Imagine a hunter creeping through the woods. Autumn is in full-swing, and the grey sky threatens rain. His breaths come out in misty clouds. He carefully sidesteps fallen branches and leaves to avoid frightening his prey. He arrives at a pristine lake demarked by cattails and water lilies. He crouches next to a rotting log and shoulders his Mossberg 930. With slow, even breaths, he takes aim…but what is he hunting? Deer? Pig? Bear? Elk? Goat?
He is hunting birds—some of the most skittish, elusive game of all. No, this is not hyperbole. But, what about the flocks of birds you see flying in the sky every day? Surely a few well-placed shotgun blasts would net 5-6 birds or more? Maybe, maybe not, but the laws governing bird hunting are stringent. Even if a certain bird species is legal to hunt in your county, it may not be legal in a county ten miles down the road. As always, check with your local game warden and other authorities to ensure you are engaging in legal hunting activities. Generally, laws and bag limits vary by state.
Back to the hunter. Why are birds so difficult to shoot, especially for beginners? First, most birds have excellent vision. For example, a duck’s eyes are located on the side of their head, giving them a 340-degree field of vision. Their unique eye shape allows them to simultaneously see near and far, plus they have three eyelids and can see in color. So, if an amateur hunter is hoping to shoot a duck, the first lesson would be Don’t look at it until you are ready to shoot! A duck, soaring in the sky, can look down and see the whites of your eyes—and become spooked. Second, birds don’t fly as close together as you might imagine. They are often 2-3 feet apart, which means you can’t blindly unload into a flock and expect to hit anything. Finally, a head-or-body shot is usually needed to harvest the bird. A wing shot will drop a duck, but then it will swim away, or submerge itself and grab onto some detritus under the water until it thinks the threat has passed.
If you manage to go on a legal bird hunt—the work has only just begun. Most bird hunting involves trained dogs to retrieve the carcasses. If you don’t have canine-assistance, then finding those bullet-riddled bird bodies will be a time-consuming, monumental task. Even with a dog’s help, an enterprising mountain lion, coyote or fox might snatch the bird away long before your dog is anywhere close to the body. By most accounts, the most popular bird-hunting dogs are Labrador Retrievers.
How easy is it to actually shoot a bird? First, you need to use a shotgun. Shotguns, unlike rifles, shoot cartridges that ‘spread’ the lead about 1 inch per yard. This means most shotguns, depending on the choke, are ineffective beyond 50 yards. However, that shotgun ‘spread’ is your only hope of striking a fleeing bird. If you try to hunt any type of bird with a standard rifle, you’ll be breaking the law and probably waste more ammunition than a blind machine-gunner. No—you must use a shotgun—this is standard practice and conventional wisdom. Therefore, to harvest a game bird, you will likely have to shoot them mid-flight, in an unpredictable pattern, from 20-30 yards off.
Despite these challenges, thousands of hunters all over the world regularly, successfully hunt birds. Some of that success comes from hard learning experiences. Some of it comes from excellent planning. Some of it comes from sheer, dumb luck.
Birds may be difficult to hunt, but that does not mean they are smart. Like many animals, birds can be fooled by simple decoys. Decoys are life-sized, colored replicas of your intended prey. They are placed wherever you expect the actual birds to show up. Essentially, when birds see other birds resting or foraging in a certain area, they know it’s safe. Generally, decoys are costly, but they are also one-time expenses, because they can be reused year after year. Additionally, the more decoys, and the more varied the decoys are (types of birds), the better. However, if you have a very small pond with 10,000 decoys, there will be nowhere for the real birds to land, and they may think the area is overpopulated and move to a different water source.
Calls are another way to attract birds. Birds are very vocal, and though the extent of their intra-species communication isn’t fully understood, we know enough to replicate bird calls to attract prey. Bird calls attract birds by creating the impression that other birds are in the area. Different sounds can be created with a single bird call by changing the cadence of the noises. For example, a ‘hen’ call, perhaps the most popular, might begin with a series of close-together squawks followed by a ‘dropping’ call. There are different calls for baby birds, feeding noises and mating calls. To master bird calls requires years of practice and experience.
For maximum results, experienced bird hunters utilize decoys and calls together.
Waterfowl are commonly hunted birds. This category includes ducks, geese and swan. These birds live in and around water sources, usually lakes, for most of their lives. They breed in far northern regions during the warm months, and upon winter’s arrival, migrate south. This southern migration normally begins around August or September, but not all bird species migrate during the same times, nor do they travel the same distances. Most waterfowl hunting occurs during the autumn and winter—hunting seasons are determined by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
To begin, you will probably need decoys to reach a bag limit on hunting waterfowl. Once these are set in the water, it’s a matter of time before a flock of waterfowl passes overhead. They will circle the water and gradually descend. The best time to shoot is just before they reach the water. If you wait until they’ve settled on the water, you may not be able to differentiate the real birds from your decoys, and you’ll likely waste a good deal of ammunition shooting the water.
