is followed by a hollow “thock” and the crow rolls over onto its back.
09:20 – BELLY-UP!
Although Mat is delighted to account for the first bird of the session, he is frustrated that it has come to rest with its legs in the air. A belly-up bird can really spook others as they approach the landing zone, as proven by a pair of jackdaws that spot the errant corpse and flap away on panicked wings long before they get over the pattern.
Breaking cover is not usually a good move once you have settled in as it causes additional disturbance and can draw attention to your hiding place, but Mat has no choice but to clamber out and deal with the dead crow.
Rather than taking it back into the hide, he picks it up, turns it over the right way and places it among the decoys. A real bird is unbeatable when it comes to adding attraction to the decoy pattern, but it does need to be the right way up.
Mat clambers back into his hide and is soon back in action. This time a passing jackdaw is intrigued by the motion of the FF6 and swoops in just to the side of the decoy pattern to take a closer look.
Once again, Mat is ready for the shot and at just under 30m it is a mere formality. The Red Wolf delivers another clean kill and this time the bird settles face-down, so there’s no need to break cover again.
10:40 – CROWS ON CALL
Mat adds two bonus woodpigeons to the morning’s tally fairly quickly, but then things go very quiet, and for a frustratingly long time. There are
no belly-up casualties among the pattern so Mat’s guess is that the birds
are just being ultra-wary.
It’s hardly surprising, because the birds on this patch get a lot of shooting pressure, and not just from Mat. Corvids in particular are clever birds and it is likely that these ones have learned to treat decoys with suspicion.
Sitting and doing nothing is unlikely to bring any significant change in Mat’s luck so he decides to take action and give a caller a try. Crow calling takes a while to master, but the best starting point is to mimic the sounds you hear the birds making when you’re out on your shoots.
After spotting a group of birds drifting by in the distance, Mat gives the caller a few blasts; blowing from deep within his diaphragm to get a really raspy sound.
Another go on the caller and two crows seem to be interested and swing back towards the decoys. Mat gives the FF6 a quick flap to grab their attention and then watches as the birds swoop in just within range. It’s the longest shot of the day, but the wind has dropped off and Mat makes another clean kill.
Sport remains slow for the remainder of the session, but the combined attraction of the caller and the flapper enables Mat to bag another jackdaw before he decides to head home for lunch. His final tally of six birds is a respectable outcome on a morning when he had to work hard to get results.
Daystate Red Wolf (FAC)
MTC Mamba Lite
Flightline FF6 Combo
Jack Pyke Flocked Shell Crow Decoys
Sniper Hide Poles
Macwet long cuff
More from The Countryman
- Evening rabbit hunting – The Countryman
- Decoying woodpigeons – The Countryman
- Night vision rat hunting – The Countryman
- Summer rabbit stalking – The Countryman
- Farmyard crow control – The Countryman