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Mar 26, 2001
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Published Thursday, August 23, 2001

Flap over motorized duck decoy State Fish and Game will vote Friday on whether to ban devices By John Simerman
                      CONTRA COSTA TIMES

Over marshes, levees and fields, a whirling new force has broken through the shrouded hush of the morning hunt, raising a mighty flap in the duck blind.

It goes by many names -- Roto-Duck, RoboDuk, Fatal deDUCKtion -- but the idea is the same: A motorized decoy with spinning wings draws ducks to a blind like dust. The battery powered "moto-ducks" parrot the flashing wings that signal a safe landing, the waterfowl equivalent of airstrip semaphores.

Some hunters swear by them, and a recent UC Davis study found them more than six times as effective in drawing birds within shooting range.  Other hunters curse the moto-duck, calling the electronic age a threat to the "fair chase" ethic of the sport.

"There's shouting-match controversy," said Bob McLandress, president of the California Waterfowl Association, a group of 15,000 hunters. "Greed is involved on both sides."

Now, three years after hunters in Marysville created the moto-duck -- and after a three-year decline in the local duck population -- the decoys themselves face unfriendly fire.

On Friday, the state Fish and Game Commission will vote in Santa Barbara on whether to ban all "electronic or mechanically operated spinning blade or spinning wing decoys."

The issue has drawn animal groups and hunting purists together in a battle over the latest episode in an ageless debate over hunting innovations.  Similar disputes have arisen from the advent of rifle scopes, compound bows and new types of shot.  The new blast of controversy has ruffled feathers beyond California. This month, Washington state banned motorized duck decoys. Pennsylvania has a similar ban on electronic decoys, though it preceded the moto-duck.

Moto-ducks fly in the face of fair play, says Arthur Feinstein, executive director of the Berkeley-based
Golden Gate Audubon Society.  "We don't think hunting is wrong in the sense of hunting as a fair challenge to man and critter, with critters having at least a chance of not being caught," said Feinstein. "When you load the deck so much the animals don't have any chance at all, then it's not hunting anymore. That becomes slaughter."

Proponents say the device levels the playing field for those who can't afford to join pricey hunt clubs or buy a gaggle of traditional decoys. Moto-ducks run about $140.  "The sport was just becoming pretty much a rich man's sport," said Finlay Williams, a 54-year-old welding shop owner from Marysville who invented RoboDuk in 1998.  In three years, Williams' sales have mushroomed across the country, from 400 RoboDuks in the first year to more than 18,000 last year. He insists the current daily bag limits of seven ducks provide ample regulation. He also noted, as state biologists have found, that moto-ducks become less effective as the hunting season wears on.  Ducks get wise.

"Originally, the ducks just committed suicide on it," said Williams. "Once they started showing up and they got shot a little bit, they learned."  State Fish and Game officials say they can't link a decline in duck breeding pairs to a surge in moto-ducks. But hunters have bagged more mallards in the first 17 days of the hunting season since the moto-duck has emerged.

The season starts in October and runs through January. Fish and Game officials recommend that the commission adopt a moto-duck ban until Dec. 1 to protect California waterfowl that dominate the early season before ducks migrate south from Canada and Alaska.  In Northern California, duck hunters lurk around the Delta islands, in the Los Banos grasslands, in fields and on levees, over wildlife refuges and on land owned by private duck clubs.  McLandress, of the hunters association, said his group, although torn on the ethics of the sport, agrees that if the moto-duck is found to harm the local duck population, it should go.  Personally, said McLandress, "I think we've gone too far with technology.  "If it's got an egg beater on it, that's fine," he said.  "When you move into lasers and holograms, maybe we should say no."

McLandress said the debate has obscured a much bigger problem - the water war in the Klamath Basin in a region along the Oregon-California border. The federal decision to cut off water flow from the Upper Klamath Lake to protect fish has threatened the food supply in staging areas for migrating ducks, which could reduce their numbers.

"That's probably the biggest issue we've ever faced," said McLandress, "and here we are dealing with moto-duck."

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