Decoys, Shotguns and Conservation

A male Bluebill
I wandered far into the woods, into the lakes and over the snow, and waited patiently for an approaching deer, or a turkey, or, if I am on the lake, a duck, in anticipation of shooting one. But I found myself sitting on a bus on the way to the railway station. I was wondering what exactly I was going to do in the following 24 hours. It took me 6 hours to reach London, where it would have taken about 2. Nonetheless, I was too excited about the following day to be bothered by hours of waiting for buses and trains. I met a friend and we headed Turkey Point.

We started much before sunrise on the next day, as I piled layers of clothes to be able to withstand freezing cold and blistering winds blowing off Lake Erie. We joined two more friends, and then headed towards Long Point. Our trucks were full of decoys, anchors, guns and shells and two joyous canines. We loaded the stuff onto the boat and cruised towards the bay. It was foggy, damp and cold, and as our boat picked up speed I realized I was in for something more adventurous than I expected. It was my first hunting trip ever, as I joined professional hunters to observe and understand the ethics of real legal hunting.

When we hear the word hunting, the first thought that comes to our mind is killing, but in fact there is a big difference in the two terms. Hunting is what men did – and still do – in order to feed, as do wolves, tigers and lions. Killing is what men did – and still do – in order to claim territories, mates and others’ lives. It is as simple as that, but when one crosses the line of hunting mercilessly and illegally – as poachers do, that is when the art of hunting is tainted. In reality, poaching is far from hunting, it is nothing but slaughter for greed. And yet we always consider the words hunters and poachers as synonyms. It could probably be because of the media, but in order to understand the real meaning of hunting, one must understand that humans are a part of the ecosystem – we were (and still are) hunters, like wolves and tigers; as well as we were (and still are) hunted, like deer and antelopes . What separates us from the four legged hunters is our use of tools. From the first sphere carved out of a stone many centuries ago to the first gun used to hunt, we developed weapons from simple tools to obtain food. It is the weapons that have enabled us to become what we are today – efficient hunters. The other uses of weapons are already famous, so I’ll just focus on legal hunting and how it relates to wildlife conservation.
A Bluebill checking the decoys, and the hunter in the layout boat
Once we reached near the mouth of the bay, we set up the layout boat after carefully considering the position, the direction of the wind, as well as our proximity to other hunters. A layout boat is a small, flat boat that lays low on the surface of the water. It comes in variety of sizes, with room for two hunters, as well as for retriever dogs. The one we used housed single person. The boat was anchored in a strategic location near a cut on the nearby landmass, where the ducks might take cover or fly over. Direction of wind plays an important role in how the layout boat should be anchored, since you don’t want to be facing with the direction of the wind, but face the oncoming wind, so that you can see the approaching birds. Once the layout boat is in position, we need to attract the attention of the birds using decoys. These duck decoys are placed strategically around the boat. They are clamped onto a line with weights at both ends. We used Bufflehead, Canvasback, Redhead and Scaup decoys. There is a reason why the decoys were placed in a straight line. Some diver duck flocks prefer to land on the water in one straight line, and the decoys mimic this formation – inviting the ducks to join in. Some ducks, such as Buffleheads, randomly land on water – hence we placed decoys to mimic this behaviour. They are deployed in front of the layout boat so that the hunter is able to watch the ducks coming in. Using decoys is a very efficient technique to hunt ducks and geese. One might also wave the hat, or use a flag to mimic a landing duck – so as to attract attention of the ducks flying over. One may even mimic duck calls. Duck Calling is an art in itself, where a hunter has to train to hit the right notes. It is like singing, but in the language only ducks understand. There are even contests, and only one who is as good as the real duck/geese/turkey wins!

By now I realized that hunting is not like shooting clay pigeons in the air. There are many factors to be considered depending on what you’re out hunting. I’ll be more than happy if I ever have the opportunity to study how to hunt deer and geese. All these tricks have been tried and tested over time, discovered by other hunters and passed along to their kids and friends. This is how the legacy of hunting, just like any form of art, has come to be. Yet hunting is different than other forms of art, for it plays with life and death. As every art has its own history, hunting has a long one as well, although it is darker than any.

