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Training and Hunting Wild vs. Pen-Raised Birds

Are birds just birds, or is there a difference for you and your gun dog?

Training and Hunting Wild vs. Pen-Raised Birds

The hunt for wild birds is challenging and exciting but watching dogs run on planted birds can be just as much fun. (Mark Chesnut photo)

The female setter was staunch on her point, tail and head high, her entire body quivering with the anticipation of what was to come. I felt the adrenaline rush I have always felt when walking into flush pointed birds with shotgun in hand, not much less intense than the first such time some five decades earlier. The bird flushed, my gun fired—seemingly on its own—and the bird dropped from amid a puff of feathers. In mere moments, the dog brought the beautiful male bobwhite to me and placed it in my hand.

Was the bobwhite I had just shot a wild bird, or a pen-raised, released bird? In this case it was the latter, but my appreciation for the hunt, the point, the shot, and the bird in hand was no less than if it had been a wild bobwhite. That’s because I chose years ago to fully appreciate every hunt, every point, and every shot, regardless of the circumstances in this beautiful lifestyle we call bird hunting.

red setter pointing a bird in a field
A bird in the hand should be considered a victory of teamwork with your dog, no matter if it was wild or pen-raised. (Mark Chesnut photo)

Much Ado About Something?

Making a great bird dog when quail were so numerous wasn’t a hard job. Get a young dog into 10 or 12 wild coveys every weekend, and the birds will soon teach a dog all it needs to know.

Fast forward 50-plus years and wild quail are fairly difficult to find, even in western Oklahoma. To compound the difficulty, many of the best quail properties are now leased for hunting, leaving the average Oklahoma quail hunter to walk the soles of his boots off on public hunting land with decidedly lower populations. Sure, I still hunt plenty of wild birds, but most of my training these days is done with pen-raised birds, and I even shoot a dozen or so “tame” birds each year on various hunting preserves. 

Training: The Upside of Pen-Raised Birds

While many trainers would rather not admit it, there are plenty of advantages to using pen-raised birds, whether quail, chukars, or pheasants. Here are a few.

They’re fairly easy to find – In my area, I have four or five different quail breeders where I get birds from on a regular basis. With the exception of the period between about the middle of April and the middle of June, I can nearly always find a dozen or so that I can pick up pretty easily. Check your local bird dog groups on social media or Craigslist to find bird breeders in your area.

They’re comparably inexpensive – At about $5 per quail or pigeon and $8 per chukar, there’s a lot to be said for training on pen-raised birds, financially speaking. If you need to travel across two or three states and stay all summer to work dogs on wild birds, you’re going to be spending a lot more money than simply buying birds.  

They’ll usually stay where you put them – While this can be a disadvantage, in many training scenarios having a bird that stays put where you want it to is a big advantage. Once you get the hang of it, you can dizzy a pen-raised bird to stay where you put it for 10 minutes or so and still be able to fly when you go in to flush it.

You can use them any time – Always check state regulations, but in most states, you can use pen-raised birds any time. Compare that to training on wild birds when it’s advisable to stop during the nesting and brood-rearing season—it’s even mandated in some states on public lands—and planted birds are more of a year-round deal.

They can increase the number of bird contacts your dog gets – More bird contacts, if handled correctly, is always a good thing. With pen-raised birds you have more control over many of the variables of a scenario, you can get your dog more reps in a controlled situation.

red setter pointing a bird in a field
Bird dogs are developed over time; pen-raised birds are a great way to offer your dog multiple bird contacts. (Mark Chesnut photo)

They can help with summer conditioning and steadying – Running dogs in summer is always iffy because of hot weather in many places. Having a pen-raised bird or two to reward them by planting after a run can make the drudgery of summer training more attractive to your dog. They’re also great for steadying a pointing dog to wing and shot, since they tend to stay where you put them, especially if you dizzy them first.

Training: The Downside of Pen-Raised Birds

Of course, there are also some down sides—some much worse than others. Consider the following.

They often fly poorly – Despite the best efforts of breeders and extensive flight pen facilities, some pen-raised birds just don’t fly well. That can be a disaster in the making if a young dog catches a bird or two. In my 50 years of hunting wild quail, I’ve never seen a dog catch a wild quail that wasn’t sick or injured.

They don’t prepare your dog well for wild birds – It’s possible to have a dog pointing and holding pen-raised birds beautifully, only to see it turn into a complete spaz when it comes to wild birds. Sizable coveys put some dogs into an entirely different gear than you knew they had and running birds can teach both you and your dogs some tricks you might not really need to learn.

They can make your dog lazy – If you put out a few birds 200 yards from the truck every time you go train, you can teach your dog that if he doesn’t find a bird in the first few minutes, there’s not any out there. Likewise, putting birds along the road or trail can create a dog that only wants to run down the beaten path.

It’s easy to teach your dog to hunt the wrong places – Similar to the previous disadvantage, it’s easy to get lazy using pen-raised birds and inadvertently teach your dog to hunt in the wrong places. Dropping a quail in that one sizable piece of brush in a 60-acre mowed pasture won’t teach your dog about quail behavior like putting a bird or two 500 yards down that long tree line. You know that tree line you’d like your dog to take to the end but he seldom does because he keeps seeing that isolated bush out in the open and knows there is usually a bird there.

red setter pointing near a bush
Be careful not to teach your dog bad habits when training and hunting with pen-raised birds. (Mark Chesnut photo)

Hunting Wild vs. Pen-Raised Birds

Most people who have hunted both will tell you there is more excitement, brain work, and sense of accomplishment in successfully pursuing wild birds. That said, hunting pen-raised birds can provide wonderful comradery, good dog work, and some good eats as a result. In the end, we make our own decision on which birds we will hunt and when we will hunt them.

As for me, I’ll chase wild birds as much as I possibly can, good populations or poor. That’s what I grew up doing, and I’ll never lose my love for it. But if I have an opportunity to go to a preserve for a half-day, pen-raised bird hunt with family and friends, you won’t find me staying at home and preaching about those “stupid, tame quail” when I could be out enjoying the wonderful sport of bird hunting.

Two brothers enjoying the post-hunt with their dogs
Take wild vs pen-raised out of the equation and your left with the same ingredients for a great hunt—outdoor adventure, camaraderie, good dog work, and fine table fare. (Mark Chesnut photo)
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