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Understanding Duck Communication
by T R Michels

     Some hunters may not realize that communication among ducks and geese is a combination of sound, body posture and action. The meaning of a call may be more related to body posture and action than to the sound of the call. Because it is difficult to duplicate body posture and action you need to understand the call in order to correctly recreate it. According to waterfowl researcher Dr. Jim Cooper there are two major factors that determine the meaning of a duck or goose call; the frequency and intensity of the call. There are two other factors that determine the difference between different species and subspecies of ducks and geese; the pitch and duration of the individual notes of the calls.

     The frequency or tempo (speed) with which a duck or goose calls is related to the action of the bird; the faster the motion of the duck or goose, the faster the call. The calling of a duck or goose on land or water is related to how fast it is moving. The calling of a duck or goose in the air is related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, which is when the duck or goose contracts its chest muscles and exhales. When a goose is calling on the ground to keep the family in contact it calling is slow. When a goose is flying, the calling is directly related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, which is when the goose contracts it chest muscles and exhales. When a goose is flying in formation its call is a slow, measured honk. When a goose is pumping its wings rapidly during takeoff or landing it calling is fast. Fast calls are a sign of a rapidly moving duck or goose.

      The intensity (loudness) of the call is related to the mood of the duck or goose. The more anxious, excited, irritated or nervous the duck or goose is the louder the call is; taking off, landing, threatening and attacking are situations that may cause a duck to become anxious, which causes loud calling. If a goose is attacking another goose its calling is louder than if it is just threatening. Mating, threatening, attacking, landing and taking off are all intense times for ducks and geese, and their calling is often louder than normal at those times.

     When a female duck uses a quack to keep the family together while she's feeding the call is usually soft and slow. When the quack is used to keep the family together while flying the call is louder and faster. When the quack is used to get the family back together after it has been separated, or by a lone duck trying to locate its family or a flock in the air, the call is louder. When the quack is used as a hen jumps into the air after being alarmed it is loud and fast. When a hen uses a chuckle on the water the call is loud and slow, because the duck is not moving fast. When a hen uses the chuckle in the air the call is faster, because the duck is beating its wings rapidly. When Remember this when you are calling; loud calls may be a sign of an excited duck or goose, or a lost duck or goose.

     The pitch (musical tone) of the call, and the duration (length) of the notes of the call, are related to the size of the duck or goose. Generally speaking, the larger the species of duck or goose, the larger its chest cavity is, and the deeper the pitch of its call. And, generally speaking, the larger the species of duck or goose, the longer its wing are, the slower it beats its wings, the longer the notes of its call, and the slower the timing (rapidity) of the individual notes of its call. Although Teal and Mallards use the same basic decrescendo call, the Mallard decrescendo is lower in pitch, and the individual notes are longer and slower than the decrescendo call of the Teal. The call of a giant Canada goose consists of low pitched, long notes, that are medium spaced;  herr-onk herr-onk. The call of a small cackling Canada goose consists of high pitched, short notes that are quick paced; unc...  unc. A study of Barnacle geese suggests that geese within that species, that have wider mouths, have higher pitched calls than geese with narrower mouths. This may be another reason why smaller subspecies of geese have higher pitched calls than larger subspecies of geese.

Puddle Duck Vocalizations

     During the fall most puddle duck hens of the genus Anas (Mallard, Black Duck, Gadwall, Blue-Winged Teal, Green-Winged Teal, Widgeon and Shoveler) use three calls: the Social Contact call, the Decrescendo call and the Incitement call. Drakes of these species use a deeper version of Social Contact call for social contact and as a Mating call. 

Hen Social Contact Call

     The Social Contact call is used by a hen to keep the family together, it is also used by hens to make other ducks aware of their presence. The hens of most puddle duck species use a slow, shortened version of their Decrescendo call as a Social Contact call; Mallard hens use a simple quack. This call may contain one or more drawn out notes spaced evenly apart; quaack...quaack...quaack. To imitate this call cup your hand over the barrel of the call like you were holding a bottle, and say quack. Your hand should remain cupped while you say the qua portion of the call; open your fingers on the ack.

Hen Mating / Decrescendo Calls

      The Decrescendo call is used by hens to announce a willingness to pair bond; it may also be used by hens as general conversation. Although breeding doesn't usually occur until spring, the hens use the Decrescendo when they begin forming pair bonds in the fall. The Decrescendo call sounds just like its Latin name implies; it starts out loud and becomes quieter as the duck runs out of air. The decrescendo of the hen Mallard is often referred to by hunters as the hail, high ball, or greeting call. It usually consists of five to ten notes, with the second note being the loudest and each successive note being softer. But it may be longer; I have heard a hen Mallard string seventeen quacks together while performing the decrescendo. To correctly perform this call the first note should be loud (and can be long), with each of the following notes becoming softer quaack-quack-quack-quack-quack-quack. Most callers leave their hand open while performing this call. Eli and Rod Haydel, of Haydel's Game Calls, use a variation of this call with an exaggerated, drawn out first note as a pleading call; and a sharper, more insistent version as a comeback call; quaaack-quack-quack-quack-quack-quack. My favorite calls for hen Mallard sounds are Haydel's DC-87 Double Reed Cutback Mallard, DR-85 Double Reed Mallard and the AD-98 Acrylic Duck.

     The hen Black Duck, Pintail and Shoveler use approximately the same Decrescendo call, and the same pitch as the mallard. The hen Widgeon uses a qua-awk; with 1 to 3 notes. For all of these ducks I use Haydel's BVD-96 Variable Tone Mallard. The hen Gadwall uses the same call, but with a higher pitch; for Gadwalls I use Haydel's GW-01 Gadwall Call. Blue-Wing Teal and Cinnamon Teal use a high pitched quack with 3 to 4 notes, and the last two notes are usually cut off short. For teal I use Haydel's BT-85 Blue Wing and Cinnamon Teal call, which recreates the higher pitched sounds of the hens of those species.

