Sunday, January 27, 2019

For The New Bird Hunter/Bird-Dogger

Bringing up a young pointing dog that is expected to grow into a wild bird dog can be challenging. The first and most important ingredient is a supply of wild birds. Unless you live in the middle of one of this worlds remaining wild bird paradises, this is going to be a problem. If you have spent your life hunting game birds you might be fortunate to know of a few spots that are within driving distance of your house that can be of use to get that young dog into the necessary wild birds.

What if this is your first dog and you are just starting out in the wonderful world of upland bird hunting? You likely lack the necessary knowledge to find good wild-bird locations as well as the understanding of dog training that will be required. You knew the dog was an essential part of upland bird hunting, so you bought a young pup. Maybe you had a young dog, and the bird hunting was an afterthought. Or if you are lucky, you have had a mentor that got you interested and will share his or her knowledge to help get you going. Even if you are that fortunate, you have still have the cards stacked against you as a first-time bird dog owner and rookie hunter.

I was fortunate to have been introduced to many beautiful and wild places as a boy by my father and stepfather. Having lived in the same area my entire life I've been able to learn those areas and like others continually explore new spots piling up a mental database of areas that hold wild birds of different types. These areas have become crucial for the development of every young dog I have brought up since I was a teenager. I hope I can give you some ideas on how to get your young dog into birds and maybe find a great hunting area or two in the process. The best thing I can tell about wild birds, in general, is spend some time, don’t be afraid to drive, and don’t be hesitant to go for a walk. Look for birds when you drive always.  When you walk, look for sign. Droppings are a sure sign there are or have been birds in the area. The morning after a fresh snow is an excellent time for exploring. You can see tracks, sometimes even while driving down a two-track dirt road, and maybe just maybe you can even track your young pup into a bird contact. Once you do find birds remember everything you can about the situation. And try to answer as many questions as you can. Finding consistent bird areas is the goal. This is going to take time, but once you have a few go-to places, everything else will be easier for bringing up the pup.

7-month-old Sunnie, pointing wild chukar on the knoll
One of these go-to places that have helped me bring up dogs for as long as I can remember is a little knoll of public property that is stuck right in the middle of miles and miles of private land. It is about an hour drive from my house. When I was 12 years old, I was with my brother, my Stepdad, and his brother Chad, we stopped there to hunt rabbits on the way to their family's farm. I don’t think they had any idea there were birds there, I certainly didn’t. When I was first old enough to drive, I had a young shorthair pup, and I went there to have a place go for a walk and run her. That is when I discovered there were chukars on that little knoll that no one associates
1-year-old Tic pointing chukar on the Knoll
with chukar habitat. As I matured and gained a better understanding of how to be successful in bird hunting, I learned the importance of the wheres, whens, whats, and whys. There are many questions that aren’t always easily answered like, what are the birds eating? Where are they getting water? What are they doing here? Why are there birds in an area sometimes but not others? The answer to the last question for this particular little knoll is what made me understand it. It is a wintering area. It is the best chukar habitat containing a south-facing slope in the area. So naturally, some birds from a nearby mountain range congregate there after snow falls and the south-facing slopes burn off. Gaining this knowledge has meant I have a consistent place to take a puppy in the winter time, where I know there are birds, and I know within close proximity where they will be every time. It is invaluable knowledge.
Year old Tic getting some mentoring from
Jimmy and Molly on the Knoll

I've never seen another footprint on the knoll, and the birds like to stay on the hill so I can follow them around with the pup getting lots of reps. It's a big advantage to be able to let the young dog make mistakes and learn from them in this environment. If I am careful not to overpressure and the weather is permitting, I can take a puppy back all through the winter giving pup that crucial exposure. Over the years Bo, Jimmy, Molly, Tic, Sunnie and now Snaps have all gotten a great start here. This is a place I can shoot birds for the dogs during hunting season, but I have to be careful to manage my covey. There is only one. If there are 30 birds in the covey, I can shoot 5 only so many times before the covey numbers get low enough that I have to stop. Some years there are only 15. Maybe I just shoot one or two sometimes when the pup shows exceptional work on them. It not necessary to kill every bird the pup points for him. The finding and pointing is the work I am interested in. These places are rare but if you look, ask yourself a lot of questions when you do find birds, and can come up with answers you just might find such a place. This has been a gem of a spot. It all started when I found birds there because I went for a walk.

