From peeps to whistles to dirty quacks, ducks make a world of sounds that, if you learn them, can help you fill your limit
When I started duck hunting in the early 1970s, I only knew how to make the traditional mallard quack in three variations — four at best. My dad always carried a call in the upper breast pocket of his old canvas hunting coat, and he’d play it now and then. He simply quacked, as I assumed all duck hunters did. Sometimes mallards listened. Other times they ignored him.
When I moved to Washington in 1993, I discovered I’d been missing an entire soundtrack: Whistles and peeps. Whines and growls. Rolling trills and odd guttural groans. Better yet, I noticed that many ducks responded well to hunters making those noises.
It was a eureka moment. I decided that if I wanted to attract more ducks — especially ducks other than mallards — I had to learn all the nuances of their language.
In my experience, 99 percent of woodies will ignore a wood duck call. However, I once saw a small flock bank and return to a timbered pothole where a cousin had just called to them with a “peet-w-o-o-o-it” rising whistle. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it convinced me that a flying wood duck might listen.
According to Phil Robertson, the founder of Duck Commander, wood ducks are among the most difficult ducks to call.
“It’s easier to get a wood duck, using a wood duck call, to swim to you than it is to get him to fly to you,” Robertson said years ago. “What most people don’t realize is that if a wood duck is flying, it’s got a ‘cree-eek, cree-eek, cree-eek’ call. It’s a flying call. But when they’re sitting on the water, they use different sounds. So you don’t want to make that flying sound, because if they’re flying and you give them a flying call, nobody knows where to come back to.”
Sometimes, the high-pitched “cree-eek, cree-eek” flying call might get a flock’s attention. Then, when birds are within 100 yards, a whine, the aforementioned peep-whistle or simply the rising whistle portion of the call might convince them to finish. Better, wait until the birds have landed, entice them closer using the whine, and then jump-shoot them.
Teal vocalizations vary. The basic call for bluewings is similar to a hen mallard’s greeting call, but it differs in pitch (much higher) and cadence (much quicker). You can use a traditional mallard call for bluewings, as many hunters do, by delivering more air and tongue pressure to increase the pitch. Then simply increase the cadence. Teal-specific calls are tuned higher out-of-the-box. They require more air pressure and a radical departure from a traditional mallard cadence.
Green-winged teal, however, make a whistling, high-pitched “peep” that’s loud and brief. Phonetically, the rhythm when calling greenwings is “peep, peep-peep, peep.” Several teal-specific whistle-type calls are available, and you can also use them to imitate wigeon, pintails and drake mallards.
“There are only so many sounds pintails make,” says Rod Haydel of Haydel’s Game Calls. “The hen sounds similar to a hen mallard, only much softer and more monotone. She’ll usually make three or four low-pitched quacks, but again, it’s a monotone sound.”
Drakes make a trilling whistle. You must roll your tongue to make the call, but Haydel says this is pretty simple.
“You block the exhaust port at the end of the call completely with your finger and do about a one-second trill by rolling your tongue,” he says. “The sound comes out of the top of the call. We start a lot of young kids down here in Louisiana on a pintail whistle.
“If I’m dealing with small groups of pintails — six birds or so — I’ll make one short trill, and then wait four or five seconds. Then I’ll do another short trill and wait. It’s really important, especially later in the season, to tone down your calling. If we have a bunch of guys in the blind, we’ll have one doing little hen pintail quacks and another on a whistle — just calm calling.”
If you’re going to focus on pintails, Haydel recommends pairing these vocalizations with a pintail-specific strategy. Hunt the larger openings in the marsh rather than the smaller potholes, since pintails just seem to favor larger ponds. Make sure at least half of your spread are pintail decoys.
Wigeon are vocal in the air and on the water, and it’s easy to imitate their simple two- or three-note whistling call. For years, I used a dog whistle upside-down to keep the pea inside from rattling and trilling. (When I could do so without ruining the whistle, I removed the pea.) Some folks, including my wife, use their voice to whistle in wigeon. Others opt for a more conventional wigeon call or whistle.
Phonetically, the wigeon’s call sounds like “woo, whit, woo,” with each sound or word produced in a breathy, back-of-the-throat way. The drake also makes a two-note whistle: “whit, woo.” Because wigeon are so vocal and, at least in my area, travel in large flocks, I like to have as many callers as possible blowing whistles to create the illusion of lots of ducks.
I’d always heard about the drake gadwall’s odd, nasally “dink, dink-dink, dink, dink” call, but I’ll never forget the first time I experienced it. I was hunting a small pond, and the gadwall migration was on. Small flocks of gray ducks came and went throughout the day. One high-flying drake locked up after seeing my spread and repeatedly made that now-familiar “dink, dink-dink” call while descending until my father shot him.
“Was that him making that sound?” my dad asked, wading out to pick up his bird.
“Sure was, Pop,” I replied.
Many manufacturers make gadwall calls. Some folks, including four-time Tennessee duck calling champion Bill Cooksey, can mimic the sound almost perfectly using a single-reed mallard call.
Calling gadwalls with the “dink, dink-dink, dink” vocalization works in some situations, particularly as a confidence booster. Very late in the season when drakes start chasing hens, however, callers can use another trick.
“I push gray ducks really hard — and I mean really hard,” says Lamar Boyd, who operates Beaver Dam Hunting Services on Mississippi’s legendary Beaver Dam Lake. “With gray ducks, I immediately try to figure out how much calling pressure they will stand and try to get them on the water as soon as I can. Gadwalls are easily distracted, and if something up the lake catches their eye — anything — they’re gone. I try to force them to be captivated and entranced by what they’re seeing and hearing.”
Boyd uses what he describes as a non-traditional, uncoordinated version of a hen mallard.
“It’s a hen gadwall on the water,” he says, “and I absolutely rely on it. It’s four or five quick notes — coarse and not at all pretty. Dirty quacks, I guess, with a quick cadence.”
Bluebills, Canvasbacks and Redheads
There’s nothing like watching a flock of mallards lock up and commit, especially over water. But I love calling at bluebills and watching the flock barely clear the surface of the water, then turn on their wingtips and bore straight into the long-lines.
I use an older J-frame single-reed call and flutter my tongue while growling to make the bluebill’s breathy, guttural, low-pitched growl — a rising “bbbuuurrrrr.” Canvasbacks and redheads utter similar sounds on the water, along with what can best be described as sharp barks. On big water like the Columbia River, the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, attracting divers with sound is often a matter of volume.
But gaining the attention of any duck — especially ducks other than mallards — is really just a matter of learning the right language.
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