For the Birds

The conventions of bird hunting distract the uninitiated from the sport’s finest points.

People are always asking, “Did you get any?” As if that were the point. And bird hunters don’t help, showing around their snapshots of themselves in their dowdy brown coats and vests and so often holding out the fallen, rumpled birds, with the all-important fields out of focus and stretching away in the background.

Worthy bird hunters will tell you, though, that the shooting is not the thing. The goods are in the before, after, and in-between parts.

Chinese ring-necked pheasants are the Cadillacs, the “Hot Rod Lincolns” of Montana’s game birds and hunting them can be an extraordinary experience. Yes, the jumbo jet-sized Canadian geese are spectacular. And some people would trade all other bird hunting to continue to walk the high grasslands for sharp-tailed grouse. Others burn incense at the icon of wing shooting ruffed and blue mountain grouse twisting away through the pines.

But hunting the flashy pheasants is something else again.

Pheasants largely occupy the coulees, creek bottoms, and cattails, and the snow berry and wild rose brier patches, slipping out of these secure places to fill their craws with grain left in the wheat and barley stubble fields that so often traverse their habitat. There the light improves in pheasant season, which, in Montana, is early October into December. The acute angle of the autumn sun’s departure and approach from the horizon prolongs the saturated colors at the shoulders of the day. Sometimes when it slips out from under a cloud bank just at the horizon, the light pours in dense as butterscotch. And the violet snow of the late-season stubble fields, when the birds are heavy-feathered, may sway your thinking that Charlie Russell’s palette was all romance and exaggeration.

Pheasant hunters are at play in camaraderie in these “fields of the Lord.” Unlike serious big game hunting, there is often room in pheasant and upland game bird hunting for easy talk about life, spouse, children, careers, and all things important, all the way to those things conspicuously unimportant. The companionship heightens in the breaks when everyone sits in the grass with the panting dogs around and the patter of friendship welling up. No one with a brain purposefully takes unpleasant people bird hunting, unless they get paid for it. That is their cross to bear.

There is nothing like a spring-loaded rooster giving up his hiding gig to bust up out of the brush. The sneaky, snaking, keen-eyed, fast, running, big, gaudy cockbirds often wait to flush until a hunter is right on top of them, hoping on hope first that the hunter will pass and the dog has a bad nose. The flush is loud and sudden. It is a wonder that anyone at all can recover their senses quickly enough to shoot well. But they do.

The in-between times of waterfowl hunting have their own characteristics. The locus is often the blind. It can be at the shoreline of some pond, lake, river, or stream, or big as life before God and everyone in a stubble field. Left to their own choice, ducks and geese are utter creatures of habit. Their schedules run something like this: hang out at night, eat grain in the morning, splash around the rest of the day, eat grain in the evening, repeat.

Hunting waterfowl from blinds often includes dawn. There are thermoses of coffee, gloved hands, over-excited dogs, the smell of dirt and water, and the entire genesis of the day from the first inklings of light seeping into the sky to a bloom of color. Often then the whistling of wings is heard with the mallards’ gabbling calls as they swish in first to join the feed. The spectacle often comes before shooting hours—traditionally a half-hour before sunrise—so the pleasure includes sitting quietly while the greenheads and hens gather, sometimes just beside the blind and among the decoys that make such stiff company. Other things also happen then. Deer move furtively along the edges of the fields to their day places. At first light in a Flathead Valley goose blind we once watched a black bear check out a spread of decoys. The story gets retold from time to time, and the recollection is also part of the important in-between parts of bird hunting. Montana gets blue- and green-winged teal early in the fall along with some pintail, redheads, canvasbacks and other ducks. The mallards are the most prevalent, though, and their numbers swell, typically in early November, with winter’s onset and the inexorable migrations of the fatter, more orange-footed northern mallards.

The setting of mountain grouse hunting could hardly be more different than waterfowl hunting.

Many of Montana’s mountain grouse hunters do it with vehicles on logging and Forest Service roads. Somehow, the tradition has developed here that mountain grouse may be shot on the ground, a practice called sluicing that is frowned upon elsewhere. Maybe it is the practicality of so much wanting that sublime flavor for dinner. Some of the initiated prefer mountain grouse on the table to all other wild birds. The blue, ruffed, and Franklin mountain grouse inhabit different places. The blues frequent the evergreen ridgetops. Ruffs are often found in the brushy, mountain creek bottoms at the lesser elevations. And the Franklins, also called fool hens, are wherever you find them.

Mountain grouse make challenging wing shooting because they are most often quickly aloft and behind trees. The quality of their feathers makes them plush and warm in the hand and a soft-mouthed dog is favorable. Back on the high plains, two upland game birds require mention. Hunting Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse is not unlike pheasant hunting, though they frequent the higher grasslands more than pheasants.

‘Huns’ are exotics, like the pheasants, introduced here from overseas. The sharps or pintails, as some call them, are native and their feet show it; they are covered with downy feathers to stave off winter’s hard cold.

When it is wet, these birds’ feet are sometimes stuck with balls of the sticky gumbo dirt for which parts of central and eastern Montana are renowned. The birds are apparently unable to shed it. So it is also with hunters. The land and its ways and the times it affords to bird hunters cling to their boots. With comical dance steps of sorts, they try to kick it off, but it sticks.

The pleasures stick. In the off-season, each bird thawed from the freezer to be carefully prepared for its rich flavors, often for special company, evokes the times and friendships of this avocation and recalls the fields outside the window.