Airgun shooter Mat Manning set up a hide and decoy trap as marauding crows turn their attention to songbirds’ nests and spring seed drills
Crows are a year-round problem on most of the farms where I shoot and particularly on the holding where I’m targeting them today. These birds can be ruinous to cereal farming crops when they descend on fresh drillings and join rooks and jackdaws to devour the seeds.
Although crop protection is an important part of the management plan on this estate, crows cause further problems in the spring by attacking newborn lambs, raiding eggs from the chicken runs, and also by predating on eggs and chicks from songbirds’ nests – a problem that is of particular concern here as the woods are home to several endangered species.
All members of the corvid family are notoriously sly, which can make it very difficult to get within striking distance of them. However, despite supplementing their diet with the contents of other birds’ nests, crows and their cousins become extremely protective of their own territories during the spring and summer nesting season. This is a trait that can be used against them.
Territorial crows often react very angrily when they see birds of prey around their own nesting sites. Their reaction to these potentially dangerous intruders can be so hostile that they momentarily drop their guard and rush in to see them off, and corvids that are preoccupied with mobbing rival birds often forget to check for airgun shooters lurking in the undergrowth.
It is possible to stir up this kind of reaction by placing an owl decoy in a prominent spot in their territory. That’s the approach I’m planning to use to bring these destructive birds to book during this outing.
The quarry: carrion crows
Pest status: A major problem for farmers, especially in the spring, crows peck the eyes from newborn lambs. They also feed on the eggs and chicks of other birds.
Habitat: Crows have a wide range of habitat, but feed mostly around farmyards, in woodland and on crops. They favour nesting sites in tall trees either in woods or along hedgerows.
Additional info: Crows are sharp-eyed and very wary of man. Getting within range usually takes a high level of fieldcraft and concealment.
Four days before first shoot: initial preparations
Crows are among the wariest quarry that airgun hunters can encounter. Even though Mat is planning to use decoys to stir them up, they are unlikely to fall for the ruse if they spot him. To keep himself hidden from the sharp-eyed corvids, Mat is building a hide. Rather than constructing it when he arrives to shoot, he has chosen to set it up a few days prior.
There are advantages to building your hide in advance of your shooting session. The first gain for Mat is that the corvids will have a few days to get used to seeing it. This means it doesn’t matter too much if the hide isn’t completely invisible, as the birds will quickly learn to accept it as a harmless feature of the countryside.
Also, by having the hide already set up, Mat will be able to get out of sight very quickly when he returns with his airgun. Mat’s choice for this hide is a simple camo net propped up with adjustable poles. A backdrop of natural cover helps it to blend in with its surroundings, although Mat also dresses the net with some ivy to hide its unnatural straight edges.
15:50: introducing an intruder
Crows and their corvid cousins hate to see a threat on their patch, and these birds really see red if they spot a predator close to their own nesting sites. Mat is using a decoy owl to make the territorial crows think that a serious menace has just arrived on their doorstep.
Most imitation owls will wind up corvids during the spring and summer months, but ones with really piercing eyes seem to aggravate them the most. What is important is to set up the decoy in a prominent spot where passing birds won’t fail to miss it.
Mat places his decoy owl on a patch of short grass in a clearing about 25 metres from his hide. It is a relatively open area of woodland that should make it easy for passing corvids to spot the intruder.
Just to really draw attention, Mat is also adding a crow decoy to the setup. The solid black outline of this decoy should be really easy to spot from above. When corvids catch a glimpse, they will soon see the owl nearby and should be tricked into thinking that a mobbing is already underway and want to join in.
Mat doesn’t hang around, as he wants to get the decoys in place without being spotted by his quarry. With the imitation birds in position, he slips into his hide ready to make his final preparations before any crows start to arrive.
15:55: digging in
Ambushing crows over decoys can take patience, so you need to be comfortable in your hide. Apart from making long waits easier to endure, settling properly will enable you to take composed shots quickly when chances present themselves.
Mat almost always uses a beanbag seat for hide shooting. Filled with polystyrene balls, the bag doesn’t just improve comfort, but also makes for a stable sitting position, which really helps when you need to settle the crosshairs on aim.
To further enhance his precise shot placement, Mat is using Primos Trigger Stick shooting sticks.
