A propos of David Rees' note about ducks mobbing a snake, here's an account
I had published in Canberra Bird Notes a couple of years back. So, for
those who missed it, here goes. Maybe that's why Davy Crockett wore a racoon
skin hat when duck hunting.
David Rosalky’s account of a Water Rat Hydromys
chrysogaster taking an Eurasian Coot Fulica atra (CBN
29:30) includes the observation, "A curious aspect of the event was the
attention from nearby birds. A small party of coots, Pacific Black Ducks Anas
superciliosa and a couple of Black Swans Cygnus atratus accompanied
the rat as it took its catch to the shore and hung around close for several
minutes before dispersing."
This tendency to approach predators is thought to be related to
the birds’ collective mobbing response, and was often used by Old World hunters
to lure them into traps.
Duck traps, known as decoys, were built adjacent to wetlands,
especially along the flight paths of migrating ducks. The decoys consisted of
mesh-covered tunnels called "pipes" which were built over a series of little
canals. The pipes led to an enclosed central holding area from which the ducks
were caught and removed as required.
The decoy operator used a corgi-sized dog with a long bushy
tail, similar to that of a fox, to entice ducks into the pipes. The decoy dog
was usually called Piper and was deployed near the entrance to a pipe. When the
ducks approached, the dog would move into the pipe with the ducks in tow. A good
Piper kept an eye on the echelon of ducks and would return to them if their
interest needed rekindling.
Rushes were interwoven with the mesh to provide cover for the
decoy operator who watched the ducks’ progress through observation ports, and
closed gates behind the ducks preventing their escape back along the pipes.
A variety of animals will evoke this "Pied Piper" response in
waterfowl. However, only the domestic dog can be successfully trained to work at
In a discourse on decoys written in the 1880s, one Sir Ralph
Payne-Gallwey tells of experiments with ferrets, foxes and squirrels. They all
attracted ducks, but proved impossible to manage. He even trialed an organ
grinder’s monkey. The ducks swam towards the monkey but, when it turned and
grinned, they fled. Sir Ralph concluded that the monkey appeared too human.
When geese and ducks were driven to market along the rural
roads of Europe, a gooseherd preceded the flock carrying a pole to which a strip
of cloth was attached. The birds unerringly followed the wavering cloth.
Quaintly, foxes dressed as clergymen and preaching to flocks of geese, are often
depicted on English church carvings of the 15th and 16th Centuries.
Kear J (1990). Man and Wildfowl. T and AD Poyser, London.
John K. Layton