You need to act quickly if you want to bag a few birds when flying pests descend on seasonal feeding grounds. Kev Hawker reflects on an enjoyable afternoon’s decoying over a cereal crop
Being in the right place at the right time plays a huge part when it comes to successful air rifle hunting. Chances can come and go in a matter of days, so it’s important to keep a close eye on your permissions.
Pigeon shooting is a prime example of the need to get your timing right. Large numbers of this agricultural pest might be hammering a field one day, but the same spot could be absolutely empty a day or two later if another, more appetising, food source becomes available. For this reason, I do my best to scour the fields for signs of activity – not just when I’m out with my airgun, but also when I’m driving around.
The only thing that really is predictable with pigeon shooting is that the habits of these birds are usually very difficult to predict. At this time of year, when food is scarcer than it is in the summer and autumn, woodpigeons will often be found feeding on clover or rape, but that has yet to ring true on my patch this winter.
Recently, while driving past one of my permissions on an extensive arable farm, I spotted the distinctive white flashes of the wings of feeding pigeons in a field which initially appeared to be devoid of anything the birds might want to eat. I parked up for a closer look, only to discover that the birds were dining on fresh green shoots that were sprouting from a cereal crop that was sown back in the autumn. There were no more than 20 birds on the field but, given the woodpigeon’s habit of gathering in large flocks on favourable feeding grounds, the potential for costly crop damage was considerable – especially given that a few corvids also appeared to be joining in with the feast. As luck would have it, I had the following day off work – no prizes for guessing how I was planning to spend it.
The usual jobs at home that inevitably eat into precious days off prevented me from getting out as soon as I would have liked.
I actually arrived at the field just after lunchtime, with only about three hours of good light left before dusk, but at least there were still a few pigeons about, and some jackdaws. Rather than putting the birds on edge by trying to stalk in for a shot when weighed down with all my decoying gear, I decided to just walk them off the field. Approaching nonchalantly makes your body language read more like that of a harmless walker than a plotting hunter and, in my experience, tends to make the birds less reluctant to return after you settle in.
Once I reached the corner of the field the pigeons seemed to be most interested in, I quickly set about constructing a simple net hide. I incorporated the screen into an overgrown hedgerow, which served as a useful backdrop to set it off against, then dressed the net with a few nettle stems and fallen branches to soften its unnaturally straight edges.
Apart from positioning my hide among good natural cover, I was also mindful to site it within range of a couple of sitty trees. Persuading pigeons to land and settle on the ground next to artificial decoys can be challenging, as can shooting them when they’re waddling around and constantly bobbing up and down as they peck at whatever they’re feeding on. It’s a lot easier to lure them into surrounding trees where they’ll usually pitch to scan for danger before fluttering down – and it’s also a lot less tricky to shoot them when they’re perched still on a branch.
With my hide set up it was time to position the decoys. I’ve been using the Enforcer Pro Series Pigeon Shell Decoys a lot over the last few months, and they have worked brilliantly. Their markings are incredibly realistic and their adjustable sprung pegs enable them to rock and bob gently in the breeze, which gives a remarkably lifelike movement to your decoy pattern. Being shell decoys, they also pack into each other and I can easily fit five into my Jack Pyke bucket seat. That may not sound like a lot, but it lets me travel light and is usually plenty.
I set out my decoys in a group about 25m from my hide; although I was planning to shoot birds from the sitty tree, there is always a chance of them dropping straight in to join the fake flock, so I wanted to make sure they’d be comfortably within range. My usual preference is for a rough V-shaped formation with birds facing more or less into the wind.
The trap was set and I settled into the hide and loaded up my Air Arms Ultimate Sporter R ready for action. My final preparation was to put on my camo headnet, as woodpigeons and corvids have an uncanny ability to spot pale skin, even through a hide net.
It was a cold and very overcast day with low cloud reducing visibility quite considerably, so I was a little worried that incoming birds might fail to spot my decoys in the murky conditions. I needn’t have worried, though, as a pair of pigeons circled high over the pattern and then swooped into a large oak about 30m to my right about half an hour into the session. This was exactly what I had hoped for and while one of the birds was completely hidden by branches, the other offered me a clear shot at its head. It wasn’t an easy shot but, in the windless conditions, it was one that the regulated Ultimate Sporter was more than capable of. The crosshairs came to rest on the pigeon’s head, I squeezed the trigger and the pellet connected with a solid whack. My pigeon crashed down through the branches and walloped into the ground while its mate flapped away on panicked wings.
While I only took five decoys with me, I like to boost the pattern by adding any birds I shoot, so I slipped out of the hide to add the pigeon to the fake flock. With its ruffled feathers smoothed back down and its head propped on a forked twig, it looked very convincing. Before heading back to the hide, I cleared away the scattered white feathers from where the bird had hit the ground, as these can put incoming birds on edge.
Although sport was never hectic, a few pigeons flighted to the decoys during the rest of the afternoon and a couple of corvids also dropped in for a closer look. I ended up with three plump woodies for the table and two bonus jackdaws. All birds, with the exception of one pigeon, were shot from sitty trees.
I drove past the same field the following morning and it was completely devoid of pests. Although I like to think that I played a part in pushing them off my farmer’s ground, it’s likely that they moved on to richer pickings elsewhere – proof that you need
to act quickly when flying pests descend.