The ornately cloaked rooster pheasant’s shimmering tones vanished among the drab shades of snaking growth that draped what once was a bustling feedlot.
The downed bird’s iridescent purple and orange hues topped with distinctive insignia of vivid red and green screamed at the group stumbling from clump to clump where beeves once had lingered, but they didn’t see or hear anything. After a prolonged search that wasn’t the hunt anyone had in mind when they ventured into the frosty December morning, a youngster gazed down, snatched up the fallen bird by its unique tail and let out a crisp holler.
A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush.
However, in hunting, it’s worth at least twice that many.
Hundreds of thousands of wingshooters already have dusted off their shotguns and chased after the September staples in Texas that are doves and teal, and with quail and waterfowl seasons kicking off later in October, there will be no shortage of pellets flying through the rest of the year.
With that many men, women and children flinging lead and non-toxic shot in a variety of hunting situations, there are sure to be plenty of misses. However, there certainly also will be plenty of successes, which actually poses what research has shown to be an enduring issue.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department figures and federal data compiled since the 1930s, roughly 25 percent of ducks and geese shot by hunters either are lost or fly away wounded. Research also shows those waterfowl almost always suffer mortal injuries, with less than 3 percent surviving being hit with pellets. Most of those birds become easy pickings for a variety of predators. When you factor in the wounding loss rate to recent average harvest estimates, it means that each year more than 3 million waterfowl are lost annually in the United States and Canada.
When it comes to dove hunting, research has shown a wounding loss rate of about 30 percent, and federal estimates show that almost twice as many doves as waterfowl are lost annually. The dove loss figure in Texas, where hunters annually harvest more mourning and white-winged doves than anywhere else, would fall between 1.5 million and 2 million, according to those estimates.
You wouldn’t think a pheasant would be able to hide anywhere in the habitats it calls home, but I’ve seen a trio of roosters erupt from a shock of bunchgrass no bigger than a basketball. I’ve also observed the pursuit to find a downed ringneck that fell among nothing but shin-high scrub but may as well have been buried up to its eyeballs.
The most daunting quarry to locate after you’ve made a clean harvest is doves, which have a curious tendency of disappearing right in front of you. I’ve undoubtedly spent hours inspecting an assortment of Texas terrain hoping that I’ll get lucky to find a bird even though I marked the exact spot where it came to rest.
There’s no more sickening feeling for a hunter than walking up to where you thought a game bird fell and not find it. By the same token, there’s no greater delight than picking up said bird, especially if you’ve worked to locate it.
Dogs certainly come in handy in pointing out ground-dwelling birds both before and after the shot. However, I’ve also seen retrievers almost step on downed birds without finding them – which could be due to the different scents birds emit. Dust and other debris also can get in a dog’s nose if it’s worked for a long period and make it hard for canines to distinguish between what does or doesn’t smell birdy.
The best thing you can do before any bird hunting outing is to be prepared in a variety of angles. When it comes to your gear, there’s no substitute for knowing the capabilities and range of your shotgun with various loads and chokes. Most hunters think of turkey hunting when they decide to pattern their shotgun but it can be handy to know how your shooting iron spits out different shot sizes at varying distances for upland and migratory game bird scenarios. Practice also helps, and while it may not make perfect, it will up your odds for success.
In hunting scenarios, it’s also good to think about shot selection. You shouldn’t risk long shots because all you may accomplish is wounding birds that you never should have pointed a gun at, while flock shooting also poses a danger of multiple woundings.
The ideal way to locate a downed bird is to simply mark where you think it fell, as well as a nearby landmark, even if it’s something minor. On the way to locate a downed bird such as a dove you should avoid shooting at others until you’ve found it. I know I’ve been caught up in good hunts where doves seemed to be everywhere, but it also has added to the frustration of searching for one bird after you’ve lost your mark trying to note where another fell that you just swung on.
Beyond the feeling of guilt that can arise from not finding a downed quarry, there are rules that apply to game bird hunting when it comes to seeking out fallen birds. Wanton waste rules specify that hunters must make a “reasonable” effort to locate and retrieve all downed migratory game birds, though they may not cross onto private property to do so. Without permission from a landowner, it’s trespassing.
If a game warden saw you knock down birds and not attempt to retrieve them or prove otherwise that you didn’t, they could theoretically count those against your daily bag and if you went over that limit they could cite you for unlawful take and possession of migratory birds. That type of criminal violation could cost a hunter between $25 and $500 for each bird over the limit and a civil restitution figure also could be tacked on for each. You also could face suspension or revocation of hunting privileges under the dual aspect that a violation of a state migratory game bird regulation also is a violation of a federal regulation.