So what exactly do I mean when I say woodpigeons decoy “like days of old”?
It is time to ponder a question put to me by a young pigeon shooter at the Field & Country Fair at Cornbury Park earlier in the year. This related to a phrase I use from time to time referring to pigeons “decoying like days of old”. What exactly did I mean, he asked? It takes me back nearly 50 years to my early 20s when I first met the great man himself, Archie Coats. He kindly took me under his proverbial wing as he recognised my passion for pigeon shooting and saw a kindred spirit. At that time there were few people interested in pigeon shooting, apart from the odd bit of evening roost shooting in February; certainly there were few people decoying pigeons compared with today.
We would arrive on the field selected after Archie’s military-style reconnaissance the previous day. Hides were built and 15 dead birds from the previous outing were set up in a random pattern with heads upon sticks cut from the hedgerow. Once in the hide, the pigeons
Around 50 years ago... pigeons rarely if ever saw decoys, and so responded with no fear.
that visited the field would approach, close their wings and swoop in to the decoys without hesitation. Often you could let the first bird land, shoot the second one as it approached and take the first as it flew away. I may be exaggerating and my memory may be tricked in the same way that the weather was always sunny in the summer holidays. However, the point is that because pigeons rarely, if ever, saw decoys, they responded positively with no fear, assuming it was their mates and they reacted instinctively to join the feeding flock.
Since then a change has occurred over most of Britain, as in every area there are pigeon shooters or guides constantly watching any likely field. Seldom is there a field with feeding pigeons that is not shot and consequently the birds have become wary. In late summer and autumn the young are naïve and so follow their natural instincts and therefore represent a large percentage of a bag at that time of year. Unsurprisingly, having heard a big bang and seen their friends or siblings drop out of the sky, they soon wise up. In winter as they approach decoys in large flocks on oilseed rape with the same scenario, many learn to become ever wary very fast. It is no wonder that by the following spring and summer they have become very nervous birds.
We frustrated pigeon shooters use ever- more sophisticated equipment, gadgets and toys designed to outwit this now shy bird. Some believe there is something wrong with their set-up because pigeons will not decoy. The sport is changing and we pigeon shooters have to try to stay ahead of the experienced pigeons’ survival strategy.
This was well illustrated one day last June when I was protecting a field of peas. Friends had shot the field several times and told me that the flight line came from over the road to the east and that the birds had become shy of decoys. I was surprised therefore when the first bird arrived not from over the road but from the woods out to my right. It decoyed perfectly. Then another did the same. Then birds started to come from over the road to my left and, having flown halfway down the field, they saw my decoys and immediately jinked off, though they were still about 200 yards away. This was to be the pattern of the day, with birds from my right decoying whilst those from my left rarely made a shot. The answer was clear: those birds from my right were coming on a new line and had not been shot at before, but those experienced ones from the usual line from my left knew all about danger.
Do you remember when rotary decoys first appeared and pigeons were attracted to them? Some forecast a crash as the population was decimated but no, the woodpigeon soon learnt and now, whilst the whirly is still effective on young birds, they need careful use on experienced birds.
So it is on occasional days when birds decoy well that my phrase “decoying as in days of old” comes to mind. The good thing is that more people than ever enjoy the sport of pigeon shooting but the bird has adapted. Not just to survive but to thrive. Therefore pigeon shooters’ success depends on lateral thinking to outwit these wily birds, which makes the sport all the more challenging and satisfying.