Hen Agonistic / Incitement Calls

     Agonistic calls are named for the fact that the animal is agonizing, or arguing. The Incitement call is used by the hen to get her mate to drive another drake away from her; it is a threat call, with the hen telling another duck that if it doesn't leave her alone it may be attacked by her mate. The Incitement call used by hen puddle ducks is usually an insistent rapid call consisting of several short notes The Incitement call of the hen Mallard is referred to as the chuckle or feeding chuckle by hunters. The first time I really began to understand how Mallards used the chuckle was about ten years ago while I was sitting at the small lake near my home feeding geese with my kids; I heard the call and saw a hen mallard feeding with the geese. But, she wasn't feeding she was chasing away a drake mallard. It was quite obvious that the hen was using the chuckle as a form of threat call. I often hear this call in the spring, when two or more drakes are pursuing a hen Mallard in flight.

     Although the chuckle is not a feeding call, it does occur in feeding situations, where there are lots of drakes near the hens. In order for the hens to keep from being harassed by single drakes they perform the chuckle (telling other drakes that if they don't stay away they may be attacked by the hen's mate). In order to be able to feed or swim in peace the hens use this call to try to get the drakes to leave them alone. Since ducks often hear the chuckle while they are feeding, or as they approach ducks that are feeding (whether they are on land or water), this call can be used to attract most puddle ducks.

     When you use the chuckle to bring in ducks, blow it as it is meant, loud, insistent and aggressive. Do not blow it like a welcome to incoming ducks, or as a pleading call to get other ducks to come down and feed. To imitate the sound of a hen performing this call in flight, cup one or both hands over the end of the call, and rapidly say ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka while you blow into the call. To imitate the sound of a hen performing this call while on land or water I say tuck, tuck-tuck, tuck, tuck, tuck-tuck. I cup both hands over the call, and alternately open the fingers and thumb of the hand that is not holding the call, to create the impression of different sounds coming from different directions.

     The hen Black Duck, Gadwall, Shoveler and Widgeon use approximately the same call and pitch as the hen Mallard. The hen Pintail uses a softer, more hoarse call, rrrt-rrrt-rrrt. The hen Blue-Winged and Green-Winged Teal use the same call with a higher pitch. The hen Wood Duck uses a high-pitched whistle, wheet-wheet-wheet. I use Haydel's W-81 Wood Duck Squealer and WW-90 Wood Duck Whistle for recreating the sounds of Wood Ducks.

Drake Social Contact / Mating Calls

     The drake mallard Social Contact and Mating call is simply a deeper more reedy version of the social contact call, usually containing two to four notes; raeb-raeb-raeb-raeb. I often hear this call when one or more drakes are pursuing a hen in the air during spring mating flights, and in large flocks in the fall. I also hear it when drakes are just resting on water or land. The drake Black Duck uses the same call as the drake Mallard. The drake Gadwall uses a higher pitched raeb-zee-zee-raeb-raeb. The drake Pintail uses a high pitched whistle, and a burp performed with an outstretched neck, kwa-kwa. The drake Blue-Winged Teal, Green-Winged Teal and Widgeon use a high pitched whistle. For the sounds of these species I use Haydel's MP-90 Magnum Pintail/ Mallard Drake call, which you can use on Pintail, Mallard, Teal and Widgeon. The drake Shoveler uses a woh-woh-woh, or, took'a-took'a-took'a.

Diver Duck Vocalizations

     Although divers are vocal, calling them is not as important as it is for puddle ducks. When they are hunting divers hunters usually rely on large numbers of decoys to attract the ducks. Because of the way divers approach a landing site you don't often have to work them like puddle ducks that may swing over the decoys several times. When divers do come in to the decoys, I generally use the inciting call of a hen Bluebill, because it is louder than the social contact call of the drake. Once divers commit to landing I put down the call and grab the gun.     

Hen Agonistic/ Incitement Calls

     Most diver duck hens of the genus Aythya (Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead and Canvasback) perform the incitement call. Hen Redheads use a soft growled err-err. The hen Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck use a guttural arrrr. The hen Canvasback uses a grunted krrr. I imitate the incitement call of divers by using a mallard call and growling into it, like I was saying grrr while clearing my throat.

Drake Mating / Social Contact Calls

     Drake diver ducks perform the courtship call, which may also be used as a social contact call. The drake Greater Bluebill, Lesser Bluebill and Ring-necked Duck use a 2 to 3 note call; scaup-scaup-scaup. The drake Canvasback uses a grunt or coo. The drake Redhead uses a catlike me-ow. Use a diver duck call to imitate the sounds of these species. Before I owned a diver duck call I used a Mallard call to imitate a drake Bluebill. I said the word scaup (scowp), while closing my hand over the barrel of the call at the end of the sound.  

This article is an excerpt from the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 S&H), by T.R. Michels.

T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized game researcher/wildlife behaviorist, outdoor writer and speaker. He is the author of the Whitetail, Elk, Duck & Goose, and Turkey Addict's Manuals. His latest products are the 2003 Revised Edition of the Whitetail Addict's Manual, the 2003 Revised Edition of the Elk Addict's Manual; and the 2003 Revised Edition of the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual. For a catalog of books and other hunting products contact: T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983, USA. Phone: 507-824-3296, E-mail: trmichels@yahoo.com, Website: www.TRMichels.com