Beyond the quack: Learn the different duck sounds of common species
By M.D. Johnson, outdoor writer & photographer
When my waterfowling career began in 1974, I knew only mallard duck calls and the traditional quack in its three or four variations. In time, my ’fowling evolved.
When I moved to Washington state in ’93, I learned there was more to life than just quacks and quacking. Whistles and peeps. Whines and growls. Rolling trills and odd guttural groans; audibles seemingly out of place in the duck marsh, but there they were.
It was a eureka moment. From that point on, I decided if I wanted to attract more ducks to my decoy spread, I’d have to learn to speak their language. I’d have to branch out and come to grips with the fact that some ducks don’t quack.
Wood duck sounds
It’s been my experience that 99% of the woody population will ignore a wood duck call. However, I did on one occasion see a small flock change course and return to a 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 that one-in-a-million occasion was enough to convince me that when a flying wood duck wants to listen, he will.
Sometimes the high-pitched creeeeek — creeeeek in-flight call of the wood duck will get a flock’s attention. Then, when they’re within 100 yards or so, the whine, the aforementioned peep-whistle of peet — w-o-o-O-O-I-T, or simply the rising whistle portion of the call can convince them to light. Better yet, wait until the birds have landed, entice them closer with the promise of company using the whine, then practice the art of jump-shooting. Hear the sounds of a wood duck:
There’s a difference between teal in terms of calls and calling. The basic call for blue-wings is very similar to the hen mallard’s greeting call. The differences are in the pitch, which is much higher, and the cadence, which is much quicker.
Many folks, myself included, use a traditional mallard call on blue-wings. More air and tongue pressure increases the pitch, and all that leaves is to step up the cadence or rhythm. Teal-specific calls, however, are tuned higher out-of-the-box. However, they do require more air pressure and a radical departure from the traditional mallard cadence.
Green-wing teal, on the other hand, are what I’ll call peepers. That is, they make a high-pitched whistled PEEP! — short of duration and high in volume. The rhythm when calling green-wings can be seen phonetically as peep! Peep-peep! Peep. Several teal-specific whistle-type calls are available. A plus to the whistle is its versatility, as you can imitate not only teal but also drake mallards, pintails and widgeon with the tool. Hear the sounds of a green-winged teal duck:
“There are only so many sounds pintails make,” a ’fowling friend once told me. “The hen does sound similar to a hen mallard, only much softer and more monotone. She’ll usually make three or four low-pitch quacks, but again, it’s a monotone sound.”
He continued: “The drakes whistle, but you have to roll your tongue to make that sound. It’s very simple and easy to do: 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. The sound comes out of the top of the call. I start a lot of young kids on a pintail whistle.”
He went on to explain a quick calling tip he uses.
“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. Another short trill, and wait,” he said. “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 a little hen [pintail] quacks and another on a whistle.”
He offered a couple tidbits of advice for those targeting pintails specifically.
“If you are going to focus on pintails, you’ll want to hunt the larger openings in the marsh as opposed to the smaller potholes,” he said. “Pintails just seem to favor larger ponds. And in terms of decoys, and again if you’re targeting them specifically, you’ll want at least half your decoys to be pintails.” Listen in to the sounds of a Northern pintail duck.
Widgeon are vocal birds, both 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 an ordinary dog whistle — upside-down to keep the pea inside from rattling and producing the trill. Others, my wife among them, use their natural voice to whistle in baldpate. Still others opt for a more conventional widgeon call or whistle.
Phonetically, the widgeon’s call sounds like woo, whIT, woo, with each sound or word produced in a breathy sort of way. The drake also makes a two-note whistle — whIT, woo. Because widgeon are so vocal and, at least where I’ve found them in the Pacific Northwest, typically travel in larger groups, I’ve found it advantageous to have as many callers as possible blowing whistles.
Hear the woo, whIT, woo sounds of a widgeon:
Instruments designed to reproduce the dink … dink-dink call of the drake gadwall are available. Some ’fowlers, including four-time Tennessee State Duck Calling champion Bill Cooksey, can mimic the strange sound almost perfectly using nothing more than a single-reed mallard call. And the dink … dink-dink can work in some situations, particularly when it’s being used as a confidence call.
“I push grey ducks really hard, and I mean really hard,” said Lamar Boyd, who operates Beaver Dam Hunting Services with his father, Mike, on Mississippi’s legendary Beaver Dam Lake. “With grey 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. Gadwall are easily distracted, and if something up the lake catches their eye — anything at all — they’re gone. I try to force them to be captivated and entranced by what they’re seeing and hearing.”
To accomplish this, Boyd uses what he describes as a non-traditional, uncoordinated version of a hen mallard.
“It’s a hen gadwall on the water,” the young man said, “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.”
Hear the dink … dink-dink call of the drake gadwall:
Bluebill, canvasback and redhead sounds
To make the low-pitched breathy guttural growl or rising bbbuuurrrrrr of the bluebill (similar to the sounds canvasbacks and redheads utter while on the water, along with what can best be described as sharp barks), I use an older J-frame single reed and flutter my tongue while growling into the call.
On big water — the Columbia River, the Mississippi or any of the Great Lakes, to name just a handful — attracting divers by sound is often exclusively a matter of volume.
Volume is important, yes. However, gaining the attention of a duck — any duck other than a mallard duck, that is — is simply a matter of speaking their language.
Hear a bluebill sing:
And compare to the sounds of canvasbacks and redheads.
Credit: all sound files are courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.