Nothing is more satisfying in duck hunting than responsive birds. You turn them, they circle several times, but your sweet music brings them back to finish on set wings over the decoys. While there are times like this, at most others, passing birds are indecisive and sometimes flat-out hostile. Every duck tune in your repertoire seems to scream danger to them.
Opinions on calling vary as much as the birds’ response to them. Memories are long on when wary mallards turned to the call and short on how many were actually frightened away.
Ducks vocalize to share information, contact others, signal danger, and, most importantly, find potential mates. They might be vulnerable to imitations of these sounds, provided they haven’t been conditioned by calling and gunfire. Ducks can be attracted out of curiosity on opening day to all kinds of noise, but that halo around the caller fades quickly.
Callers in sync biologically and phonetically with the birds tend to have meaningful long-term communications.
Watch: Demonstrations of 4 duck calls
A Matter of Context
This means the circumstances and timing of your calls are a good fit with the ducks’ expectations in a specific environment. It’s often more important than the phonetic quality of your calling.
Competitive callers focus on making duck-like sounds, but success for hunters comes from understanding when and how to use calls that will attract birds. For example, wary birds might flare at a mistake, but the best caller in the world will not bring them into a place where danger clues abound. Aggressive calling on rainy days when natural courtship and calling are shut down is, in most cases, out of context. Getting in tune with ducks and the places they frequent on your marsh, while watching and listening to calls and how the birds move around the area, helps create a better context for your calling.
Quacks and decrescendo calls are the mainstay of mallard calls. Dabbling ducks make quacks, the most familiar being the hen-mallard or black duck call. The decrescendo is the loud traditional call that starts high and moves downward in a stair-like fashion. This call has been stylized through competitive calling routines into “hi-ball” and “come-back” calls. Hens use quacks between decrescendo calls or just on their own.
The best way to learn these calls for hunting is to listen to hen mallards out in the marsh. They most often call early morning or late evening. There are good videos on calling, but real ducks are the best teachers.
Quacks and decrescendos are used to announce the presence of a hen. Later in fall, when large flocks gather, these calls might advertise the presence of a large roosting flock.
The decrescendo is most often given while the hen is on the water. Almost certain is that this call is important for hens looking for mates, although paired birds will use it. This is why it can work like magic in drawing in single drakes. It also attracts other hens.
Bright is Right
Calling drakes comes into its own in the late season, when black duck and mallard courtship is in full swing. Bright, cold, and sometimes windy days have drakes trading across marshes to search for single hens. Single quacks, used in sequence, will bring curious drakes around at first and last light.
Well-executed decrescendos on the bright, magical days of late fall will sway entire flocks comprising mostly drakes, as is often the case before freeze-up. At times, two or more callers just making a lot of duck-like noise is the way to get the attention of passing flocks, leaving the finer work up to the best caller as ducks close the distance.
A savvy hunter can use calling in context to attract birds, but this requires a level of learned experience and keen observation. An example is using calling to overcome the super-shy behaviour of pressured birds that recognize and actively avoid decoys, calling, and blinds. Calling over a decoy spread can be verbal poison when the birds become conditioned to recognize fakes. But, a good caller concealed in flooded natural cover, without any decoys to warn ducks, can sometimes draw in drakes and hens on set wings.
When the birds are this sensitive to hunting, avoid continuing to call at close range (inside 200 yards), or they will probably detect the fake voice or fail to see real ducks and will flare.
The drake call is a more subtle quack than the hen’s. Back in the day of vocal and behavioural studies, scientists called this vocalization the “rhab.” It’s a deeper, raspier tone than a hen call, but not nearly as loud. It doesn’t carry as well, but can be used effectively on downwind greenheads and on quieter, calm days for circling drakes. If you listen to mallards or black ducks this autumn, you will be able to distinguish the drake’s call. This would be the best opportunity to learn it.
When you first hear the “feeding chuckle,” it sounds so ducky you just have to learn it, too. Not all hunters do this one well, but it’s always a prominent part of the competitive duck-calling routine. The fact is, it doesn’t have anything to do biologically with feeding. Feeding ducks make a quiet trilling and clucking.
The “feeding chuckle” is actually known as an inciting call. The hen gives the “ticket-ticket-ticket” call when a strange drake gets too close, inciting her mate to get in between her and the aggressive stranger. If this doesn’t work, she might throw her head back and give a “gak-gak-gak,” known as the repulsion call. Using the inciting call will often flare as many birds as it attracts. Once again, context determines the response of the birds.
Whistles are used by late-season callers and in many places during the winter down south. Mallard drakes make a courtship sound called the “grunt-whistle,” but I’m not aware of a call that makes this sound. The videos I’ve seen tend to mix the “grunt-whistle” with the “rhab” call. Whistles imitating mallard courtship calls could be effective, as they would signal the presence of an unpaired hen. That’s a situation lone drakes might find irresistible, particularly if the context is right and the sun is shining.