September 23, 2010
Most of us know our definition of perfection when we see it.
I doubt that anyone truly knows what "perfect" is. We have a broad idea what it means--a thing without flaw; excellence implying an ideal type--but can we point at something and say with confidence, "That's a perfect dog" or "That's a perfect bird"? I think not.
Notions of perfection are too personal for sweeping certainty. Indeed, it's a rare soul that doesn't have opinions, often strongly held, about perfection.
That said, here's one of mine that combines gun dog and gamebird into a unity that as I see it is close to perfect. The dog? Any breed with a decent nose and a yen for game. The bird? The splendid American woodcock, aka timberdoodle.
I admit to a nearly lifelong intrigue with woodcock. What's not to love about this singular cousin of the shorebirds that eons past moved from ocean frontage to young upland forests, traded stylish feathering for subtly beautiful cryptic coloration, and adopted a here-today, gone-tomorrow lifestyle?
Everything about the woodcock is either fascinating or charming, usually both. From its two-inch-plus bill with a prehensile tip to disproportionately large eyes that can see front and rear, ears positioned forward of those eyes, and an upside-down brain, this diminutive bird--an eight-ounce woodcock is sizable--sets the bar for "different." Who could not be delighted by the woodcock's plump body, absurdly stubby tail, a bobbing jive-style of walk, a spring nuptial flight that captivates all who view it, and a softly quiet but deceptively challenging flush?
For dog people, an important piece of the woodcock's makeup is its hold-tight tendency in the face of a threat. Rather than nervously exploding into the air or sprinting off at a hint of danger, the woodcock depends on immobility and its leaf-litter camouflage of mottled brown and russet colors. Which means that dogs, flushing dogs in particular, can sometimes come perilously close to the bird before it gives up its hide and helicopters skyward.
I have a mind's eye image of a springer spaniel and a woodcock in the soft light of full dawn. The dog was a veteran hunter but rarely came to close quarters with skittish birds that would rather split than sit. But this morning the dog was locked onto a twisting trail that took him through thick cover into a small clearing not 10 yards to my front.
Leaves were drifting earthward when the springer shot forward, nose down and tail windmilling. The woodcock held until the last moment, then jumped into the falling leaves. In my mind, bird and dog will remain frozen well off the ground, with the leaping springer's jaws a hand's width from the woodcock's tail. The pursuit and, especially, the flush were a harmonious blend of bird and dog.
Woodcock are forgiving of inexperience or incompetence in gun dogs, a trait which makes them ideal for training youngsters of any working style and endears them to owners of dogs with limited talent. I'm not saying that any dog can successfully hunt woodcock, but their strong scent, general reluctance to run, and hold-tight tactics can make average dogs look good. However, these fine birds have enough tricks up their feathered sleeves--sprinting when they shouldn't, surprise ground-hugging flushes, and brief short-hopping flights--to challenge top-drawer dogs.
Sometimes, it seems that much of humanity is loathe to accept perfection; so it is with sportsmen and woodcock. Even these superior birds, some pointing-dog owners maintain, cast a negative shadow by holding too long and being overly forgiving. These traits, they say, encourage pointers to be incautious and to carelessly crowd less tolerant birds. And they have a point.
When woodcock are hunted to the exclusion of other birds, pointing dogs figure out that they can come nose-to-nose with hunkered down timberdoodles--I've seen a good many pointers locked up on birds that were a couple of feet, or less, from their noses. On the other hand, some of the better, more experienced dogs I've known that were trained on woodcock soon learned to flip their mental switch and work timberdoodles differently than, let's say, nervous ruffed grouse.
If I wasn't deeply into gun dogs, it's possible I would favor another gamebird. But since dogs have been a fixture in my life, I long ago demoted flashy ringnecks, gentleman bobwhites, explosive grouse and other birds to a status beneath the woodcock. Some of this fancy is due to their character and winning ways that cast a spell over me in the years of my youth. But a large measure is also the upland duet they perform so beautifully with dogs.
So, yes, give me a working gun dog of any stripe and a woodcock secure in its camouflage and I'll have, at least from my angle, a close to perfect union.