After you’ve (hopefully) hit a bird, it’s time to send your faithful canine to retrieve the body. Dead waterfowl float, fortunately, so you won’t need any scuba-diving equipment. Again, a wounded bird can swim, and they will do anything necessary to stay alive. This means you want to shoot the birds that are as close to your position as possible, so your pup doesn’t have to retrieve a wounded bird from the center of the lake, where the bird might find time to regain its bearings and escape.
Again, check with your local game warden concerning licenses and bag limits. Because a single waterfowl-hunting session may net several different types of waterfowl, it’s important to know what you’re allowed to harvest. For example, the limit may be 3 mallards, 5 geese and one fat swan. For this reason, inexperienced hunters may want to use binoculars for positive target identification before firing. Thermal optics are excellent for locating birds at any time of day or night, hidden in vegetation or forestry.
Upland hunting occurs at higher altitudes than waterfowl hunting, generally in open fields, hilly, forested or mountainous areas, though there is no precise definition. Upland hunting targets pheasant, quail, grouse, partridge, woodcock, pigeon, dove and more. Decoys and calls are still used in upland hunting, as well as trained dogs. Many upland birds spend a lot of time on the ground and conceal themselves in holes or thick vegetation. A well-trained dog is perfect for upland hunting—they can sniff out the birds, point the hunter in the right direction, and scare (flush) the birds into the open air for a clean shot.
Turkey hunting can be considered upland hunting. For a few reasons, turkey hunting is different than other birds. First, turkeys are extremely popular to hunt (See: Thanksgiving), so it’s very possibly you’ll run into a crowd of other hunters when you go out looking for turkeys. Also, turkeys are one of the few birds active during the day because they are always looking for food, and they are known to be large and vocal—dead giveaways for an experienced hunter. Turkeys are great for novice marksmen, given their large size, but don’t be fooled by those waddling bodies…turkeys can fly, too!
The Chukar Partridge is often cited as one of the most difficult birds to hunt. Wild chukar are notorious for exhausting hunters and dogs in hilly/mountainous regions. For example, a covey of chukar may be nesting on a rocky outcropping halfway up a steep desert canyon. If you attempt to climb up closer for a shot, when the chukar notice you (which they will) they will slowly walk upwards, out of the canyon, always checking to see if you’re still following them. If you stop following, they will stop and rest. If you go all the way to the top, the chukar will glide down the canyon and find another place to hide. If you manage to shoot one, a wounded chukar can stilly fly hundreds of kilometers. For these reasons, the best chukar-hunting tactic may be to ascend the canyon (or hill, mountain, whatever) on its opposite side, so you are looking down on the chukar. They will still flee, but at least you won’t feel like they’re teasing you as they calmly stay just-out-of-reach.
For adventurous, experienced bird hunters, the ultimate prey is the Himalayan Snowcock. These super-elusive birds originate in the Himalayan Mountains, in Nepal and along the national border of India and China. Scattered populations can be found further north, along the eastern borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Between 1965 and 1979, large numbers of Himalayan Snowcocks were released in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, USA. This is the only location in the world, aside from the Himalayan Mountains, where these birds can be found. They roost at altitudes over 4000 meters and live most of their lives between 2500 and 5000 meters, along rocky slopes and steep, inaccessible mountain ledges. Himalayan Snowcocks live in remote areas far from human populations and are extremely skittish and difficult to locate, let alone shoot. For the ultimate prize in bird hunting, after you’ve accumulated years of experience, try harvesting a Himalayan Snowcock!
Turkey, pheasant and grouse are bow-hunted more than any other species of bird. Ducks are also bow-hunted, but this is a uniquely challenging experience…if you’re interested, I recommend reading this blog. As you might suspect, bowhunting birds is markedly more difficult than shotgun-hunting. Accurate shooting of birds with a bow requires being ready to draw, shoot and release quickly. Most bowhunters are more interested in challenging sport than merely harvesting meat.
A few benefits of bowhunting:
- Archery-hunting season is generally longer than shotgun-hunting season
- Arrows are reusable
- Bowhunting requires additional physical strength—encouragement to stay in shape!
- Greater satisfaction when you actually take a bird with a bow-and-arrow
Bird hunting is wildly popular. As opposed to big-game hunting, bird hunting will not provide you any antlers to mount on the wall or thick hides to lay on your floor. Instead, bird hunting is generally about quantity over quality, and you can easily exceed your bag limit within an hour or two of hunting.
Bird populations are declining worldwide—this is why it’s important to engage in legal hunting activities, so you are contributing to healthy, sustainable wildlife populations and habitat conservation. Overhunting has been a grave problem in world history, robbing the Earth and humankind of numerous species.
One way to support wildlife and bird habitat conservation is to buy duck stamps. 98% of revenue from duck stamps goes directly to conservation efforts. Duck stamp money helps water purification, flood control efforts, combating soil erosion and water-source sedimentation. Duck stamps are sold at sporting goods stores, wildlife refuges and online.
Bird hunting is excellent for beginning hunters. There is more action, and defeathering, cleaning and cooking a bird is akin to skinning and preparing a fish. Aside from these benefits, virtually all hunting activities are healthy, providing you with exercise, time in nature and opportunities to socialize. Altogether, bird hunting is a worthwhile, satisfying hobby that we at GunLove encourage you to try!