My first English springer spaniel pup arrived nearly 40 years ago while southeastern Pennsylvania was alive with wild pheasants. Those pheasants played a major role in developing my first few springers.
Jump forward nearly 20 years to my fortuitous involvement with the Valley Forge Field Trial Association. Ed Whitaker, its honcho, owned, licensed and maintained dog training grounds nearby, and regularly kept both pigeons and pheasants penned there. That is where I learned the real value of birds.
Birds allow you to accomplish so many different things–critical things–that with a gun dog there is just no substitute. Trainers and authors recommend using birds and planting birds, but they rarely say how best to use them or how to plant them.
Pointing dogs usually do not need as many birds shot over them because they often are not required to retrieve. Their trainers have the luxury of using homing pigeons and/or quail. Both return to their pen after use, thus saving a significant amount of money.
Spaniel trainers shoot most planted birds during training, however, so cost is a significant factor. On the other hand, training a dog on wild birds is no longer possible in the East (if it really ever was) so if you genuinely want a good gun dog you must pay for training birds…plenty of birds. I do not believe it is easy finding, accessing and training on wild birds in many other regions of the country, either.
Pigeons and hen pheasants are the traditional birds used for training flushing dogs. If one can be guaranteed strong flushing chukars, they work well, too, and are a bit less expensive than hen pheasants. A bonus with pheasants and chukars is that they are good to eat, so care for them once they’re shot. We generally just “breast” these birds; they are especially good grilled.
Avoid quail with flushing dogs, as they regularly flush too low and encourage your dog to break or chase. For the same reason, they often offer unsafe shooting scenarios, as well.
Good, wild pigeons make great training birds, and are generally less expensive than gamebirds. They are fairly hardy, flush and fly well, and have adequate scent for gun dog training.
Pigeons can often be trapped or caught without going too far, are available from farmers who have kids catching them, or are available at some livestock auctions in farm country. Bridges and highway underpasses sometimes offer opportunities to catch pigeons, but try to keep a low profile. If someone observes you trapping pigeons, never tell them you are going to shoot the pigeons for your hunting dogs. (Check the legality of such trapping in your state.)
Trapping and shooting pigeons for dog training is legal in Pennsylvania, where I live. Not everyone approves, however, so do not be overly public or vocal about using/shooting birds, even wild pigeons.
How to keep birds is outside the scope of this article, though keeping small numbers of pigeons for short periods of time is quite simple. Just be sure to keep them protected from predators, and provide food (for example, cracked corn) and fresh water.
Planting pigeons is easy. Grasp one over its back, holding its wings against its sides. Spin the pigeon’s upper body using your wrist and forearm until the bird can no longer hold its neck and head straight. Once the head is rotating easily and loosely, continue for 10 seconds or so, then check to see if the bird’s eyes and head are droopy. If they are droopy the bird is ready to be “planted,” or tossed on the ground in light cover. Pigeons have a difficult time flushing/flying from heavy cover.
Occasionally a pigeon will fly away immediately upon hitting the ground; other times it will not move even when the dog is lunging for it. Experience and practice will solve (mostly) the problems of how much to dizzy the bird.
If the cover is too thick for pigeons to flush from, use a gas-powered weed whacker or a sickle to cut a circle about 36 inches in diameter in the cover, making what I call a “launch pad.” Once you plant or toss a pigeon onto the pad, move your dog toward it fairly fast so the bird does not walk into the cover surrounding the pad, which might enable the dog to catch it in the thick cover.
Hen pheasants are slightly harder to plant than pigeons, but with a little practice it is easily mastered. Be aware of wind direction, especially with young dogs that should be worked into the wind to help them find the bird.
Hens are generally used for training because they are less expensive, and more importantly, are unlikely to run out of the county the way cock birds do.
Birds running too much in training brings us to a sticky point. Some trainers tie a pheasant’s legs fairly close together with yarn or rubber bands so the bird cannot race away, especially when working with young and/or inexperienced dogs. There are those who frown on that, so one might be wise to keep that to oneself.
Again, check with your state’s game department about using pheasants for dog training, and be sure to follow those regulations.
Hold the pheasant firmly with two hands, with its wings to its sides. Hold the bird against your body with one hand so the other hand is free, and use the free hand to grab the bird’s head and tuck the head under one wing. Then keep both wings tight to the bird’s body with the bird’s head under its wing until you are ready to place the bird on the ground. Place the bird on its side in moderate cover.
The bird should be placed on its side on the wing that covers its head. Hold the bird against the ground with one hand to ensure that its head remains under the wing. Use your free hand to grab both lower legs, and gently/gradually pull both legs straight out behind the bird as far as they will extend.
Pause with the hen’s head tucked under the wing, and the legs fully extended for several moments; you will feel the bird relax. Once the bird relaxe
s, release the bird, stand immediately and walk away quickly without looking back.
That last part–not looking back at the bird–is very important, though I am not totally sure why. I do know that when bird planters do not walk away quickly, or worse, look back at the bird, the birds often flush prematurely, costing you money and time by wasting birds.
Part of the reason birds flush prematurely when looked at by the bird planter is that the bird sees, and likely makes eye contact with, the bird planter. Prey species, including pheasants, do not like being spotted by predators, including man, and try to escape if they feel they are spotted.
If your cover is modest to light, plant pheasants or chukars next to a piece of heavy cover, rather than in the heavy cover. Gamebirds tend to move quickly, but not far, when they first pop their head up after being planted, to see where they are. It is better if the bird pops its head up, sees the heavy cover close by and moves into the cover on its own, rather than lifting its head in heavy cover but moving into lighter cover while trying to determine its location.
If the cover is heavy and birds are having difficulty flushing before being “picked up” or grabbed by the dog, plant the pheasants differently. With the bird held in two hands with its head under its wing, transfer the bird to one hand and “roll” it into the cover, similarly to using a slow bowling motion. Walk quickly and quietly away, and do not look back at the bird.
If the cover is very heavy one can hold the bird with two hands, head under its wing, and give it a two-handed chest pass into the cover as if one were passing a basketball to another player. Walk quickly and quietly away, and do not look at the bird.
With the first method–head tucked under wing, legs pulled out straight behind the bird–the bird will pretty much stay put, but not all day.
With the last two methods the bird will likely pop its head right up and perhaps come right to its feet. Hopefully/probably it will hunker down as long as the bird planter walks away quickly and does not look back at the bird.
And finally…one last tip: If scenting conditions are bad, especially if it is dry, spray your bird’s underside with water before planting.
Remember, the best bird planters occasionally have birds fly off prematurely, as well as plant birds “too tight” so that dogs pick them up. Planting birds is like much of life; it takes time and practice.
Next time we will look at different ways to use birds besides planting them and allowing your gun dog to find and flush them.