The primary source of food for man many centuries ago was wild meat and plants. Men hunt beasts the size of mammoths while women primarily foraged for vegetables. The first animal recorded to be extinct because of excessive hunting was the Dodo. Later, as agriculture and animal husbandry became common practice, hunting was transformed into a sport. The then-hunters were only sharp in shooting, since very few ever bothered to study the population dynamics of the game animals. In the following decades, this led to a great fall in populations of many animals, such as tigers and leopards, while many were hunted to extinction. This sport was more for the thrill-to-kill, than to be one with nature. Even today, the many animals on the brink of extinction are majorly because of indiscriminate hunting. This is one reason why people today nod in repulsion when a duck is harvested by a hunter, for it gave hunting a bad name.

While illegal hunting still takes place around the world, there are many rules and regulations set in order to curb this menace. These strict laws regulate when, where, what and how a person can hunt. The Ministry of Natural Resources mentions,
“Legal hunting does not endanger wildlife populations. In fact, it can play an important role in maintaining an abundant population within the carrying capacity of its habitat. Those species that are hunted are managed sustainably. The management is based on sound science and long-term monitoring.”    
Legal hunting also restricts a hunter to hunt only a few birds a day, depending on the species of the birds, for example, a hunter is only allowed to harvest two Buffleheads a day. Thanks to these laws, man can now be a part of the nature and be a real predator, and not just an aberrant hunter. The importance of hunting, as specified by MNR, is for wildlife management. The money from the fees paid to obtain the hunting license goes to monitoring and protection of wildlife. Today, hunting is an activity that is enjoyed equally by men and women. Hunting is not just a sexist sport anymore. It is a recreational sport – a sport to bond with people, to be a hunter and most of all to be one with nature.
Oscar retrieves a Bufflehead
Dawn cleared the fog, but clouds prevailed throughout the day. The wind, although not ideal, was blowing from west, which just might push the ducks inside the bay where the ambush was laid. One hunter went on the layout boat and we sailed a little farther from the trap. Very soon we heard a gunshot. “He’s down”, we heard on the radio. I barely saw the bird going down, but the dogs were the first to see it. Eager to fetch, Oscar jumped into the water after his master signaled him to. I saw this duck for the first time, a Bufflehead. And it was dead. I am not yet familiar to seeing the first-ever species I come across so lifeless, but there it was. I held my camera for a while, wondering if I should photograph a dead bird I saw for the first time. I do support sustainable hunting, but I was reluctant to photograph it. The dead duck was sniffed by the dogs, and kept beside the master. Lance and Oscar are Labrador retrievers. They are bred to fetch. They are also considered to be most lovable, social dogs. The training to become retrievers begins early in life, where the dog has to learn to obey his master, then to fetch objects and bring them to the master instead of carrying it away, then to fetch decoys, to sniff the birds, and then to fetch an actual bird. A Labrador retriever is a quick learner, hence favorite amongst most hunters.
A harvested male Bufflehead
We were four hunters on the boat, the three licensed to, and used to shoot with guns, and me with my camera. This was probably the commonest thing we had on that boat – we all were dedicated shooters. But as I came to understand, hunting is not about point-and-shoot which is what I did with my camera. As I discussed earlier, there are many factors crucial to hunting. While one has to consider the weather, most important factor is the time of the year. As lions know when and where the wildebeest will stop-over during migration, or as the wolves know when the elk migrate; a hunter has to learn when the birds arrive, and if they arrive, is the season right to hunt? This is because many birds stop-over at Long Point during their winter migration and spring migration, and some stay back to breed. The season of migration is generally considered hunting season, while it is not legal and ethical – to shoot the birds during breeding season. Therefore, to be a hunter is to be aware of everything that revolves around hunting – this also involves the lifecycle of the game animals.
Oscar - eager to fetch
About six hours later we shot three birds, two Buffleheads and a Ruddy duck. The number sounds too low for the time of the year. I started considering if we chose the wrong place, or was the weather too bad? Or sheer bad luck? I got a simple explanation, “that’s why it’s hunting and not killing.” What draws the line between hunting and killing are the intentions of the gunman. The hunters could have easily shot every passing bird, and bring down a hundred gulls and mergansers. This is not the intention of a real hunter.
Long Point
Long Point is a rich habitat for staging migrants; hence it is not surprising to see hunters flocking in as well. A major landmass of Long Point is restricted for the sole purpose of hunting. It may sound cruel, but it is because of this measure that it has become a haven for the birds. Long Point is a sand-spit with large shallow wetlands – an ideal habitat for waterfowls to feed and breed in. It is great example of sustainable-conservation. To understand why sustainability and conservation are combined one must consider that the waterfowls would, as any animal from bacteria to humans, over-exploit the resources in the absence of predators. This could lead to population explosion, which is not healthy for any given habitat. As predators, humans can sustain a healthy population of waterfowls; just as tigers maintain the populations of the deer or as Ladybird beetles that maintain the populations of aphids.

