Before I get started, let me say this — I like mallards. I’ll be the first to agree few things look as nice as a big ’ole duck strap heavy with greenheads. That said, let me also say this — there are ducks other than mallards.
Yes, I know. To some, the statement is sacrilegious. And to others, even thinking such thoughts would get you thrown out of the duck club. Still, it’s true. There are ducks other than mallards. And in few other arenas is this notion of other than more noticeable than in the sounds made by these other species, and the sounds we waterfowlers make in hopes of attracting them to a well-placed spread. Certainly, and while it’s no original concept by any means, a good old-fashioned mallard hen high-ball or feeding chuckle will work on a wide variety of species. And this is probably one of the reasons if not the reason behind our reluctance to try something a little bit different in terms of our calling; however, for those days when the sprig or widgeon or green-wings just don’t seem to want to pay much attention to that traditional quack….quack….quack….well, doesn’t it make sense to say something else?
Whistles For Waterfowl
There are essentially two basic categories of sounds when describing duck vernacular — quacks and whistles. Yes, divers have their growls and purrs, and drake grey ducks (gadwalls) their nasally dink…dink-dink; still, ’fowlers mimicking their quarry generally speak in terms of quack or whistle.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the tools used to recreate the array of avian whistling sounds, as well as the derivatives thereof, are as many as there are traditional reeded duck calls. My first non-mallard call was a very ordinary referee’s whistle, though mine was a much more hunter-friendly olive drab green color. Blown upside-down so as not to allow the pea inside to vibrate, the whistle didn’t produce the typical trilling sound; rather, a mellow, airy tone almost identical to a drake widgeon’s voice. With subsequent calls, we simply split the piece, removed the pea, and glued the halves back together.
Today, several recognized companies make whistles or whistle-esque calls meant to mimic species including sprig, widgeon, green-wings, wood ducks, and others. Similar in design, one-piece so-called pintail whistles from Buck Gardner, The Duck Commander, and Hunter’s Specialties offer a lightweight, versatile call capable of reproducing not only the aforementioned species, but also the lisping dweek of a drake mallard, the high-pitched scream of a red-tailed hawk, and a quail’s familiar bob-bow-WHITE! Other models, such as Primos’ High Roller or Wingsetter’s 8-N-1or EZ Flutter, are a bit more futuristic in appearance; however, all are quite adapt at creating the trills, peeps and whistles that non-mallard men seek.
It’s one thing to have the tools; however, it’s often another to use them correctly. Fortunately, whistling for waterfowlers, at least in my opinion, is not nearly as complicated as is quacking — in fact, it’s rather simple. All one needs to know are the players and, to put it bluntly, how they converse.
Widgeon are a very vocal bird, both in the air and on the water, and it’s easy to imitate their simple two- or three-note whistling. Phonetically, the widgeon’s call sounds like “woo, whIT, woo,” with each sound or word being produced in a breathy, back-of-the-throat sort of way. The drake also makes a two-note whistle — “whIT, woo.”
TIP: In my time throughout the Pacific Flyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost impossible to overcall widgeon; in fact, I seemed to have better success with multiple callers, each mixing his or her own two- or three-note sequences together; the result being a goodly amount of sound that carries well despite detriments such as wind or distance.
Unlike the widgeon’s breathy tones, the bull sprig’s whistle is almost bell-like in its clarity, and does incorporate a rolling trill not heard in the baldpate. Here, a dog whistle will work, sometimes quite well; however, I’ve found that the sprig-specific calls like Buck’s or The Commander’s seem to produce a clearer, truer tone.
TIP: Pintails are often fickle about both decoys and calling, it seems; however, I found combining the bull sprig’s trill with a traditional jerk cord and two to three dozen drake pintail decoys would work well on shy late-season birds. This combination is also effective on other pressured puddler species.
It’s only been within the past couple years that I’ve begun experimenting with teal-specific calls, and I will say this — I’m a believer. One hundred percent of the time? No, but then again, few things work 100 percent of the time.
Green-wing teal are what I’ll call peepers; that is, they make a high-pitched whistled PEEP! — short of duration, and high in volume. The cadence when calling green-wings can be seen phonetically as peep! PEEP-peep! Peep.
TIP: For green-wings, I’m partial to a simple piece such as Buck Gardner’s pintail call; rather, I want something with volume but which is note-for-note as clear as proverbial crystal. As for timing, I tend to peep at green-wings as they swoop and swing the spread, using the short blasts moreso as a confidence call than an attractant.
Growing up northeast Ohio with an abundance of wood ducks, it was my experience that 99.98 percent of the population will ignore a wood duck call. However, I did on one occasion see a flock change course and return to a small timbered pothole where a cousin of mine, wood duck call in hand, had just called to them in their ‘peet – w-o-o-O-O-I-T’ rising whistle. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it was enough to convince me that on that one-in-a-million occasion when a flying wood duck wants to listen, he will. Otherwise, I’m relatively sure they’re deaf.
TIP: Phil “The Duck Commander” Robertson had this to say about calling wood ducks: “Wood ducks themselves are among the most difficult ducks to call. It’s easier to get a wood duck to swim to you than it is to get him to fly to you. What most people don’t realize is that if a wood duck is flying, it has a creeeek – creeeek – creeeek call. When they’re on the water, they make a totally different sound. But if they’re flying and you give them a flying call, they don’t know where to come back to.”
And, while I’m neither the world’s best nor most-learned duck caller, I do know it’s important the ducks know where they’re going — which, hopefully, is somewhere within 40 yards of where I’m sitting.