Thoughts On Pheasants

Thoughts On Pheasants

Question
I've gleaned considerable amount of information about dogs from tips you seem to off-handedly include in your single-subject articles. Why not offer a list of briefs that would help beginning (even advanced trainers, if they hadn't heard about it) hunting dog fanciers save some time and money? If you repeat yourself I don't think there will be too many objections.


Long as you've been writing that's probably inevitable. But there should be a lot of readers who haven't seen it before or have forgotten. I don't remember now whether you said rooster pheasants are harder for dogs to work than hens. But I'm planning my first Dakota pheasant hunt and want to know which and why, in your opinion. Can you start with a quickie about that?
--South Carolina

Answer
When a flushing dog starts really thrashing about on the scent of pheasant or a pointing dog points (holding rock steady if so trained, or constantly breaking point and re-pointing) the most common excuse for failure to get an actual bird into flight is the trite explanation, "That was a smart old rooster." Usually there is a chorus of affirmative "You can take that to the bank" statements or a flurry of unprintable or highly literate expletives about the male gender of Phasianus colchicus.


No offense, but if you subscribe to that fairy tale, you've been listening to alcohol stimulated tales, reading about spurious "hunting adventures" or watching some macho, good ol' boy pontificate during some canned TV production'¦all of which give hunting and gun dogs more of a bad name than impart useful information.


I'm not a zoologist or ornithologist nor have I shot more pheasants and trained better gun dogs than thousands of other sportsmen. I am a hunter and a gun dog trainer. Therefore, I have opinions based upon experiences in those two disciplines, not on something somebody told me or reading something that was literally parroted.

If we disagree, you deserve a hearing should you have scientific backing or you've seriously and contemplatively mulled over this lore during and after a lot of pheasant hunting with dogs.

Whether it is hold tight in sparse cover, skulking and dodging in crop rows or wriggling through dense growth (to let dog and hunter pass unaware), escaping either the hot pursuit of spaniel or retriever or sneaking out undetected from under a pointer's staunch stance, chances are eight or nine to one that it will be a hen, not a cock pheasant.

By my count, when ground hugging birds have finally been put to flight (after an almost completely frustrating chase) the dowdy hen, not the gaudy cock flew on; when wild bird hunting as well as when shooting released game in licensed areas where both sexes could be taken.

Why is this? Charge me with blathering about something with scientific background. But please don't piddle on my parade for offering my belief that the preponderance of cunning (when it comes to non-flushing pheasants) lies with the retiring hen, not the audacious cock.

Every supposition requires a reason of some kind. The shrinking-violet-hen-pheasant hypothesis is a combination of the once acknowledged differences in sex as part of the nature of all beasts, even humans. Like there are more mothers than fathers in the nurturing and education fields and more fathers in professional sports and combat action.

By nature, hen pheasants are more secretive, cautious and wily. Physically, in order to survive, they are smaller and require less food. A dozen or more hens can be serviced by a single rooster. Species survival is assured if hens are smarter; as acknowledged by most state conservation laws that prohibit hen shooting even when artificially reared birds are "stocked" for state hunting license buyers.

Hens also come clad in camouflage. Difficult as roosters can be to spot when holding or knocked down in cover, trying to find a downed hen can be impossible without the aid of a dog's nose. It is also their nature to take advantage of their relatively dull color to make the most of vegetation that conceals, select the right time to hold or hike and sprint just as fast as a rooster when they must. Smaller and faster flying than blustery he-birds, comparatively silent risers, more females elude shot charges.

Contrast that with the garish, eye-catching color and ostentatious demeanor of the loudmouth male, a louder and slower wingbeat and a strutting macho attitude that is frequently more of a challenge to dog and gun than an attempt to survive; daring to fly rather than employ any ploy that will ensure survival. Were rooster pheasants responsible for the procreation and survival of the pheasant population, representatives of the species would be perched on dinosaur backs in public museums.

Nature saw to it that mamas not only breed, nest, hatch and nurture chicks, they give the basic lessons in survival when they move their broods out into the reality show that is the world of upland game birds. After "doing their thing" papa pheasants do nothing except attract unwanted attention. While strutting male birds don't lose all the smarts imparted by their mothers (and are worthy contestants for appreciative sportsmen) the inevitable flow of testosterone prompts giving "the finger" to dog and hunter while taking flight prematurely by raucously cussing them out for pushing beyond the limits of a short-fused patience. Because cock pheasants are show-offs, they expose themselves more often when aground; won't sit tight unobserved, more quickly abandon dense cover or switch the game from a "run the ball" offense to "taking to the air" than their determinedly evasive and more patient female significant others. And, as it might be in humans, bird brains may be unequally distributed, which is decisive in determining both the smarts and the mortality rate ratios between the sexes.

While on the subject of pheasants and in answer to another question, I haven't changed my belief that, given a great deal of experience, smart gun dogs with good noses can tell the difference between hen and cock pheasants. At least this held true for several of my dogs and some crackerjack hunters belonging to other people.

An outstanding one comes to mind, possibly because he was the first close-to "purebred" dog I'd ever owned, half English/half American cocker. When I was in high school I started him on squirrel, rabbit, duck, ruffed grouse, woodcock and pheasant.

I didn't train or teach the sturdy, black cocker (17 inches tall, 35 pounds) to sort out birds according to sex. Nor could anyone else. But he reached a point in his prime and over-age when I was absolutely confident when he was down with Clinker, his very proficient Labrador bracemate, that (when they'd split off on obviously separate birds) he'd always be the one to produce the rooster if two birds got up within a short time.

