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Airgunning: Shooting pigeons over decoys

While shooting or stalking,have you ever stopped to wonder how your quarry perceives you? Or how its survival instincts have evolved over time to overcome and adapt to dangers that threaten not only individuals but its entire species? In many cases, they don’t merely survive, they thrive. My peers taught me to study the quarry’s anatomy and to learn to think as it does. This has always stood me in good stead, whether rabbiting, shooting a shotgun or rifle, or using a camera.

I was off to Kent to shoot pigeon over decoys with air rifle aficionado Frank Underdown. While gazing out of the window as we drove over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge in Dartford, I gained an insight momentarily into what a bird must feel like. If I could pick out potential dangers with my poor eyesight, imagine how easy it would be for a woodpigeon to spot danger with its far superior eyesight. If we were to be successful in hoodwinking this skilled survivor, our fieldcraft would have to be in top order.

Frank’s home and hunting ground are in the Garden of England and, at 80 years of age, he has seen many changes, both in terms of technological advances and the expansion of the populace. A keen countryman, keeper and wildfowler, his real passion is pigeon shooting with his trusty FX Cyclone .177 air rifle. One reason he tends to use an air rifle rather than a shotgun is the anonymity it affords. This is important given urban encroachment into what used to be green belt, because new residents are often unsympathetic towards the skills and trades that manage the green and pleasant land that they expect to enjoy on their walks or days out.

Patience is a virtue

Frank has a “not seen or heard” style and philosophy when it comes to pigeon shooting, much like my rabbiting. He was keen to illustrate that when it comes to pigeon shooting the essential ingredients for a fruitful foray are precision, patience and fieldcraft – but these are acquired skills, and patience is the main ingredient.

To be able to bag a few woodies I had to learn about the art of decoying. The fashion we were shooting in meant that we had to decoy the pigeon in and get them to land within range of our air rifles, which sounds easier than it is. Frank’s reconnaissance pointed to several stubble fields and after driving past countless oast houses we arrived at our destination.

My job was to build the hide while Frank cut some twigs to support the pigeon heads. His pattern was around a dozen birds and all were woodpigeon frozen after his last foray. Scattered among them were some tactically placed cradles with pigeon meticulously positioned to mimic feeding birds.

To the side of our pattern were the extremes of pigeon-shooting technology. On the one hand we had a home-made pecking decoy made decades ago from a hand-painted shell fitted with real wings and connected to our hide by 20yd of line. When a pigeon looked as if it was coming over, we pulled to simulate a feeding bird. Twenty yards away was the latest in pigeon-shooting technology from AA Decoys: a turbo-charged flapper. This was a real bird, placed on a motorised cradle, that was intermittently fired up by a battery. The flapping attracted attention, and not only from the pigeon. To mix
things up, we also placed a pair of floaters which gave the appearance of pigeon just coming in to land on the stubble to feed.

Sitting tight

A few birds flattered to deceive but, surrounded by ripe berries, all we attracted was wasps. Frank made the brave decision to up sticks and find a better field. This proved to be the turning point of our day’s sport. A new hide was constructed inside a few bushes on one side of a ditch, which masked our presence. Comprising scrim netting and natural foliage, the roof made us invisible from the front, side and, most importantly, above. Chameleon-like, we sat while the decoys, already placed out in a tight pattern, left just enough room for the pigeon to feel safe and, hopefully, land where we wanted them to.

Sitting patiently on my seat, I saw a few birds drop in but, annoyingly, they failed to land. Several crows came to investigate, followed by some jackdaws. A good barometer of our hide, they were oblivious to our presence and appeared to reassure the pigeon, which started to drop into our pattern. Some were out of range and others were ferals acting as natural decoys. In order not to confuse them with racing pigeon we left them alone. The woodies, however, soon started to appear within the safe and effective arc of fire.

The pigeon landed. Instinctively, it looked around and this presented Frank with his favoured head shot. A small target with a load of tangents to go wrong, with a .177 accuracy is everything. Experience has taught him that the alternative shots still require the same level of marksmanship. A frontal shot just below the neck may have resulted in hitting the bird’s crop. If it had had a good day feeding, there would have been a bag of grain to absorb the pellet’s energy. The feathers then turn into armour, deflecting the pellet’s energy and effectiveness. It’s only when cutting open the crop, that you really appreciate just how much damage a flock of woodies can do to a farmer’s field.

Where to place the shot

Many favour a chest/heart shot, wanting to drop the bird on the spot, but this is the same area-wise as the head. Shooting side-on through the wing into the heart is another option, but the wings and the bones in the wing could deflect the pellet. Frank reiterated that if you know your animal and its anatomy, your own and your rifle’s limitations, you will know where to place the shot accurately. Sage words from an experienced shot. We were trying to shoot a pigeon’s head (the size of a 50p piece) with a single 7.9-gr projectile weighing in at .547g and 4.5mm wide, as opposed to using a size 6, 30g cartridge containing 286 pellets making up a pattern of roughly 25in to 30in.

Unfortunately, the shot birds didn’t look natural laying head up in the stubble and soon upset the incoming birds, so Frank’s cocker, Jessie, was sent out to retrieve the birds, which were later added to the pattern. A lone jackdaw made the mistake of being curious and, knowing what that did to the cat, he followed suit with another precisely aimed pellet.

A few crows started to mob the turbo flapper in a scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. We waited with bated breath to see whether any would land – and they did. This highlighted just how well we morphed into our surroundings as these wary corvids were unaware of our presence. This gave us the opportunity to bag a few woodies.

The conundrum as we left was whether we would have shot more with a shotgun? Well, the hide would not have been as good and we wouldn’t have been as quiet, but we might possibly have shot the passing pigeon that were within range. But it was refreshing to go out with someone who is driven not by big bags but by the chance to use the hunter-gatherer skills of the countryman. In this modern age, the one piece of equipment we used cannot be bought or sold: fieldcraft. Without fieldcraft you can have all the gear but still have no idea.

Other pigeon related features you might like:

Farmyard feral pigeons

Pigeon shooting videos: How to build a hide, set up decoys & collect flags

Winter woodies – how to improve your chance on pigeon