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Realistic-looking duck decoy about to land

Decoys
by ROBIN BARKES

I HAVE BEEN a shotgun man all my life and anything to do with wingshooting will get my attention. So, for a long time, the small advertisement in Magnum’s Readers’ Market, offering bird decoys, caught my eye. I always wondered where they were made, and it was only recently, joy of joys, I discovered that the man making decoys of our indigenous bird species lives right here in my home town. Naturally I just had to meet the decoy man. Ivan Jones is a man after my own heart. I realized this the moment I walked into his workshop and found him surrounded by dozens and dozens of ducks, geese, pigeons and crows. I also noted a bunch of fishing rods on the wall surrounded by framed photographs of shooters with their bags of gamebirds. His display of shotgun cartridge boxes – most of which I have never seen or heard of, made it clear that Ivan, like me, is an avid collector. I noticed his large library of books and his beautiful model sailing ships – and I was in a world of all things I love dearly. His Hungarian Visla enhanced the image when it appeared wearing a shooting vest with pockets for carrying spare cartridges. To cap it all, Ivan is exactly the same age as I am, so we were able to talk about those wonderful times known as ‘the good old days’; mature readers will remember them and younger readers will probably not believe the tales.

AS I EXPECTED, Ivan’s story began more than 50 years ago when he became a passionate wingshooter, addicted to the thrill of seeing a fast-flying gamebird tumble to his shot. Soon he began making decoys to entice high-flying birds to wing their way over his blind. His first decoys were merely silhouettes with a stroke of paint here and there to simulate the real thing. Those simple decoys really worked; Ivan improved them and soon he was making them for friends. The friends grew by the number, and he realized he needed a faster method of producing life-like decoys. Fortunately, living in Port Elizabeth with its large motor industry, Ivan sourced a company that produced moulded plastic parts for vehicle manufacturers and soon his little hobby became a lucrative business supplying beautifully crafted decoys to shooters all over southern Africa.

THE USE OF DECOYS is nothing new. American Indians made decoys by moulding clay into the shape of ducks which they hunted with bows and arrows. They also did a pretty good job weaving reeds together into realistic-looking duck images. I have seen an old engraving of early shooters hidden inside a giant swan – a sort of avian Trojan horse. I once saw an old print of wildfowlers creeping up to swimming ducks while carrying a life-size silhouette of a cow to conceal themselves. It occurred to me this may work for stalking spurwing in a field.

During the flintlock era, artists made beautiful porcelain decoys, and by the age of the percussion gun, talented craftsmen were carving and painting wooden decoys that today are valuable collector’s items. Of course, the use of dead birds as decoys is probably almost as old as hunting itself and remains a very effective ploy to this day. By the era of the modern shotgun, American and European manufacturers were turning out production-line decoys by the thousand. Here in South Africa, our own decoy man produces, in his small workshop, decoys of our indigenous game birds found in the rivers, dams and fields we all love to shoot over. Ivan showed me a consignment of  decoys just delivered by the moulding factory. These were still in the black ABS plastic, just as they came from the moulds, made according to Ivan’s design. Next, depending on whether the decoy depicts a standing, flying or feeding bird, holes are drilled to facilitate its attachment to its metal stand. Some of the floating ducks have bulbous keels which are filled with sand to keep them upright. Nearby a pile of metal rods stood freshly painted, ready to be fitted to the battery-operated swivel apparatus that simulates birds in flight.

THE NEXT STAGE is to transform the lifeless black moulds into realistic looking birds by spray-painting each in its general overall colour. Next, the eyes, beaks and distinctive body markings are artistically added. All the decoys are larger than life-size to make them easily visible from a distance. Ivan explained that the secret is to have as many decoys out as possible. Time and again he has observed the way incoming geese fly directly to a large spread of decoys rather than join a smaller group of real birds feeding nearby. Ivan emphasized the importance of knowing the shooting grounds and the flight lines of the incoming birds, so as to position the blinds in relation to the decoys, bearing in mind that birds always land into the wind when it’s blowing. Ducks and geese won’t fly into feeding grounds if they spot anything suspicious. Decoys have to be laid out carefully facing the wind. Don’t set them out directly behind one another, and always leave a metre or so between them so that if they were live birds they could take off without their wings colliding. It’s best to set them out in the part of the lands preferred by feeding birds, so, during your pre-hunt scouting, look for signs of activity – flattened crops, spoor, feathers and droppings. Blinds should blend in with the landscape because the birds will always circle the area a few times to make sure everything looks the same as it did the last time. Any new object they spot will send them off to pastures new. I have always used natural cover, and as long as your outline is broken up and you don’t move, the birds will come in close enough for you to swing into action.

YEARS AGO, I had great success at a dam situated in the corner of a large field of oats. The stock fence made an acute turn almost at the water’s edge and all I did was thread some reeds between the strands of wire and sit motionless with my back to the protective cover. Those yellow-bills would come straight in at dusk and I’d get a left and right just about every time. In large fields, geese prefer feeding on high ground so they can see the lie of the land and easily spot any approaching danger. In such circumstances geese are difficult to shoot unless you set up permanent blinds and the birds get used to them. While large bags may be taken this way, it’s important to know when to stop. Even though an area may be inundated with geese or clouds of rock pigeons, we must not make the same mistake the Americans made with their passenger pigeon. These pigeons once numbered in their millions but are all gone now. Always remember that in addition to the relatively few game birds that fall to hunters’ guns, a great many more die from cold, hunger, disease, predation by monkeys, jackals, rats, and birds of prey; not to mention habitat lost due to human activity during the last century.

PERHAPS THE BEST way to entice birds is to create a peaceful and inviting setting by using different types of decoys. Just imagine this: a picturesque dam with half-a-dozen yellow-billed ducks swimming about. On the bank a few Egyptian geese sun themselves while at the water’s edge a heron standsignoring the two crows in the dead tree behind it. And in a nearby blind you sit, waiting for that exciting rush of wings. Well, Ivan can supply all such props for a perfect setting – all you have to do is add water. I once read that rifle shooting is a science, while shotgun shooting is an art. Well, so is the skilful creation and employment of decoys. Thanks to Ivan, another dimension can be added to the wonderful world of wingshooting.

Article courtesy of

October 2015