Native ducks – paradise shelducks (pūtangitangi) and especially grey ducks (pārera) – were an important source of food and feathers for Māori. Flightless fledglings and moulting adults were hunted in January and February when they were fat from spring and summer feeding. Men, women and children drove ducks, sometimes using canoes and dogs, into wetland vegetation where they were easily caught or snared. Māori had a closed season (rāhui) for trapping and snaring grey ducks.
Breach-loading shotguns were introduced to field sports in the 1800s, allowing ducks to be easily shot in flight. The guns were also quickly re-loadable, so more birds could be shot. In Britain, this encouraged pheasant and grouse shoots, popular with the nobility and the wealthy.
In New Zealand, early settlers introduced over 20 different species of wildfowl and upland game birds, but few became naturalised. From the 1860s, acclimatisation societies played a pivotal role in systematically importing, managing and, later, protecting wildfowl and other animals and birds. The Protection of Certain Animals Act 1861 encouraged importing creatures from Europe, including partridges, swans, rooks and starlings, largely to provide hunting opportunities. Societies also regulated the shooting of native species classified as game, including ducks and other wetland birds.
The Wildlife Act 1953 defines 13 bird species as game, and they are managed by regional fish and game councils. Hunters who purchase a game-bird licence, and follow regulations, can legally hunt these species at certain times of the year (usually autumn and winter). Half of the game-bird species are waterfowl. In addition to four duck species (mallards, grey ducks, paradise shelducks and Australasian shovelers), hunters also target black swans and pūkeko. Ducks may only be shot in flight.
For much of the 1800s and early 1900s, New Zealand was a duck hunter’s paradise. There were large areas of wetland. Acclimatisation societies successfully introduced the mallard duck and Canada goose, and large bags of game could be had for just the cost of a shotgun and a licence. Duck shooting mostly attracted country people in its early days, but as transport improved, town dwellers began hunting increasingly.
Many wetlands were drained in order to become farmland. In the 2000s, duck hunting survives on a dramatically reduced wetland resource – approximately 13% of its original area – which favours more adaptable species, notably the mallard and paradise shelduck (dubbed ‘parries’).
There is a notable influx of ducks into park ponds and lakes near the start of the duck-shooting season – as if they are trying to avoid being shot. But the ducks don’t know this. It is just part of their annual life cycle. Ducks which paired up and nested in late winter have raised their young by autumn, and then begin congregating in lakes, lagoons and park ponds.
Duck-hunting enthusiasts live for ‘opening day’, the first Saturday in May. This is when most hunters participate and the greatest numbers of ducks are bagged. Hours before dawn, many rural districts are abuzz. At houses, motels and campsites, lights are on, breakfasts are eaten and last-minute food preparations made. Then it is a brief trip on foot or by car or boat to shooting spots.
At first light, shooting begins and continues sporadically for several hours, interspersed with social banter. Using cellphones, hunters in different parts of the country chat in quiet moments about the size of their bag and make excuses for poor performance.
There is plenty to do before opening day. First, hunters must find a place to shoot. For rural people this is often straightforward – farm stock ponds, streams and remnant wetlands all provide shooting opportunities. Town dwellers on the other hand have to get a shooting spot in the countryside. They often use their social contacts to find a farmer willing to accommodate them, or search for likely positions around publicly owned waterways and wetlands. Once acquired, good shooting sites are held as prized possessions.
The length of the season varies depending on the species, but ends in July for most ducks. Legal shooting hours also vary from region to region and for some species, but are mostly from first light to last light.
Ducks and geese have remarkably good eyesight, and traditionally hunters have camouflaged themselves in a maimai (a hide, often made of wooden framing and corrugated iron, screened with mānuka brush). Some maimais are permanent and wonderfully elaborate; others are temporary and basic, made of materials found nearby. The aim is to conceal the hunters while providing an open field for shooting. Hunters also construct makeshift hides or blinds out of brush or rocks, or just take cover behind or within bushes. Some dig small trenches, jump in and cover them with camouflage netting.
In the 1990s and 2000s hunters have begun to use a range of commercial products – some from overseas, particularly the US, but also made in New Zealand. These include camouflage clothing, nets and portable hides or blinds. Shopping over the internet or at hunting stores has become an important part of duck hunting in the early 2000s.
On public wetlands and waterways, shooting places can be reserved by ‘tagging’. Licence holders are provided with a tag which they attach to their maimai on tagging day, several weeks before opening day. Beforehand, hunters new to an area, or wanting a new place to shoot, search wetlands and river margins for untagged places. On the day and shortly after, public wetlands and waterways are filled with hunters at their maimais – tagging, building, dressing them with mānuka brush or camouflage netting, and doing maintenance.
Early settlers made lifelike decoy ducks from carved and painted wood. Decoys were later made from cork. By the 1960s, plastic and pre-painted decoys were on sale, and in the early 2000s a wide variety are available – including some that simulate the movement of wings and water.
