November 01, 2012
Hunting Ethics: Shooting Ducks on the Water
By Phil Bourjaily
Today we have a hunting ethics question.
For the record, I have never shot a duck on the water and I never will, with, of course, the exception of cripples. When I taught my kids to hunt I didn’t let them shoot their first ducks on the water, either, no matter how many they missed in the air. However, I have looked in the regulations and can’t find any mention that birds must be in the air to be legally shot. And, an incident the other morning made me re-examine my conviction that there is something unethical about shooting birds on the water.
I was hunting with a young man in his 20s who has been waterfowling for a couple of years now. At sunrise we worked a lone mallard that came in low over our heads from behind on its final approach (we were set up with the wind in our faces out of necessity) and neither of us took the easy shot as it came over top, although we should have. Then the duck slid off and landed out of range, then swam downriver. We lay still on the sandbar we were hunting and quacked and drake-grunted softly. After half an hour we had coaxed the mallard upriver and into our decoys 20 yards from where we hid.
“This is your shot. I’m backing you up,” I said.
We sat up and raised our guns, assuming that would startle the duck into the air. It didn’t. We looked at the duck for a second, waiting for it to fly. I may have even yelled “Scat!” at it. I was thinking about whether I should wave my arms or throw something to scare it into the air when my friend shot it on the water. “I kept waiting for it to fly and it wouldn’t,” he said. “So I shot it.”
I was taken aback, but before I said anything critical I thought the following: the goal of duck hunting is to fool birds into range, then make a clean kill so you can recover the bird, take it home and eat it. Using that rationale my friend had acted ethically. We fooled this duck once when we lured it into our hole, and again when we called it back into the decoys. It died instantly and was easy to retrieve. The shot was safe as there was no one across the water from us and, in fact, we had a high river bank as a backstop in case the steel ricocheted off the water. Okay, I wouldn’t have done it but what I said was “Good job! We got one.”
Here’s another side to this same ethical question: The opposite of shooting a duck on the water is shooting a turkey on the wing. Years ago I read about a turkey hunter who called birds in close, then “to give them a chance” deliberately spooked turkeys into the air and shot them in flight. To me, the only chance that gave the bird was a chance to get its wing broken and run off to die a slow death. That seemed unethical to me because it increased the chance of making the turkey suffer. Why make a shot more difficult if the goal of hunting is a quick and painless kill?
So, what is so wrong about shooting a duck on the water? Or is there nothing wrong with it?