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.
Introduction of shotguns
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.
Introduction of birds
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.
A duck hunter’s paradise
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.
Loss of wetlands
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’).
Ducking for cover
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.