Pigeons And Crows
September 23, 2010
Both provide plenty of action for the gunner, but only one is Gun Dog-Safe.
(Question) Because they're usually deserved, I get a kick out of your answers when you pay back snotty inquiries. But you often state that there are no stupid questions. I hope you don't treat this as one, either. I never have been able to understand why barn pigeons are so much used and recommended by professional field dog trainers. Won't this confuse or distract a dog while hunting? I don't get much chance to hunt and I don't want my dog spending time chasing non-game birds. Who hunts pigeons? Why waste shells on those pests? Reason or reasons, please. (Indiana)
(Answer) Being "pests" and not classified as protected birds, in most jurisdictions, pigeons can be used for training pretty much when or wherever a trainer chooses to work his dogs. Perhaps equally important, they are readily available and the cheapest training birds.
But they have any number of other characteristics that aid bird dog trainers. When hunted, they offer practice and a most natural training scenario (similar to dove or duck shooting) year around, with shooting challenges and no bag limits.
They display more durability, toughness and stronger flight than is exhibited by planted or recently released pen-raised gamebirds. Easily contained and maintained, they will return to a barn or pigeon loft when missed or passed by in training sessions. In contrast to too many expensive, pen-raised gamebirds, they fly whether flushed, thrown or trap-sprung.
To a retriever or spaniel, a bird is a bird is a bird. Anything knocked down or chased up is game for them, smaller trash birds included. If you are worried about one of the pointing breeds getting mixed up, you'll encounter pigeons afield even less than you will doves. The unwillingness of feral rock doves (pigeons) to hold for a dog's point should concern you no more than meadowlarks or killdeers.
During training, however, it is most efficient to teach a pointing dog manners with controlled birds. It's virtually impossible to well train a dog today exclusively on native birds, and it's very costly to buy stocked birds or releases.
There is also good reason to believe pigeons are preferable to acknowledged sporting game during basic training. With most pointing breeds, when ensuring staunchness and steadiness--no matter what common or unique procedure is used--a trainer must crack down on the dog. This has application to flushing breeds as well.
Poorly timed or mistakenly severe reprimands will cause an adverse reaction with many dogs: softening, slinking, spooking, shying from or "blinking" (actually leaving located birds). Such dogs have come to associate unpleasant punishment with the quarry. They want no part of those damned things.
When such recalcitrance occurs using non-game pigeons in serious training (if the dog is well bred and performing up to snuff at this juncture) it will take less work (often times none at all) to get him back on track. When you throttle back on the yard-training and take him afield for work on native or stocked game birds, he'll differentiate between the pigeons which caused him "harm" and something very different, exciting and interesting, be he pointer, flusher or retriever.
(Question) I used to stretch out my bird shooting time by going crow shooting during the March migration and right after the young came off the nests around Memorial Day. My Chesapeake got a lot of off-season, no-cost training back then. Now we have closed seasons on crows, as if these nest robbers were desirable and had gotten scarce. Not only are crows pestering real game and robbing waterfowl and upland birds nests, they're carrying that bad bird disease. None of my friends would touch them even if they could shoot them.
Back in the 1950s when you were outdoor writing in the newspapers, you wrote a lot about crow hunting tactics. But I was surprised to learn that you also did a black and white movie with the skeet shooter Ed Scherer and the old Conservation Department's photographer, Staber Reese, as I recall your newspaper being at odds with a lot of the CD people and am surprised the powers that be let you participate.
Now that I've established that I remember you from "way back when," please answer my double-forked question. Why didn't you write about using dogs on crows (whether you did or didn't) for "free" retrieving practice, and are you surprised at the practices and regulations (pro or con) that have come about in the past 50 years? (Wisconsin)
(Answer) Let's do dogs first and violate my self-imposed rule to refrain from writing about anything without having done it myself--in this case, giving a gun dog some retrieving practice by having him fetch crows. As you noted, I did do a good deal of crow hunting "way back when." But I never used a dog of my own to retrieve crows, nor recommended it to readers as a possible training technique, for what is perhaps a fuss-budget reason--possible, if not probable, harm to the dog.
A crippled crow will not be a more dangerous adversary than a goose or a cock pheasant, except for one thing--its instinct to strike, peck, poke or pick up any shiny object. Growing up, my son and daughters had an assortment of animal pets: frogs, fish, baby and adult raccoons, chipmunks and squirrels, a fledgling hawk, even a porcupine dubbed Mr. Ouch...and "tame" crows. Those birds were a blast to have around and they hit on everything reflecting light: coins, saddle and bridle trappings, knife blades, clothes pins, buttons, whatever'¦like shiny dog eyes.
In simplest terms, then, I never gave my dogs retrieving practice on crows because I was afraid of the potential risk'¦unless the crow was killed cleanly (which, I'm sure you'll agree, is hard to guarantee), there was always the danger that the wounded bird would nail a dog in the eye as the dog was attempting a pick-up. To my thinking, at least, this risk far outweighed the advantages of any additional retrieving practice afforded by having a dog fetch crows.
There's no denying, however, that feathers in the mouth are an important factor absent in much of today's gun dog training. With all the pressure from political and spiteful "friends" of critters, it is safe to predict that before too long we'll be crowning "field champion" bird dogs that have never retrieved an actual bird. Non-hunters who enjoy obedience training don't have to buy a "ticket to the game" (hunting license) or suffer the taunts and curses of radical demonstrators and lawbreakers if they limit themselves to playing "gun dog games" with inanimate objects (retrieving dummies).
Your specific dog question ties in, therefore, with your wonder about 50-60 years of "progress." So let's consider the partial protection of crows that now puts them on a par with ducks, pheasant, grouse, et al., and the complete protection of horned owls, hawks and any predatory raptors. Half a century ago, hunters were allowed and encouraged to exert pr
essure on these bandits. But as with human criminals, authorities now "parole" crows that prey upon song- and gamebirds and their nests.
Half a century back, when a hunting club found some beheaded birds in the holding pen or a farmer glimpsed a fox running off with a goose slung over its shoulder, those businessmen were considered justified in protecting their livestock by trapping any fox or shooting any raptor hovering over the pen roof netting until the frantic birds started offering their heads through the mesh.
There was no shortage of owls and hawks. But property owners who shot any varmint that showed up were expected to select the one responsible, because there might be non-guilty rascals in the area. When people with nothing personal against raptors, but trying to protect their investment and some desirable wild game as well, turned to "pole trapping" (on the reasonable assumption that if a raptor put his foot into a small trap placed on top of a pole next to the bird pen, he was there to harass and kill the birds) this very selective but highly effective method of predator control was eventually deemed illegal. Perhaps not surprisingly, a complete ban on destroying these predators was ultimately enacted.
Thanks for leading me down one offshoot of memory's lane. I've come to accept as fact the political wisdom that asserts, "You can't beat city hall." But like the venerable chromatic female equine, this old wide world of hunting just ain't what she used to be.