Is it real or is it Robo Duck?

Debate rages over whether it is ethical for hunters to use mechanical mallards

Stirring a mechanical mallard into a decoy mix doesn’t make duck soup, many waterfowl hunters say.

But others claim the relatively new robotic birds come perilously close to being too effective, perhaps violating ethical standards of fair chase and tilting the delicate balance of duck and goose management toward reduced bag limits and fewer days afield.

The introduction of powered, motion decoys several years ago has spawned an examination of major hunting issues, not only by state and federal waterfowl managers, but also by hunting organizations and individual hunters. What constitutes fair chase? Who defines it and who draws the line? How much technology should be allowed in the field?

Making a splash first in California, under the brand name "Robo Duck," motion decoys have since flown around the country. There are close to three dozen different brands currently on the market, with names such as Avery Wave Maker, Mallard Machine, Roto Duck, Mojo Mallard, and others. Most are battery powered, and some have remote controls, much like a radio-controlled model airplane. They’re not cheap, selling in Cabela’s catalog for $50 to $200 each.

Spinning, flickering, flashing wings are the favored motion of some brands. Others are propeller-driven and able to swim, bob, and "dive." Some simply bob, sending out ripples which animate the static members of the rest of the decoy set. Some are sold as complete decoys; others as kits to add to existing deeks.

But almost any form of motion seems to be amazingly effective in drawing wary wild ducks down from altitude for a look. Some hunters are comparing their drawing power to the use of tethered, live-duck decoys, or the spreading of corn or other grains as bait, both illegal since the 1930s. They argue the decoys will change waterfowl hunting more than any other single factor in 50 years.

Interestingly, the debate has tended to unify the waterfowl hunting community rather than to divide it. Hunters argue the merits and the ethics, but tend to be more fearful of additional federal and state regulation of their recreation, instead of the actual use of the devices by competing gunners.

Waterfowlers know there is a distinct possibility, somewhere down the line, that either the motion decoys will be outlawed, completely or in part, or that limits and/or seasons will be cut to compensate for their use.

John Myers, writing in the Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune, quotes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional waterfowl chief Steve Wilds as saying, "If the harvest level goes up, we would move to lower it."

So far, Pennsylvania is apparently the only state which has banned the use of powered decoys. Most others seem to be waiting for the results of a major, three-year study in California on the devices and their effect on waterfowl harvest rates.

The study, co-sponsored by the California Waterfowl Association and the University of California, is incomplete. But preliminary results show that motion decoys were up to six times more effective at bringing ducks into range than a static spread, at the start of the season, and still two-to-one better at the end of the season. The study also tended to show that motorized decoys "stole" ducks from hunters not using them.

Washington is one of those states taking a wait and see approach. Don Kraege, state Fish and Wildlife Department waterfowl program manager in Olympia, said the agency has presented the pros and cons of allowing hunters to use the devices to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member citizen oversight panel.

"We find it difficult to show the decoys have had any demonstrable biological impact on duck populations," he said. "The discussion tends to be more on the sociological and ethical considerations of using mechanical devices for attracting ducks."

Kraege said the commission has appointed a committee to study the issue prior to next season, and may additionally opt to address the increasing influence of technology in hunting methods for all species.

State natural resource agencies address the general problem regularly. In many states, the use of two-way radios while hunting is illegal. Hunting at night has been banned, as has shooting from a vehicle. Baiting for deer is illegal in most states, and Alaska just reinstated a ban against airborne wolf control. Black powder hunters in Washington and elsewhere debate "refinements" which turn traditional muzzleloading rifles into a different critter, and archers do the same with pulleys, sights, optics, and other modifications to the bow and arrow.

Many individual gunners, and some state and federal managers, feel hunters themselves will drive any legislative action on motion decoys, in effect policing their own sport as they addressed baiting, live decoys, and other issues, 65 years ago.

The Washington Waterfowl Association, a large Western Washington conservation and waterfowl hunting organization, is currently polling its members on the issue. A "robo duck ballot" in the latest club newsletter asks, "Should WWA take a public stand in favor of the use of mechanized decoys, yes, no, or do not take any stand as a club."

The same newsletter carries pro and con comments by two members. Commenting in favor of the devices, Pat Shearer says, "Unless there is strong input to the rule makers favoring their use, motion decoys could be unfairly removed from the average hunter’s arsenal in an increasingly difficult hunting environment."

