One perfect bird

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One perfect bird is far, far more rewarding than a limit of fortuitous birds, and the recollection of the hunt for that bird will strike sparks in your memories of great moments afield long after dozens of easily brought-to-bag birds have faded to smoky, half-forgotten images.

One perfect bird

Some time ago, 30 years at least, the hunter’s archetypal goal of “bagging a limit” of birds in the course of a day’s hunt lost its urgency and luster, its once sacred place as a tenet of my outdoor ethic. Perhaps this is because shooting a limit of birds seemed too often wayward and therefore lacked any sense of achievement or even satisfaction.

There came a morning when I shot three rooster pheasants in less than a half hour in the field, all of them serendipitous gifts of the Red Gods. On the mildest of October days, my springer spaniel Molly and I stumbled upon them unexpectedly in thin cover, each bird was an easy shot, and her retrieves were routine and mundane.

Before the true exhilaration and enchantment of this opening day’s hunt had even begun, it was over. If shooting a limit is the quintessence of the sport I should have been (with three sets of gaudy tail feathers jutting from the bag of my bird vest) floating back to my pickup in an aura of rapture, or at least flushed with feelings of success and fulfillment. In fact, I felt empty and even a bit disappointed.

I had come to that time of a bird hunter’s life when the act of hunting, not simply the taking of game, was the source of the day’s enjoyment, to that moment of awareness that a bird in the hand is most assuredly not worth two in the bush. Molly was of the same mind. In her travel box on the drive home I could hear her singing the canine version of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”

That was the year a new goal emerged for my days afield with bird dog and bird gun: the perfect bird. The perfect bird, whether it is a pheasant, sharptail grouse, prairie chicken, woodcock, ruffed grouse, quail, gray partridge, chukar, or other gamebird, is the one that has found shelter in a hidden covert that requires the hunter to do some investigation and exploration to locate. It is a wild bird, not a game farm sacrificial fowl, that has a stock of survival skills to outwit predators, including humans. It is the bird that requires good dog work to find, track, stalk, and hold to point.

The perfect bird can be counted on to fly suddenly and erratically from an unlikely place somewhere in the vicinity of your dog’s point. Expect the rooster to flush at 20 yards, and it will burst from the grass right at your feet. Expect it to hold tight and there it goes, 20 yards behind you.

In summary, the perfect bird is wild and wily, hard to hunt, a challenge for the dogs, a tough target to shoot on the wing, and an escape artist when down. Taking the perfect bird requires all the skills of an experienced hunter, working in perfect coordination with his dogs, who has invested time and energy to make himself a good shooter. At its best, the day’s hunt for the perfect bird will have a touch of raw weather, some difficult terrain, several moments of decision (or indecision), and a few disappointments when the bird has outmaneuvered us.

One perfect bird is far, far more rewarding than a limit of fortuitous birds, and the recollection of the hunt for that bird will strike sparks in your memories of great moments afield long after dozens of easily brought-to-bag birds have faded to smoky, half-forgotten images. I cannot know for certain, of course, but the ecstatic body language of my dogs leads me to believe that they feel the same way; the most perfect bird was the toughest one of the season.

I am not suggesting that I am averse to continuing the day’s hunt after that rare, perfect bird is in my hand. I have had many three-bird days after experiencing the epiphany of that opening morning 30-plus years ago, and the less-than-perfect bird or birds on those bag-limit days have been a nice counterpoint to the ultimate. But it is anticlimactic, and there have been days when I should have packed it in and spent the remaining hours sitting on the tailgate with my dogs, drinking coffee and admiring the perfect bird on display before us rather than going back on stage for a lackluster encore. Not unlike an evening’s second cigar and bottle of wine, or attempt at love making, it’s almost certain to be disappointing.

A rite of this blood sport I pursue, taking the perfect bird is something of a minor miracle. We are not going to experience the perfect bird on every day’s hunt, maybe not even one day in three in the field. But when it happens it is an exposition of the bird hunter’s life opus, a dramatic performance of the complicated, metaphysical treatise that explains and reveals the primal emotions that compel us to hunt.

The perfect bird is one of life’s supreme moments. I count myself fortunate if even one of the day’s quarry is taken in the mode of “the perfect bird”; I have never in 50 years of hunting had two fall to my gun on the same day. Rara avis indeed.

Fate and fortune willing, there will be a few more perfect birds in the course of my journey to the boneyard. May my final sunset be graced by the same passionate rush of awe and splendor

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More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

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About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
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