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Decoying crows feasting on maize

An impressive pattern of decoys is just the ticket to lure in those wily crows feasting on maize seeds, says Mark Ripley

decoying crows

Mark Ripley Shooting Crows over drilled Maize, May 2023

Mark’s corvid control kit

  • Beretta AL391 12-bore semi-auto
  • Gamebore Clear Pigeon 32g No 6
  • Winter stealth camo netting (5×1.5m)
  • Flocked crow shell decoys
  • CENS Pro Flex DX5 ear defenders

Through the early-morning mist came the unmistakable “caw, caw, caw” of a crow coming in from behind me. The sun was yet to rise and this bird was one of the first to lazily spread its wings and make the flight from the distant treetops bordering the farm to head out to the fields to feed.

It drifted in low to observe its feeding friends and called again, but it received no response from the ‘breakfast club’ already out in mass among the young maize shoots. Clearly my hide, built hastily in the predawn darkness, was doing a good job of obscuring me from view as the young crow set its wings and dropped its landing gear in preparation for touchdown among its motionless brethren. (Read essential crow shooting kit chosen by Shooting Times.)

shooting from a hide

Setting up the hide in front of undergrowth helps prevent the sun silhouetting Mark from behind

Unfortunately for this individual, landing wasn’t as smooth as expected as 32g of No 6 shot collided with him in mid-air, sending him tumbling to the ground in a crumpled heap of feathers. This was the first time the barrel of the old Beretta semi- auto had been dirtied in several months, and despite this being a very straightforward shot, I was pleased that I wasn’t too rusty given my lack of shotgunning since the end of the season.

At this time of year, crows and especially rooks can become quite the nuisance to the farmer planting maize. The birds will walk down the rows, plucking out the new shoots in order to get to the sown seed below. During the spring there is also an abundance of young birds around with limited flying hours to their name, which are more easily fooled having yet to learn the dangers presented by the cunning ‘chameleon’ humans with their leafy skins and boom sticks. (Read how to choose the best rifle for crow shooting.)

decoying crows

Mark Ripley swings through a crossing row, adding another body to the decoys on the field below

Decoying crows

Corvids of any type are notoriously sharp-eyed and rarely miss the slightest movement, flash of skin or shiny barrel among the foliage, making them one of the most challenging quarries to shoot. They are also tough birds to bring down and can soak up a number of pellets while hardly breaking the rhythm of their wing beats, often sailing on for some distance before succumbing to their injuries.

For this reason I like to use No 5s, finding this a good combination of shot pattern and size to give cleaner kills. However, due to a lack of stock at my local shop, I had to resort to using No 6s and trying to let the birds come in as close as possible.

When decoying crows I don’t bother with any set patterns, as crows tend not to have the same etiquette as pigeons. They will happily feed in any direction to the wind and barge another crow out the way if it chooses to land in the same spot. Crows are very much the ruffians of the avian world, with constant squabbles, fights and raucous shouting among them being common behaviour.

It wasn’t long before the decoys attracted the interest of another passing crow, and with a little more caution this one circled the area from high above, calling out to the flock of plastic below. From behind the netting, crouching low, I gave my best attempt at a crow call, which to my ears sounded convincing. Either it was or it just made the bird more curious, but it circled lower around the trees behind me to come in from the left, making for an easy crosser for a leftie like me.

The first shot seemed to ruffle its feathers yet the second shot sealed the deal, quickly turning it from speedy crow to speeding comet plummeting to earth. Several more birds followed a similar fate before the onlookers began to veer away from the decoys or circle overhead out of range before flying on. This usually means one of the dead birds is lying on its back. This can sometimes draw more birds in, but more often than not puts them off when among decoys.

Nipping out of the hide, I quickly gathered up the downed birds and pegged them out as decoys. By using a stiff piece of wire, around six to 8in long, pushed up into the skull from beneath the beak and pegged into the ground, shot birds make the best decoys. As with pigeons, the more decoys you put out the better new arrivals seem to come in, so I usually start with around a dozen flocked shell decoys and perhaps a couple of flocked full-bodied ones to put on any nearby fence posts.

On a good day’s shooting I might end up with another 40 dead birds pegged out alongside these, making for an impressive pattern that then constantly pulls further birds in. With the decoys readjusted and me back in the hide, the morning continued with a steady trickle of birds either dropping in or circling low enough to give me the chance of a shot.

After my initial concentrated shooting, I began to get a little sloppy and missed several easy shots, putting my cartridge to kill ratio squarely in the ‘average’ category. With some stern words to myself and a little more focus, I managed a better run over the next few crows, dropping each with the first shot and then a little later managing to shoot each of a group of three birds that flew in together.

My elation on a successful triple was quickly grounded as a crow that had approached unseen suddenly flared up in front of the hide 25 yards out, to which my rapid volley of three shots found nothing but fresh air.

shotgun cartridges

There may be a fair number of empties, but the cartridge to kill ratio is better than half

Turn on the wind

Crows have an uncanny knack of being able to change direction in the fraction of a second, and with the slightest tip of a wing can turn on the wind and be gone before you have even mounted the gun. It’s always worth considering, when positioning a hide in fair weather, where the sun will be during the course of your shooting session. You don’t want to be looking into the sun, which will obviously make shooting difficult, and will also highlight your face popping up over the net to take a shot if, like me, you’re not keen on wearing any form of face covering.

Likewise, it’s wise to set up against a hedge or under some overhanging branches, to give some natural depth to your hide and stop the sun shining through from behind and silhouetting you from within.

As the number of downed crows increased, I brought in the shell decoys, leaving just a pair of full-bodied decoys perched on the fence posts and the dead birds for the main pattern. For the rest of the morning, a mixture of crows, rooks and jackdaws drifted in, and by lunchtime I had around 40 shot birds as decoys and a steadily increasing fly-attracting pile mounting up next to the hide.

Kill ratio

By early afternoon the action ground pretty much to a standstill, with little more than the occasional passing pigeon flying over. I was just considering packing up when the familiar chatter of a magpie close by again had me crouching low behind the netting. The bird was clearly sat surveying the scene from a tree behind and to the left of me, and before long it flew out low over the decoys, heading for the opposite side of the field. However, a quick snapshot and a little luck on my part sent it in a staggering nosedive into a nearby nettle patch, making for a rather nice ending to a beneficial morning’s corvid control.

I gathered up an embarrassing number of empties from the surrounding undergrowth, gaining several thorns and stings along the way but being sure to leave the area as tidy as possible. With my cartridge to kill ratio slightly better than half — including a handful of despatching shots, or what I would call ‘confirmation shots’ when already clearly hit — I gathered up a respectable bag of 67 birds.