This brings me to question a common notion used by many biologists – “natural predators”. If humans are not natural predators, what are we? Definitely not supernatural. Whether it is the world of insect predators or mammal predators, we all are natural at predating. I was once told of an interesting story, where the pest populations of White-tailed Deer were controlled by natural predators – humans. The deer were introduced to Long Point many years ago. Since there were no natural predators such as wolves to prey on them, they grew beyond Long Point’s carrying capacity, which lead to destruction of many virgin Carolinian forests. What we forgot is that we are a part of nature as well. Reintroduction of wolves to curb deer population is another solution that is debatable. Today, licensed hunters maintain the populations of deer at Long Point, making sure that there are not too many, nor too less. Similarly for waterfowls, man is the primary predator of this wetland, as the tiger is of Ranthambore.

Since I hail from the land of the tiger, I wondered why isn’t hunting a sport in India as it is in North America, Europe and Africa. The basic reason that I think of is land availability. India is a big country, but even bigger is the biodiversity of this country. I think the competition within predator-prey of India’s wildlife is far fierce and competitive than North America (primarily Canada). India also has many endangered animals, which rely on other animals of least concern for food – this makes conservation of the least-concern animals vital for the survival of the endangered ones. Hence hunting is strictly illegal in India, although many tribes are exempted from this law since hunting is their primary source of meat. It is in this class of tribes that unfortunately gives rise to poachers, because poaching is an easy source of income – and they are very skilled to hunt in the Indian forests.
LPW logo on the cap
While I did not leave my body on the boat and wander into Indian wilderness, I enjoyed every bit of what I learnt within a few hours. Long Point Waterfowl, that gave me the opportunity (and a degree!) to work and learn about Canadian wilderness, continues to educate me. It is one of the major bodies working for conservation of Long Point – a fascinating land where man is still a natural, real and legal predator.
The string that held decoys became tangled in the propeller
At the end of the day, we harvested four birds – with the addition of a female Bluebill. I’m glad we did not get stunk (a hunter says he got stunk when he fails to harvest a game animal). We rescued the lost decoys; untangled strings caught up in the propeller, and hauled the boat to the dock. “Look at that!” pointed a friend to the sky – and we saw what every hunter despise – a flock of Redheads and Canvasbacks in thousands heading toward the bay. We all sighed. The lesson to be learnt was clear. Even if it’s a perfect day to hunt, more than half of the chance that you will hunt is upon your luck.
Long Point Bay
I was back on the train the same day. I was exhausted, yet excited for the day turned out to be very educational. Wildlife conservation is not possible without immersing ourselves into this web of life. A hunter knows how to be a part of this web, but many people who have distanced themselves from nature fail to understand this concept. I see a hunter as a conservationist and a naturalist – as long as he is bound by the laws of sustainable hunting.

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