Shearer goes on to note that the decoys can help cut "sky busting," and crippling of birds, making for a more humane hunting environment, and help overcome the shorter range of federally-mandated steel shot, by drawing birds closer to the gun.

On the possibility of regulators responding to the decoys by cutting limits or seasons, Shearer says, "That would be a grossly unfair and unwarranted reaction, even by the ‘sportsman last’ standards of the WDFW. If the limited use of mechanical decoys by some hunters can justify reducing opportunity for all, then a dangerous and arrogant precedent would be set."

Shearer says purchase of a (mechanical decoy) does not guarantee a hunter more birds, nor does it come with a certificate entitling the buyer to more ducks than his or her daily legal limit. He makes the point that waterfowl hunters are some of the most rule-bound sportsmen and women in the field, and that more regulation, state or federal, is anathema.

"Let the waterfowling community have the continued opportunity to use mechanical decoys as just one part of an effective and ethical hunting strategy," he says.

Those in favor seem to feel that if the limit is seven ducks, what difference does it really make how you take them?

Over in the Columbia Basin, resort owner Mike Meseberg on Potholes Reservoir, catering to waterfowl hunters among other outdoor sporting types, notes another argument in favor.

"If you have an issue with motion decoys, consider this: Enhancing harvest allows two or three hunting parties on the Skagit Flats, Nisqually Flats, or Potholes Reservoir in one day, rather than one party all day. That means a happy first group, happy second group, and a third group in the field. Happy hunting license buyers, and at this point our duck population is at near-record levels."

Gary Gibbs writes against use of the decoys in the Washington Waterfowl Association newsletter, but warns that "this shouldn’t be construed as a big, divisive, issue among duck hunters here. It’s not."

Gibbs says reduction of hunting opportunity because of widespread use of the devices is a very real threat, and that it’s being pushed by the motion decoy manufacturers themselves.

"We can debate the ethics of the new technology forever and not change many minds," he says, "but everyone agrees that the things work, and work well. Maybe too well. Preliminary data show that if you have a robo in your spread, you improve your take by one duck. Big deal. One duck. How can that possibly affect the resource. But if you use Ducks Unlimited figures that the average hunter hits the marsh 10 times a season, and puts 12 ducks in the freezer for his efforts, he can double his one-duck-a-trip average by using a motion decoy. Multiply that by the number of possible decoy users, and you can see the dramatic impact they could have on the resource."

Motion decoy manufacturers see the handwriting on the wall, Gibbs says, and have adopted a "damage control" posture designed to allow them to continue to make and sell the devices.

"They hypocritically state," he says, "that regulation to disallow their decoys is unfair, while regulation to reduce hunting days to offset increased harvest is fair and equitable. That’s a great solution if you sell decoys, but a lousy solution for the hunters who buy and use them."

The manufacturers are also floating the red herring, he says, that banning robo decoys will be followed by banning of standard decoys. Pure and simple scare tactics, he says, to cloud the issue.

"We are seeing just the small tip of the robotic decoy iceberg now," Gibbs says. "I’m not sure we can imagine how refined and efficient these devices will get. I think we can see that if left unregulated, robos will ultimately have a severe negative impact on the resource and the sport of waterfowl hunting."

As quoted by Myers in the Duluth News Tribune, the USFWS’s Wilds said, "Last season, about 1.5 million hunters killed 15 million of the estimated 100 million ducks which flew south for the winter. If that harvest were to increase much for any reason, the government would move to reduce the harvest – either by reducing the daily bag limit or shortening the season."

Wilds said it would be difficult for the agency to act based on ethics alone.

"We already had lawsuits threatened last year when just the discussion of a moratorium (on motion decoys) came up. The manufacturers were saying we didn’t have any proof their products affected waterfowl numbers," he said.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: I had two prints scanned for this piece, PLEASE CREDIT CABELA’S, INC.

(photo of four mallard ducks, two hens and two drakes, "swimming" in a circle) The Mallard Machine, using a push-button remote control, is one of the latest "motion decoy" devices designed to add realism to a spread of static duck decoys.

(photo of one Canada goose and one mallard drake decoy, on stakes) Robo Duck rechargeable, battery-powered duck and goose decoys were one of the earliest of the new-breed mechanical deeks, utilizing spinning "wings" to attract wary wild birds.

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