Tar had to have a strong tendency to select before he ever set foot upon a licensed hunting grounds where pheasants are released and bo

th hens and cocks were legally shot, as have most of the dogs that followed him. In fact, had he gotten early training and experience during his introduction to real birds he might never have become a selective flusher. Don't mistake me. I'm not saying he never put out a hen. He did, both wild and released birds. But if there was a "cackler" in the crowd, that would be the bird that Tar was "onto" and got up.

The comparative scarcity of pay-to-shoot game farms and preserves in Tar's youth plus my lack of cash inadvertently developed the dog's homing in on and pursuing one sex in preference to the other. It worked this way:

In the state where I did all my hunting (traveling 25-50 miles then constituted a "hunting trip"), whether hunting native or artificially reared pheasants, which were hatched, raised and released by both rural conservation clubs and the state conservation department, shooting hens was prohibited. Considering the times (pre-World War II), the lack of supervision, my age and ignorance, I was a stickler for obeying game laws I knew about. But I knew of no restriction on firearms so the first bird in flight I knocked down was a pheasant'¦with the medium-length slug that was a portion of a .22-long cartridge.

A Remington single-shot .22 rifle was the only "real" gun I owned at the time. I had "popped" for a box of longs because they were 21 cents for a box of 50. Long rifles cost 25 cents a box. Shorts were only 17 cents'¦had I not been told the shorts would lead up the chamber of prized Remington, I'd have been trying to hit birds on the wing with .22 shorts.

When I accompanied some much older lad afield (my dad died when I was three) or some family friend or adult hunter let me tag along, there wasn't even a frown of disapproval because of my gun nor the suggestion that it was both inappropriate and against the law to be shooting at anything except squirrels and rabbits.

There are ways to qualify as a genuine sportsman without being a dead-eye. My strict adherence to the fish and game laws (after I'd read and memorized them long before I'd hired out to do field work as a warden special and deputy sheriff) assured that, by the time I started Tar hunting, in accordance with the law, I never shot at a hen pheasant, much less hit one.

That's what made a rooster rouster out of that long-ago spaniel. Up to about 1960 we had some reasonable wild bird hunting. Tar was dead long before then. When we started, the hunters of the mid-1900s were more dedicated and better hunters. But there were fewer of them, mechanical play-toys used by recreation seekers were virtually unknown and farming practices differed. The result? Less pressure and disturbance, more available food, nesting and escape cover.

One season early in our marriage, my wife took up hat making and requested the neck feathers from at least 25 roosters. I don't recall the season's length, but it was much shorter than presently. I had to hunt hard. But Tar and Clinker accounted for the bulk of them when I hit that number two days before the season's close. Daily bag limit was two roosters. With a couple of different dogs, I got two more the last day.

Thus, the still-young cocker had quite a few birds shot for him before we'd experienced fee payment shooting on released birds'¦every one a cock bird. Never a shot was fired when he got a hen out of cover. He loved to hunt and was good at it He'd find and flush either sex. But offered a choice, he selected males.

Later on, Tar confirmed this on shooting grounds we were invited to hunt where pen- raised pheasants were put out. A pheasant is a pheasant to most dogs, whether rooster or hen, whether wild or released, which is a blessing for anyone engaged in training gun dogs. But for a dog like Tar and several others I've enjoyed, they discerned the gender difference.

This perspicacity begins with a fine tuned nose. That is reinforced by sound and sight. Usually, roosters cackle when flushed. They obviously are strikingly different in appearance. In addition, likely there are more subtle tip-offs discernible to a dog's keener senses than to human perception. With plenty of experience, this confirms for a smart dog which sex is the desirable quarry, just as bird dogs learn on their own to ignore meadowlarks because hunters ignore them and other non-game field birds and don't shoot them.

Bring a Texas quail dog up to Minnesota, take him woodcock and ruffed grouse hunting. Chances are that not until some have been shot will that dog start pointing them. Up until then, they've been nothing but stink birds.

Tar was not steady to wing and shot. And a missed rooster would be chased out of sight, usually. But without training, like many other dogs he was "semi-steady" on hens. When a hen flew, there were no shots. He'd follow the bird for 20-30 yards, peel off the flight line and swing back to me to resume hunting. He'd absorbed from repetition the fact that it was futile to chase hens or the rare rooster that did not draw gunfire. But with hope in his heart, he'd shag a rooster for as long as he could see it, hit or miss, when a shot was fired.

Why? Because on occasion he'd been rewarded after a long chase. He'd found a bird that went down out of sight that I had written off as a miss. "Catching" and fetching what had eluded him by flying was the top award on his list. Sometimes, inexplicably, he'd short-chase a rooster that was fired at. No way I can prove it. But I like to believe his ears came into play as well. This time it was a clean miss. Almost invariably he had come to relate the sound of shot impacting the bird with something to fetch, even when a sloppy shot only tickled the bird. Clean misses (which seldom occur) turned him off; the thud or rattle of fine shot spurred him on.

Even with our faulty hearing, when shooting geese or ducks we've heard shot bounce off wings that didn't miss a beat. It's not an unreasonable assumption to credit the experienced dog's radar with picking out the sound and correlating that with the desirable mouthful of soft feathers.

It also would explain why it is easier to keep a retriever steady to wing and shot while you are training, testing and trialing with shackled, thrown birds (because they are reusable) than it is during a field trial in which flighted birds are actually shot. Shot impact excites a keyed up retriever.

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