This adjustable tripod allows for quick adjustment of height and angle to provide Mat with a rocksteady gun support whether birds settle on the ground or up in the treetops.
Sitting comfortably and with his sticks in position, Mat makes his final preparation by putting on a camo head net. Although his hide should keep him out of sight, sharp-eyed corvids have a skill for spotting pale patches of skin down in the shadows.
By keeping his face covered, Mat is reducing the risk of his quarry clocking him and getting spooked at the crucial moment.
Expert tip: groundwork reaps rewards
Too many shooters believe that decoys have magical properties and possess an unfailing ability to lure quarry within range. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and you can easily fail if you don’t do the groundwork.
For decoys to work properly, you need to place them in an area where the pests you are targeting are already active. It is all about knowing your ground and the habits of the birds that live and feed there.
The best way to achieve that is to get out and observe what is going on. Decoying is a lot easier, and far more effective, when you understand your quarry’s behaviour patterns.
16:30: manic mobbing
Once the trap is set, it is simply a matter of waiting to see how the birds react to the decoys. Sometimes the response can be immediate, but there are days when the action unfolds much more slowly.
Mat has quite a wait until the birds home in on the owl. The first arrival is a single crow, which circles above the decoys while making the occasional suspicious croaking call.
The calling from the first bird soon attracts another. The two crows quickly grow in confidence, and both soon swoop down and pitch in an oak tree about 30 metres from Mat.
Although clearly agitated by the owl decoy, these crows are obviously not entirely trusting, as they have chosen to land a few metres away and rasp at it from what they believe to be a safe distance. Although one of the birds is shielded by a screen of twigs, the other isn’t as safe as it thinks it is.
Mat hardly has to move to shift the crosshairs of his Zeiss Conquest V4 on to the unsuspecting bird’s head. The support of the sticks ensures a very steady aim, and Mat pushes through the trigger to fell the crow with a wallop to the head.
17:10 – making some noise
The obscured crow took to its wings as its mate dropped into the undergrowth, but it didn’t go far and only backed away to a more distant tree. The loss of a comrade clearly made the bird even more agitated, and it quickly became very vocal.
Croaking and rasping at the owl decoy as it hopped from branch to branch, the crow soon attracted other corvids with its loud calling. Before long, there were crows and jackdaws circling above the decoys and joining in with the noisy ritual.
It pays not to get too flustered when corvids gather like this. Don’t be tempted to take chancy shots at birds that pitch into trees at the limits of your effective range, as you will account for more if you hold your nerve and wait for easier opportunities.
Before long, a crow perches on a branch within comfortable shooting distance, and Mat fells it with a strike to the chest. This loss riles up the birds even more and Mat manages to snipe another before the angry flock backs away.
With three birds accounted for, Mat is off to a good start, but after a long quiet spell he decides to reach for his caller. He hopes that a few croaky blasts will mimic the real crow calls that prompted the first mobbing and persuade the birds to return.
17:50 – back in action
Using a call can backfire if the noise attracts birds’ attention to your hiding place or spooks them by being unconvincing or too aggressive. For these reasons, it pays to start with a subtle approach.
Mat uses his caller to replicate the calls of the first crow when the owl decoy initially caught its attention. A reply comes after a few minutes and Mat keeps calling until the bird is within sight, and then stops immediately. The incoming crow is now close enough to see the decoys, so Mat leaves it to them to coax it in closer.
The ruse works well, and by using the caller to lure birds into the area and steer their attention towards the decoy setup, Mat earns himself another shot before the crows back away again.
This time it is the sight of the shot birds alarming the incomers as they close in on the decoys. Mat decides to break cover in order to tidy up around his shooting zone. The dead crows are added to the decoy pattern to give the impression of an angry mob of corvids gathering around the owl.
Adding real birds proves effective and, combined with more calling, produces another chance for Mat. The corvids eventually wise-up, but it has been a productive session and Mat has accounted for five crows when he decides to call time.
FX Impact MkII (fxairguns.com)
Zeiss Conquest V4 (zeiss.ly/v4-scopes)
Rangemaster Sovereign (daystate.com)
Full body owl (jackpyke.co.uk)
Ridgeline Grizzly III Jacket (ridgelineclothing.co.uk)
Macwet Long Cuff (range-right.co.uk)
Primos Trigger Stick Tripod (bisley-uk.com)