I think it is necessary to shoot some birds for the pup.  However, I believe the repetitions finding and pointing birds are the most important. Most of us live in the suburbs. Here in Utah and I would expect many other places as well. On the edges of town, there are industrial parks and undeveloped land that is just sitting full of weeds and overgrowth that we call bird habitat. These areas are in city limits, and it would be illegal to shoot there. There is nothing wrong with running a dog as long as the situation is safe for that. Some places might require permission from the landowner to do so, but in my experience, it's easier to get permission to train a dog on land than hunt there. If you ask respectfully and let it be known you are training a young dog that will be under control, I think you may be surprised. This gives you a place to put the dog on wild nonpressured birds out of nesting season often times close to home. It is a very inexpensive approach and one I have used all my life to get a young dog on wild birds. Here in Utah, it is most often Pheasant and California(valley) quail that live in these areas on the edge of town or on remaining isolated habitat in the city. Once you have had enough reps on wild, you can always go out of town and shoot a few pen-raised birds to keep the pup going in the right direction.
Snaps carries a pen raised chukar

So what if you are failing entirely on the wild bird approach and need another answer? Liberated birds are the next best thing. By liberated, I mean pen raised birds that have been out for a while. A recall pen or Johnny house is an excellent tool for this. However, most of us don’t have a situation where we can have a recall pen sitting on 30 acres of ground that would give us access to liberated quail. So we have to find other ways. One approach that I have had success with is by developing a relationship with someone that runs a bird club. These put and take facilities release a bunch of birds over the course of a season, many of which get away from the party hunting them. These birds often end up on the fringes of the property and can offer a dog trainer opportunity. The trick is to get that opportunity opened up to you. You might have to buy a few birds or pay for property access. See if you can make a deal to run the dog without shooting anything for a few bucks without interfering with business. I am not a fan of hunting a young dog on set birds right out of the pen at these places. A guy has minimal control in this situation, and a pup that decides to break and catch a bird finds his behavior instantly and positively reinforced by the bird in its mouth. This can cause you a ton of work later when the dog no longer wants to point. If this is your first dog, it's work you don’t yet know how to do. If you must use set game birds buy them and set them yourself so you know where the bird is and can set up a situation where you have more control with a lead a barrier or something. Having the ability to give your pup exposure on these escapees can be a wonderful resource if you can make it happen. Don't give up if you fail at the first club. It may take some work to make it happen.

This brings us to pen raised birds. Why don’t we just bring our future wild-bird dog up on set pen raised birds? Well, many folks do, and pen raised birds are better than no birds at all. Dogs that have been brought up this way often struggle when asked to hunt wild birds for several reasons and that is our a goal, a serviceable wild-bird dog. Pen-raised birds allow a dog to pressure. So as the pup tests his limitations, he learns he can get very close. I’ve seen dogs put their nose right on the bird when they point. Most species if not all wild birds will not stand for this and will be gone the second the dog gets too close so when a dog learns on wild-birds, his limitations are kept in check.  Pen-reared birds are expensive they are either shot, caught, or fly away usually after one or two uses. They are a costly way to get a pup reps and offer more opportunity for a puppy to start down a wrong path than do wild birds. I don’t in any way think they are useless. I use pen raised birds a lot. And I use them to enhance the training that my pup has basically given itself from wild birds. I also use homing pigeons for certain things along the way. Wild birds are still the single most important tool in raising a wild bird dog. Many well-bred dogs become very serviceable bird dogs with nothing more than exposure to wild birds.
Tic mentoring young Sunnie at the knoll Ducks and Chuks

Now and then there are huns on the knoll

Young Tic and Moll

Jimmy and Young Molly at the knoll. Ducks and chuks!