'Killing Zone'

How do you avoid your crippled and "winged" birds? First off, learn your gun's effective range.

To a serious waterfowler, there's nothing worse than shooting a duck, mortally wounding it and then watching it continue to fly or swim beyond the reach of foot or dog.

It's crucial to identify the species before you even think about pulling the trigger. Photo by Bill Mays.

You know you hit it. It sagged, and shuddered and peeled off from the flock. But its wings kept beating, carrying it on a long drooping trajectory, out of sight. It will die alone, often at the mercy of a coyote, raccoon or predatory bird.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 25 percent of the ducks and geese that are shot by hunters are never retrieved. That amounts to more than 3 million birds annually in North America! It's a disgrace and a very real threat to the future of our sport. Indeed, hunting opponents in Australia were able to use similar wounding statistics to outlaw duck hunting in two provinces there.

In recent years, a number of fish and game agencies have created programs to help waterfowlers become better, more careful shots. Many now offer clinics put on by the Cooperative North American Shotgunning Education Program, a non-profit group that teaches effective scientifically based techniques for improving shooting performance.

Their clinics emphasize:

  • Patterning your shotgun,
  • Using shells and chokes appropriate for the birds and conditions,
  • Determining your gun's most effective range,
  • Practicing with clay targets to judge speeds and distances,
  • Improving your ability to estimate range and
  • Carrying "spatter" shells for finishing off crippled birds.

When it comes to estimating range, the average waterfowler is no expert. Most hunters will shoot at ducks that are twice as far away as the effective range, and at geese that are three times the distance.

Fortunately, hunters can take steps that will make them much better judges of distance.

And they are all free!

Improper estimation of distance is hardly a new problem.

In his Arms and Ammunition Manual, Jack O'Connor had this to say: "Judgment of distance is exceedingly difficult, particularly for an excited man whose heart is full of hope. The same man who will shoot at a flock of ducks 100 yards away -- or fully 40 yards beyond the most hopeful range of his gun -- will nevertheless swear that he has killed a duck at 80 yards when actually it was about 50."

A lot has changed in wingshooting since O'Connor wrote those words.

To prevent loss of birds as a result of lead poisoning, steel shot became mandatory for waterfowling in 1991.

Since then, we have developed loads that travel faster than steel and are heavier than lead. Alloys like Tungsten Matrix and Bismuth make it possible to shoot loads with the same size and number of pellets as lead, and to do so in older guns.

But when it comes to reducing the number of crippled and lost birds, the improved loads have not been a cure-all. Some hunters -- rather than use the new shells to ensure cleaner kills at traditional ranges -- use them to justify shooting at birds that are considerably farther away than they would have shot at in the past.

If you're a good shot, you may be able to kill ducks farther away using the new shells. But you still need to be able to tell if birds are within range. And if you aren't better at estimating ranges at 50 or 60 yards than you are at 30 or 40, then these improved loads are only extending your wounding range.

When I was a caretaker at a national wildlife refuge, I was on the water every day and learned to identify many species of ducks well out of anyone's shotgun range. I used my knowledge of where the various species lived, how they rose from the water, their wing beats, their formations and the way they held their necks in flight.

On the other hand, there were times of fog and heavy snow when I couldn't even see the ducks, let alone tell what species they were, until long after they were within range.

The bottom line is, if you can't identify the duck, don't shoot. After all, teal always look small regardless of how far away they are. And Canada geese always look big.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published a pamphlet by Bob Hines called Ducks at a Distance: A Waterfowl Identification Guide. It's an excellent aid for learning how to distinguish various species of ducks and geese from one another.

It tells you how to use birds' size, shape, plumage patterns, wingbeats, maneuvers and flock patterns to identify them. View this guide online at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/duckdist/index.htm.

To become good at identifying birds on the wing, it takes considerable experience in the field -- scrutinizing the distinguishing marks and watching the way they fly. But these days, very few hunters accumulate enough experience to become skilled at it. In fact, a recent report says that the average waterfowler hunts only five or six times a year.

You need to get out in the water and look at birds.

The easiest way to become better at determining if ducks or geese are in range is to establish a "killing zone" -- that is, the area within which you can routinely put a lethal amount of shot into a duck.

For a number of years, I lived on a salt marsh and learned that ducks on the far side of the slough were too far away, but that ones over the oyster bed were within 40 yards.

You can do the same thing at the places you hunt. Mark off all the permanent features in every direction you shoot. Once you have an "atlas" of known distances, you can hold your fire until birds are over one of those landmarks.

Obviously, this is harder to do if you are another hunter's guest, are hunting an area for the first time or if you usually hunt on a public land where you get assigned a blind by lottery. In these situations, you'll often arrive in the dark and never really see your surroundings until moments before legal shooting time.

This is when to use yo

ur gear to improvise killing-zone boundaries.

Set the outer edge of your decoy spread at exactly 40 yards -- or at the distance of your effective range. Hunters who use "wind ducks" or other devices can use them to create a set of known distances.

Pass-shooting over big water presents the most difficult range challenge in waterfowling.

There are no decoys, nor any objects to establish known distances. And the horizon is often obscured or disappears into the water.

On dry land or in areas shallow enough to wade, you can plant a few unobtrusive stakes at appropriate distances. In deeper water or tidal areas, a small float will do the trick -- if you have a way to put it out and later retrieve it.

You can also use "confidence decoys" like herons and swans to give a sense of distance and perspective.

Here are three steps that will help you automatically identify ducks and geese species at a distance.

1) Begin with life-size duck or goose decoys. Set them out at different measured distances. Memorize features on them that you can identify. Try to do this in the same type of places you will hunt, at the same time of day and during similar weather.

2) Study ducks and geese. Fortunately, waterfowl are abundant in city parks and golf course ponds, along public beaches, at state wildlife areas and national wildlife refuges. The most common species are mallards and Canada geese. When they aren't being hunted, their relative indifference to human activity gives you a great opportunity to study them.

Observe how they appear when you are out of range. Then move closer. Identify the features -- wing patches, colors and other markings -- that you can see regularly when the birds are at various distances within your effective shooting range.

3) To make it more authentic, go to the marsh, field or lake early in the morning or late in the day. When ducks and geese begin arriving from or leaving their resting area, you can see the birds in flight -- and they will look quite a bit different from stationary birds on dry land.

In time, you will start to notice those little details (the white ring around the neck, the color of the feet, the apron of white on a mallard's tail) that can tell you when the bird is in range. Try to observe flying birds in low light and during bad weather.

I'm realistic enough to know that not everyone will actually begin to train himself to judge distance by watching ducks in the off-season.

But those who are fascinated by the animals they pursue -- who learn about them, who observe them in the wild and respect them -- always become the most successful hunters.

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