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MRS. HARCOURT. I am much pleased that we went, as the information we gained there will supply a subject for this evening, that, I believe, will at least have the charm of novelty to recommend it to all the company.
AUGUSTA. I do not even know their use or design.
MR. HARCOURT. Decoys consist of different contrivances to ensnare wild-fowl of various kinds, especially dun-birds, widgeon, and teal. The first thing to be considered is situation. The pond, or piece of standing water, should be large, and sheltered on all sides by woods, beyond which, a marsh or uncultivated heath is desirable, or the purpose of preserving the water in the most profound stillness; for the accidental noises of a village or a high road would disturb the wild-fowl, and drive them from their haunts, to which they retire, for the convenience of sleeping during the day-time in quiet and security.
SOPHIA. I thought it had been peculiar to owls to sleep in the day.
MRS. HARCOURT. That depends upon the habits of animals. Most of the ferocious
kinds are said to repose in the day, and prowl in search of prey under cover of the night. Wild-fowl, after satiating themselves with food of an evening, retire to some piece of standing water, where they lie in multitudes, covering its surface, and resting themselves in a dozing state till the return of the same hour the next night; when they rise in such vast numbers as to occasion a pleasing melancholy sound, which may be heard at a very great distance on a still evening.
CHARLES. The decoy-men call a flight or rising, a hush: in Somersetshire, they give it the appellation of a rodding. The ducks take their flight in a very curious manner, and with such order as to lead to a supposition that they are either under the command of a leader, or have previously agreed upon the disposition of their company. The whole body divides into two wings, leaving a space for those which are behind to follow with greater facility; above all, they are cautious to rise exactly against the wind.
HENRY. Do they catch wild-fowl at all seasons?
MR. HARCOURT. They are generally taken from October to February. It is forbidden by act of Parliament to catch them in this manner from the 1st of June to the 1st of October. On the approach of winter, they migrate from more northern countries into our milder climate, where the cold is seldom so intense as to freeze rivers and large pieces of water for any great space of time. The return of warm weather urges them to avoid the excess of heat, by retreating again to their former habitation.
HENRY. How are they instructed to know the proper time for undertaking their journey, and by what means do they find their way
over the vast ocean?
MRS. HARCOURT. The All-wise Creator, when he formed the various tribes of animals, endued them with propensities adapted to their different natures, and bestowed upon each that power, or capacity, of pursuing the best means of preservation, which we call instinct. The influence of this quality is universal amongst every order of living creatures inferior to man: from the mighty elephant to
the most minute insect, its principle is uniform, producing a similarity of action in every individual of the same species. Whole flocks of birds are known to migrate from one country to another, in search of peculiar kinds of food, or induced by a transition of climate more congenial to their existence; but the most acute philosopher is unable to explain the sensation that teaches them the proper moment to remove, or the course that leads to the exact spot that produces the food they are seeking. Although we cannot account for the many curious facts which result from animal instinct, it is a subject which deserves our most attentive observation, supplying a never-failing source of amusement, and leading the mind to acknowledge and adore the wisdom of the Supreme Being, manifested in his works.
MR. HARCOURT. Animals lose a part of the instinct they enjoy in a state of nature, by associating with man, and relying upon him for support and protection. In many instances they show a capacity of being taught, and of acquiring artificial habits. The decoy
ducks are trained to allure and seduce others into the nets prepared for their destruction." SOPHIA. Surprising! by what art is this effect produced?
MR. HARCOURT. It will be best explained when the apparatus belonging to a decoypond is fully described, a task which I impose upon Charles.
CHARLES. A piece of water, of several acres, situated in the midst of retired woods, being chosen, a number of pipes, as they are called, are formed to catch the wild-fowl. These pipes consist of a ditch, or small canal, communicating with the pond, and growing narrower from the entrance to the termination; over which is an arch of netting suspended upon hoops, closing at the end of the canal in a funnel net. As the direction of the wildfowl depends upon the wind, a pipe is provided for almost every point of the compass. Along each pipe are placed, at certain distances, screens made of reeds, fixed in an oblique direction, so as to completely conceal the decoy-man from the wild-fowl; though he contrives to peep at them through