Old Habits Die Hard

Old Habits Die Hard

At the grave of the unknown bird hunter

Some time back, here in these pages, I announced my intention to make the switch from upland birds to waterfowl. This intent emerged from a hard look at the signs of the times here in my home state of Iowa.

The author and Woody with something important.

State government cars, driven by those entrusted with the guardianship of our natural resources, now wear bumper stickers proudly announcing, "This car fueled with 85 percent ethanol." So the government has enlisted itself with agribusiness and the bio-fuels industry in a great Sherman's March to extirpate grass from our landscape. The pheasants, of course, are going with the grass, because they cannot lay their eggs in corn. Here in the "Heartland," a strange new day has arrived when riding a bicycle or even filling up with Regular have become bold forms of civil disobedience.

This year alone, Iowa has lost another 450,000 acres of CRP to the plows, and pheasant hunter numbers are predicted to plummet as many folks understandably lose interest. Add this to the 800,000 acres we lost with the passage of the 1996 Farm Bill, and the total comes to more than 2,000 square miles of lost habitat in the Hawkeye State. Imagine a six-mile-wide band of grass from Nebraska to Illinois — gone.

Meanwhile, record moisture levels and the current pond-happy fancies of suburban landscape designers have brought back the Good Ol' Days for ducks and geese. Because Iowa is not a major waterfowl breeding ground, the lack of grass here affects our duck hunting relatively little, and the honkers have shown that they are perfectly happy to nest in the landscaping. We will continue to have decent fall flights at least until Sherman gets to Canada, or the suburbs. The writing seems to be on the wall: hang up thy canvas chaps, and take decoys unto thyself.

But I can't pull it off. The failure certainly isn't from a lack of trying, either. Two years ago I bought a Labrador retriever. I learned how to call geese and how to tune duck and goose calls for just the right pitch and rasp. My decoy shelves are stacked higher than ever with plastic facsimiles of mallards, honkers, teal, and wood ducks. Last year I shot a lot of ducks and geese, but still couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I was wasting days that could have been spent hunting birds. For me, "birds" will always refer to creatures with no flesh between their toes.

Speaking of Labrador retrievers, Woody seems to be a bird hunter at heart, too. I figured he would love waterfowl hunting, being a Labrador and all, but he has given the lie to that stereotype. Sure, he likes to retrieve ducks. But he hunts pheasants with intense desire and absolute aplomb.

As Labs go, Woody is rather slender and leggy — an ideal build for running in the uplands. He almost never strays beyond a comfortable distance from the gun. He has excellent olfactory judgment, knowing when to put his nose to the ground for foot scent, when to keep it high for molecules on the breeze, and how to interpret the results in either case. In short, he might be the best pheasant dog I've ever owned — maybe the best I've ever seen. I bought him to make a switch, but he keeps trying to take me back to where my heart has always been.

Or did he turn out that way because he lives with me?

Woody brings in a rooster from a rare grass field in Iowa.

In truth, I've never succeeded at making any of my dogs into ace waterfowl fetchers, partly because my own heart simply isn't there. I think our dogs acquire their passions from us, to some extent. That's not to say they don't have a mind of their own, but we surely influence their desires through socialization. Although a dog in my house will certainly see the marshes from time to time, no dog is likely to be socialized into passionate waterfowl retrieving by a man who sits in a duck blind listening for pheasants and quail.

As an example, I once bought a Brittany from a NAVHDA breeder, thinking I might get into the "versatile dog" game, but the whim didn't last. In the end, I don't think the dog ever got wet in his life, except from rain or the morning dew. He was pure magic on prairie chickens, Huns and sharpies, though.

Another time, I petitioned NAHRA to allow Rascal, my English cocker, to test for the Started Retriever title. Cockers weren't listed among the approved "retriever" breeds, but I had done a lot of work with Rascal on lining and casting, and he could swim some pretty long marks for a dog that fits in your lap. The NAHRA man told me to go for it, and said it would be pretty neat to see Rascal become the first-ever NAHRA titled cocker. But I never got around to it. The dry land birds were too much in my bones, I guess.

In any case, I'm fortunate to have so good a good pheasant-finder as Woody, because the pheasants are getting damned hard to find around here. Poor Woody: if the world were a fairer place, he would live with a family of South Dakotans. But he loves and is loved by my three daughters, and thus even a dearth of birds fails to persuade him that he is not a very lucky dog.

So I suppose Woody and I will keep on keeping-on to the very end, sticking to what we know and believe. I know that we're both better at hunting upland birds than waterfowl. (That isn't saying much, but it is saying something.) I believe pheasants are somehow important even though a capitalistic society has no means of assigning them value unless they are raised in pens.

I believe the dollar is not the only way to conceptualize poverty, and so humanity is impoverished by the loss of wild pheasants. I believe the day I stop hunting pheasants will be the day I stop hunting completely. Would I willingly "hang up my vest," so to speak? I doubt it. Being relatively young yet, I might become one of the last bird hunters in Iowa, the stubborn type who never dies but simply fades away with the birds until the day when we all disappear together.

Dear reader, I commend you for following me this far. These days few readers have the patience for good-old-fashioned lamentation, the sort of literature that simply mourns a sad state of affairs without offering fixes in three easy steps. This column is, after all, called A Bird Hunter's Diary. A diary is a place where one records the honest thoughts one has when one isn't trying to fix things, and the following are just a few things I cannot or would not fix, though I often think about them.

He has excellent olfactory judgment, knowing when to put his nose to the ground for foot scent, when to keep it high for molecules on the breeze, and how to interpret the results in either case.

The place where I live is no country for birds. But the people I love are here and aren't leaving, so I am stuck here by love. Better to be stuck by love than free and lonely, which is, in truth, no real kind of freedom. Blessed is the South Dakotan who has both love and birds. Some of us must choose, and I choose love.

When the end comes, unmanned satellite-guided tractors will run long straight lines over the grave of the Unknown Bird Hunter, cutting naked furrows in emaciated soil where waddling crowds of suburban honkers fatten themselves on ammonia-fed corn. Camo-clad men will rev their Go-Devil motors in salute to the renascence of the Good Ol' Days, as the Last Bird Hunter fades from human memory. His disappearance will scarcely disturb the needle on Iowa society's monitor of significance, no more than the vanishing of the last wild, nest-born bird.

But I can't think of better company with whom to fade away.

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