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How to Find and Use Training Birds for Gun Dogs

An overview on locating and working with training birds.

How to Find and Use Training Birds for Gun Dogs

With a goal for our dogs to properly handle wild birds during the hunting season, training birds become an essential component of many off-season bird dog training programs. (Chris Ingram photo)

The Post Office erupted 30 minutes after I received the call from the Postmaster.

“You have a box of birds here,” the Postmaster said.

“Great, I’ll be over in a few hours to pick them up,” I said.

“Can you make it sooner.”


“I suppose so, is there a problem?”

“Yes, they really stink.”

Each year, post offices around the country receive their share of odd packages and a case of quail was it for mine. I didn’t think it was a big deal for the birds were impeccably packaged in a durable, double-wall box. Two handles were on each side, and the regularly spaced holes were small enough to keep the birds contained but large enough to circulate air. That latter bit was the gripe at the post office, for it was short handle for the barnyard smell that wafted through the building. It’s normal for a 2-day delivery, but that doesn’t mean postmasters won’t like it.  

The Advantages of Using Training Birds 

Make no mistake, birds in captivity smell different from those in the wild, but they come with additional benefits, too. We can use them for dog training, and in that regard, they are well worth any trouble. Some are small and dainty, others are large and robust, and still others are in between. Before you buy, think about your training areas, your training goals, where you’ll keep and feed your birds, and your budget. Here’s a roundup of some commonly used birds and their application when working with bird dogs.


dog retrieving a duck
Think about your training goals and your hunting style to determine which type of training birds and drills can best help you achieve your objectives. (Nathan Ratchford photo)

Pigeons are a renewable resource. They’re strong fliers, they hold tight, and if you have homers and a coop, they’ll fly back home. Pigeons are hardy so there isn’t a lot of coop mortality. Plus, you can trap them yourself which helps keep down costs. Throw them with a pup on whoa table, toss them with a bird dog or versatile dog on a check cord, or throw them from a launcher.

Bobwhite quail get a mixed rap. On the pro side they are excellent for pointing dog training as they aren’t big runners. They’re the least expensive of pen-raised birds, and if you’re looking for more volume, it’s here. The con side is that they may not be strong fliers out of the box, and they’re a bit on the delicate side. Add them to a field planted with millet and grasses or fly them in a flight pen and they’ll quickly approximate to levels close to the real deal.

Hungarian partridge hold tight for a medium-sized bird before rocketing into the air. They can be placed as singles, pairs, or a small covey. Their natural coloring blends in with most natural conditions and their recall is slightly longer than quail. They’re an affordable excellence that are sometimes hard to find.

Chukar partridge are medium-sized birds that are strong, durable, and good runners. Because of their size you’ll need two things: larger storage areas and more feed. Their cost is moderate, and they’re good for bird dogs, flushers, and versatile dogs.

Ring-necked pheasant are the largest upland birds used in dog training. They’re strong fliers, and most hunters know that they’re track stars. As with chukars, you’ll need more room and feed, and they cost the most of any of the birds. Hens cost less than cocks, but they’re ideal if you have a field managed for training. They’ll run as soon as they’re released if you don’t sleep them hard, and if you don’t have feed and cover for them then they usually won’t come back. Based on their cost, training can get very expensive.

Ducks are favored by retriever and versatile dog owners. As ducks like water you’ll need a pen with a pond if you want to keep them healthy for an extended amount of time.

Wild birds come without a close substitute. Wild birds behave like…wild birds. Many states have restrictions against running dogs on wild birds during the spring and early summer months. That’s a great thing, so plan your training so that it’s either before or after nesting season. Check with your state wildlife agency for specific details of when you can run your string in the woods.

American woodcock
Woodcock provide an excellent wild bird training opportunity, just be sure to check with your state for regulations during nesting season. (Photo courtesy of Tom Keer)

Where to Acquire Training Birds  

Training birds from local sources are always the best option. Look for hatcheries that supply state stocking areas, rod and gun clubs, and commercial hunting operations to see if you can buy some birds. Join a field trial club or training organization as they regularly buy birds to release for training, trialing, and testing. If you live in a more remote area you can always mail order them. You can also search local listings such as Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist for hobbyists who sell homing pigeons or barn pigeons.

Permitting   

Before acquiring and releasing birds, check with your state wildlife agency regarding permitting and the importation of training birds. There are a variety of rules and regulations for commercial hunting operations, for field trial clubs, and for personal use. The public and private land issue is important, so check with your wildlife agency to be compliant. In my state the permits are free, and the goal is to make sure that released birds are disease-free.

A pair of ring-necked pheasant roosters on the ground
Check with your state wildlife agency about importation and permitting of training birds, such as ring-necked pheasants, quail, chukar and Huns. (Photo courtesy of Tom Keer)

Keeping Training Birds

Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and that’s especially true when storing birds. If you’ve got a coop or a johnny house, make sure it’s off the ground to reduce bird kills by predators. The flooring should have a heavy-gauge screen to allow feces to drop through. Add in feed and grit trays (or mix together) and some fresh water and you’ll keep ‘em healthy. Birds need grit to digest their feed and cold water can kill birds. If you keep them long enough a dusting area helps them keep bugs off.

The bigger the birds the bigger your house. With houses, be sure not to pack in too many birds. They’ll get stressed and peck each other to death. A house with a recall funnel lets released birds rejoin the flock after training. Leave a few birds in the house so they’ll call the others back. Know that predators like foxes, coyotes, snakes, and the like will zero in on the birds. Coops and johnny houses that are off the ground solve some of those problems, so give some thought about where the birds will live.

If you’re keeping birds for a season you might want to clip some beaks and add some hay to the bottom of your cage. Your dog’s toenail cutters are fine for clipping beaks. Pheasant in particular will pick at other birds, and when they draw blood, they can become cannibals. They also focus on feet, and the hay gives aggressive birds something else to focus on.

Where to Train with Birds

If you’ve got a few acres behind your house and can convert it to a training ground, then you’ve got it licked. A mix of food and cover crops keep birds around, and they fly hard and behave more naturally. If you’ve got enough turf to mix and match your birds, then you can really develop next-level dogs.  

American woodcock
The use of training birds in a controlled scenario can be an ideal way to introduce your young dog to birds and teach them how to properly handle bird contacts. (Kali Parmley photo)

In many parts of the country, that’s not always that easy. Look for large tracks of land that are accessible to the public. Ask a farmer for permission or check in with your local field trial club to see if their grounds are open. Commercial hunting operations often allow trainers to come in. Professional dog trainers sometimes allow folks to train, especially if you’ve bought a pup from them.

When you’re ready to train you’ll grab a few birds, load them in a box or a cage, and plant them yourself. Avoid rainy days as released birds don’t fly well when they’re wet. Having a good supply of training birds helps keep gun dogs sharp and focused. They’re ideal when you can’t run on wild birds, for short summer sessions, and for all levels of training. The only downside is if you have to pick them up at the post office. But even then, you get a funny story worth retelling.  

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