Decoys are placed and anchored strategically so they look realistic and encourage birds to land at a spot which suits the hunter. Different species require slightly different hunting techniques, and some are more responsive to decoys and calling than others. Those most often bagged – the mallard, grey and paradise ducks, and the Canada goose – are susceptible to decoys.
Hunters employ different calls to try and draw ducks towards them. The ‘come-back’ is used when ducks fly in towards the decoys and then swing away. One author wrote, ‘Think of this one as a pleading call, an urgent series of excited quacks with the first three or so being high pitched and drawn out, and the rest lowering in pitch. W-A-A-A-CK, W-A-A-A-CK, W-A-A-A-CK, waack, waack, waack, waack.’ 1
Decoys accompanied by effective calls are a deadly combination. Duck and goose calls are reed instruments, easily held in a cupped hand. They are blown to simulate calls that tell incoming birds it is safe to land. Hunters learning to call usually provide a good deal of amusement for family and friends. Proficient callers are more successful hunters, and often enter duck-calling competitions held in pubs prior to the hunting season. Modelled on competitions in the US, these are really just an excuse for a night out, with the added possibility of winning a prize from a local hunting store.
Camouflaged hunters who can place decoys and call effectively can attract ducks within shooting range. A shotgun’s range (rifles are not used) is about 55 metres, but most birds are shot within 20 to 30 metres. Shotguns come in several types and gauges, and the pros and cons of different types are a constant source of discussion.
The most important factor in successful shooting is skill and experience – in this context, skill is the ability to shoot a flying bird. Unlike rifle shooting, both eyes are kept open and the gun is swung in a flowing movement, aiming in front of the bird’s flight path. In the past, lead shot was used, but ducks ate the lead, mistaking it for grit, and were poisoned. It was banned in 2005 in favour of steel shot.
Shooting continues from maimais, hides and blinds throughout the season. Hunters also shoot over stubble paddocks, stalk the edges of heavily willowed rivers and streams, or quietly approach farm ponds where ducks are resting. Some shoot from boats. Others hunt in the evenings, using their calls to bring in ducks which have left the safety of open water to feed at wet spots in paddocks and along drains.
A duck, once shot, often falls into heavy cover or into deep water, and here a gun dog becomes indispensable. Dogs are also very useful for flushing game from heavily willowed or other inaccessible places.
Having delivered the quarry, the dog can relax, but not so the hunter. The gun must be cleaned and oiled, equipment and clothing stored away, and the birds plucked and dressed, although sometimes only the breast meat is taken. Traditionally, game was roasted and served with gravy or orange sauce and vegetables. Today a much wider range of recipes is available, and a good red wine is often included in a meal eaten with family and friends.
Duck hunting is managed and regulated by fish and game councils, which monitor species numbers, and set bag limits and the length of the hunting season. As duck populations depend on wetland and riparian habitat, Fish & Game New Zealand works with the Department of Conservation, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, the National Wetlands Trust and organisations such as Ducks Unlimited and the New Zealand Game Bird Habitat Trust on freshwater and wetland conservation and management.
While some women are keen shooters, most duck hunters are men. Boys are often introduced to the sport by their fathers, or by other adult male relatives and friends. Fish and Game New Zealand introduces women to clay-target shooting – an important step to duck hunting – via a programme modelled on a Wisconsin initiative.
In the 1990s and 2000s, interest in duck hunting has declined, particularly among young people. Reasons include the continuing loss of wetlands, the increasing separation of town and country, the popularity of urban values, and the costs of gearing up for the sport. Towns and cities also offer alternative, convenient, often more passive, forms of recreation. Fish and game councils and hunting retailers are working to counter this trend.
Shotguns are lethal at short range, and even at more than 100 metres, depending on size, shotgun pellets can cause serious harm to sensitive body parts such as eyes. Some safety messages are common to all field sports involving guns, but game-bird shooting has its own specific messages. It is important to avoid low shots (protecting other hunters directly and from chance ricochets off hard surfaces). Shotguns should be ‘broken’ and unloaded when moving over rough country, rivers, streams and fence lines, and when moving to and from or in and out of vehicles. Hunters should signal any change of position to other hunters by word or gesture.
Shotgun blasts are very loud and can cause hearing damage, so an increasing number of hunters wear hearing protection.
Keen hunters also practise by shooting clay targets in the off season. Gun and hunting clubs are excellent places to learn how to shoot safely.
Byrne, Jack. Duck hunting in Australia and New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1974.
Caithness, Tom. Gamebird hunting: problems, questions and answers. Wellington: Wetland Press, 1982.
Girvan, Gary. Duck hunting in New Zealand. Auckland: David Bateman, 2007.
McDowall, R. M. Gamekeepers for the nation: the story of New Zealand’s acclimatisation societies, 1861– 1990. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1994.
Parkes, Brad. Gamebird hunting in New Zealand. Auckland: Halcyon, 1992.
Williams, Murray. The duckshooter’s bag: an understanding of New Zealand’s wetland gamebirds. Wellington: Wetland Press, 1981.