Duck calls are used to lure flying ducks, especially dabbling ducks, into the water near the hunter and his decoys. Researchers believe mechanical duck calls originated about 1850. Mouth calling was also used, perhaps first by Native Americans. Artificial calls came into demand with the outlawing of live decoys in 1935.
The first patent for a duck call was by Elam Fisher of Detroit in 1870. It consisted of a reed attached to a mouthpiece. Fred Allen of Monmouth, Illinois made the first modern-style call in 1863. Duck calls are made up of two basic parts--the narrower 'stopper' and the barrel. Inside the stopper is a reed, a toneboard, and a wedge.
Calls were made by turning a small (6 inches long by 1 1/2 inches diameter) block of wood, often cedar, walnut, or rosewood, on a lathe to round the wood and carve any grooves. One groove was made to fit the lanyard so the hunter could wear it around his neck.
Fancier duck calls had rims of rosewood, brass, silver, or celluloid. Sometimes horn was used for the reed. Duck calls were usually from four to six inches in length, and from one to one and a half inches in diameter. Duck call artists, such as Charles Perdew of Pekin, carved and painted designs and names on the barrels of their calls.
Some hunters made their own duck calls, but most hunters probably bought commercially produced duck calls, such as the P.S. Olt Company duck calls advertised in 1868. Olt calls also appeared in mail order catalogs by 1889 for twenty cents to a dollar or two each. In 1898 Charles Perdew started his business and marketed the "Illinois River banded cedar duck call," which became a standard. In 1909 he patented a tongue-pincher type crow call
he continued to produce for fifty years. He and other carvers used cedar, walnut,
and exotic woods trimmed with brass or silver for their finer calls.
Olt's hard rubber calls were manufactured as early as the turn of the century and were popular because of their resistance to water damage. Although molded, they were hand-filed and tuned. Today plastic is also used in the manufacture of commercial calls.
Duck calls in the collection of the Illinois State Museum include calls made by Charles Haddon Perdew,
Fred Mott, Sr.,
and Black Duck
Blowing Duck Calls
A duck call is a tool, just like a gun or duckboat. A hunter must know when and how to blow a call. There are different calls for different purposes, and for different species. A duck hunter can learn how ducks call by listening to ducks in their rest areas. Ducks give feeding, greeting, and alarm calls.
A hunter must first be able to identify the species of duck as it flies in. There are different bag limits for each species each year, and the hunter does not want to shoot illegally. It takes time to learn the flying patterns and behaviors of different species of similar-looking ducks and hens. The hunter must keep an eye on the duck he is calling, watching its behavior. The hunter greets the duck, calls it in, may have to pleadingly call it back, greets it again, continuing until the duck is in gun range. When the duck is closer, the caller may change to a feeding chuckle or chatter. If the ducks start an alarm call, a whole flock will fly away instantly.
The calls will differ in open water and in timber. Soft calls perform better in timber, of which ducks are leery. Harsher, louder calls do better over open water. Hard rubber calls and plastic calls are harsher than wooden calls. Sometimes it is best not to use a duck call at all. Some ducks who stay in an area for several days may learn not to be deceived by the call. If there is a large flock of ducks, a call will not affect their behavior. Some duck callers enter calling championships where they are required to give 90-120 second calls.
Duck Call Carvers
In the central Illinois River area, Beardstown produced some duck-call carvers whose style tended to feature a fatter barrel. The stretch of river from Beardstown north to LaSalle, Illinois allegedly boasted more call makers than any other area in the United States.
Oscar Alford (1883-1962) made walnut calls for family and friends and personal use. Doug Kirchner (1906-1984) made fewer than fifty walnut, maple, and hedge calls for himself, family, and friends. John "Newt" Rule (1870-1949), a prolific decoy maker, also made distinctive walnut duck calls that featured a tapered barrel and stopper that overlapped the barrel.