Mat Manning uses bait and decoy tactics to outwit marauding magpies intent on plundering the nests of vulnerable birds
Mat is on a sporting estate that’s managed for pheasant shooting. Larsen traps have been employed to keep magpie numbers in check – but they are intelligent and suspicious birds, and any that manage to dodge the trap’s sprung door are unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Mat’s aim is to improve the pheasants’ lot by mopping up any stragglers.
Nest-robbing magpies can have a serious impact on songbirds and game birds. These sharp-eyed corvids have a knack for spotting parent birds flitting back and forth from their nests. Once they pinpoint the nesting site they swoop in and help themselves to the eggs or chicks within – and they won’t let up until the nest is empty. So concealment and stealth are the bywords.
Key kit for picking off nest-robbing magpies
The opportunity to even take a shot at a crafty magpie doesn’t come easily, so Mat has chosen gear to help him optimise every chance that comes his way.
Mat is well aware that he needs to work smarter, not harder, to be in with a chance of a shot at one of these cunning creatures, so the line-up includes a decoy to help draw the birds within range, a compact PCP with a reputation for accurate shooting and a tripod to provide rock-steady support for the gun.
Flocked magpie decoy
This lightweight decoy is easy to carry in a kitbag. Realistically proportioned, its bold black and white markings do a great job of catching the eye of passing magpies. This version has a flock coating that gives it a more lifelike appearance.
BSA Ultra SE
Short and pointable, the Ultra lends itself ideally to shooting from a hide. It’s also accurate – thanks to BSA’s famous cold hammer-forged barrel – and its slick magazine-fed loading system means fast follow-up shots are always on hand.
Primos Trigger Stick Tall Tripod
Squeeze the trigger and the telescopic legs silently slide up or down. Release the pressure and they’re locked in place, providing rock-steady shooting from myriad positions – ideal for longer-range shooting.
Fake nest ruse
Magpies are always on the lookout for an easy meal, and eggs rate highly on their menu during the nesting season. Although exceptionally wary, these birds can be lured within range by tempting them in with what appears to be a vulnerable nest.
Mat gathers a few handfuls of dry nettle stems. These are twisted into a circle to imitate the form of a nest and placed on the ground in a prominent spot about 25 metres from Mat’s hiding place. More stems are placed in the centre of the circle to create a base onto which Mat nestles two hens’ eggs. One of the eggs is cracked to reveal its contents, making it even more irresistible.
The scene is completed by the addition of a magpie decoy – this will attract the attention of passing corvids and create an element of competition that should make them bolder.
Dress for success
Although camouflage hide netting often provides sufficient concealment, you’ll need to dress it to go undetected by magpies. The straight edges of a camo screen may stand out against a natural backdrop, but it’s easy to obscure them by dressing your hide with vegetation and branches. Mat weaves weeds
such as ivy, nettle stems and docks into the netting to help it blend in with the countryside – but remember to check with the landowner before you cut down anything. When dressing a hide, always leave ‘windows’ to shoot through, and attach branches and vegetation flat to the netting to avoid fouling the muzzle.
Corvids have very sharp eyesight and won’t be fooled by the bait and decoy if they think there could be danger lurking. For this reason concealment is of paramount importance and a hide is usually required.
Mat built his hide several days previously to give the birds time to get over the disturbance. It’s sited in a place that provides a clear view of, and clear shots to, the area around the fake nest and decoy. From here Mat can cover a sitty tree, which could allow him to pick off any magpies that hang back to observe the set-up from a seemingly safe distance.
Once settled in the hide Mat puts on his head net. Although he’s shooting from behind a camouflage screen, it still pays to guard against flashes of pale skin that could give the game away.
Time for the caller
The fake nest and imitation magpie set-up won’t attract birds if they don’t spot it. One way to steer their eyes towards the target area is to grab their attention with a caller.
After a long quiet spell with no sign of a magpie, Mat decides to take action. His caller is a simple device made by placing 15 or so heavy .22 pellets inside an old 35mm film canister to create a rattle that sounds just like the call of a magpie.
Mat gives the caller a few brisk shakes to mimic the chatter of an agitated magpie. A few minutes of intermittent rattling provokes a response, and Mat imitates the bird’s chatter. The rattle is left silent as the incoming bird gets closer as Mat doesn’t want the sound to give his position away.
A bird in the bag
Even when presented with a free meal corvids are twitchy birds and don’t tend to hang around. Opportunities need to be taken quickly as these birds have a habit of flitting in and out in the blink of an eye.
The magpie that was drawn in by the caller spots the fake nest and swoops into a nearby tree. Mat tries to get a bead on it, but the bird refuses to keep still and soon takes to the wing again. All is not lost, though, as it appears to be heading for the nest.
The magpie pitches on the ground close to the decoy set-up and stares in bewilderment at the fake bird. Mat’s on it in an instant, and cleanly dispatches the nest robber with a smack to the chest. Although Mat is a big advocate of head shots, magpies are relatively small birds and a solid shot to the heart and lung area will often result in a swift kill.
Location, location, location
Magpies won’t automatically flock to an area just because you set up a decoy and bait. You need to target a zone they’re already patrolling – so reconnaissance is key.
Keep your eyes peeled for fleeing magpies, and listen for their chattering calls when you’re out in the countryside. Magpies favour woodland edges, small copses and overgrown hedgerows – where other birds are likely to nest.
Locating a good spot is your cue to build a hide and prepare for the ambush. Get yourself set up and your fake nest will soon grab the magpies’ attention.
The first kill can leave the hunter in a quandary. The sight of a dead bird may spook others, but sometimes scavenging corvids will swoop in to investigate the corpse of a fallen comrade.
Another magpie duly breaks the silence and is clearly agitated by the sight of the shot corvid – but it’s also curious and flutters into a sitty tree that’s well within range. Mat wastes no time in adding it to the tally. And he’s soon in action again as a passing crow clocks the decoy set-up. The corvid circles briefly before gliding in. Taken off the Trigger Stick tripod, Mat easily secures his hat-trick.
Clearing up and clearing off
Activity can go from hectic to non-existent in no time when targeting corvids. The fake nest should earn you some shots early on, but it’s likely to be treated with suspicion after a few losses.
However, nothing happens during the following hour – even the caller fails to generate a response. Patience is a vital ingredient to successful shooting, but so is knowing when to move on, and it looks like it’s time for the curtain to close on this session.
Mat breaks cover and collects his brace of magpies and solitary crow. Three birds may not sound like much, but it’s a decent result when pitting your wits against artful corvids, and it’ll make a difference to the success of the pheasants and songbirds on this ground.