Mobbing by waterfowl

To: "chat line" <>
Subject: Mobbing by waterfowl
From: "John Layton" <>
Date: Mon, 13 Feb 2006 16:22:36 +1100
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 a distance.

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


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