The Gift of Nothing

Bird dogs are a gift. Each one a potential treasure trove of incredible points and unbelievable retrieves. They’re also something much grander. Their lifespan provides us with a window into our own lives. A snapshot over 10 to 15 years of our careers, our families, our evolution as bird hunters and as individuals. When a new puppy comes into the family, it’s a time for reflection and joy, as a new period in life has begun.

My first bird dog, a pudelpointer named Sawyer, came into my life when I was fresh out of grad school. She was with me when money was so tight I lived in a garage and steelhead were my top priority. She joined me on spawning surveys on coastal creeks, learned to swim by falling off the front of a jet sled en route to a summer steelhead spot, and we learned the ropes together as aspiring waterfowler and occasional preserve pheasant hunters. She’s seen me through six different houses, a marriage, and the birth of our son.

Our second bird dog, an English setter my wife named Sadie, arrived amidst a global pandemic and more upheaval than any of us could have expected. Headed home from her breeder in Idaho to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I made an impromptu decision to divide the trip in half and take a detour to see my mom and stepfather in Spokane.

Mom instantly fell in love with our new puppy. Those memories today are dreamlike and uncertain two years removed from that unplanned visit. A few weeks after I returned home with our new puppy, mom lost consciousness following a hair appointment. The next two months were filled with trips to emergency rooms and doctor’s offices, countless tests, and complete uncertainty over what was causing her low blood pressure, chronic fatigue, and intermittent fevers. It wasn’t until after she passed that we’d learn of a rare and undiagnosable cancer with a name too hard to pronounce. 

Two months after she passed, an annual chukar camp with a few kindred souls seemed like just the salve for my grief. Two others in our group had also recently lost parents, so in a way, it seemed like the most organic of support groups for guys who don’t do support groups. With high hopes, I loaded Sadie into my truck and headed for a week amongst sagebrush and rimrock with dreams of her first point on a wild Nevada chukar pulling me south.

On the last day of my time at chukar camp, with the new puppy showing little interest in birds, I headed out with an Ithaca Model 37 in 16ga I’d acquired a few days after mom’s passing. The gun turned out to be made in the same year mom was born, so it seemed destined that I’d shoot the pup’s first pointed chukar that day.

After a full day’s hunting and only glimmers of interest in birds from the new setter, I picked my way down a rimrock ledge back towards the truck. I resolved that the dog was too young and that perhaps later in the season, she’d put the pieces together and we’d get her first point.

With the truck in sight, skies parted in the most dramatic fashion on the western horizon. As the sun shone through the clouds, the setter made a hard right and lifted her nose into the wind. My fingers tingled as her back flattened and her tail rose skyward.

As I walked in to make the flush, my heart sank as I realized the only bird on the business end of Sadie’s point had fallen victim to a hawk the day or two prior. A pile of feathers lay strewn about. As the puppy broke point and sniffed around the remnants of a covey worth of bird shit, I took a seat on some rimrock and was overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of my surroundings and the moment in time I found myself in.

When my son was born, one of my mom’s first gifts was a book by Patrick McDonnell about a dog that doesn’t know what to give his friend the cat for her birthday. After much searching and stress, the perfect gift turns out to be a big empty box with a bow on it- “The Gift of Nothing.” The moral of the story is in valuing time spent with those you love doing absolutely nothing beyond enjoying the moment and the company and the mutual love and respect you have for each other.

My new puppy’s debut at our annual chukar pilgrimage hadn’t gone as I’d hoped. But sitting on that rimrock with the soft muzzle of a five-month-old puppy in my lap, skies doing their best impression of a Nevada Visitor’s Guide cover photo, and six days in the bag with good friends, good food, campfires and whiskey, I couldn’t help but give thanks to my mom for reminding me what this short, precious window of time is all about.


I thought I was done, I really did. And, candidly, I have plenty of other, happier things in the hopper to write. Half a draft here, a proposal there, a long list from an editor over there. An embarrassment of riches for someone’s imposter syndrome that dreamed of this amount of work a year or so ago.

But here I am, pounding the keys and getting angrier by the word at the stuck ‘space’ bar on this damned laptop with the-dog-who-survived at my feet and neat whiskey treasure-hunted from bird country settling on my tongue. Whiskey that was meant for a respite after a good day at the new job and the kids sound asleep and the woman off to a friend’s for the night. Instead, it’s a salve, a too-weak one at that, for what came after the ding on the phone right as I started to pour.

My response after the shared sympathies: ‘I’m so fucking tired of this.’

I can’t help it. The empathetic chord for death and grief we all possess rings loudest for me in these moments; having a knife buried in your closest relative in your formative years will tune that string to infinity. I know it did mine. The two ash filled boxes with embedded paw prints from last April gave that sucker a good waxing too, as if it needed it.

It’s been a year, and I’ve lost count. It started with Timber, and then I lost two in one fell swoop. I don’t know when the chord will stop ringing from that one. They kept coming from there – Chloe, Vex, Doc, I’m sure I’m missing others. Too many ‘I’m so sorry’ texts and calls in the last few months to keep track of everyone. The text about Muppet sits at the top of the queue now like a rotten cherry over a sundae of spoiled milk.

Then there’s the traumas and injuries and almost lost you’s that dig a hole nonetheless. Ellie losing her sense of sight and sound and getting shut down at the beginning of September, Cash and cancer, Quill and the tumble and a miracle. Jack coming out of early retirement and fighting bad hips to pin a limit of ruffs for Roy on a snowy day in October the lone bright spot in this season of loss.

I thought I was done with this, I swear. I’ve been trying to write about perseverance and friendship and new love, you know, the good and the positive. The words don’t come easy, but ‘that’s just writing’ I tell myself. I thought I had catharsis’d all the grief out. Apparently not.

One of the drafts I have going was meant to be published here. In it I wrote about the season ending and missing out on my traditional last day of the season walk with the dog and gun, my yearly chance to celebrate what was and grieve the loss of what’s no longer. The chance to shift my eyes toward the calendar and will September 1st to be here and think god damnit can’t we just get to the beginning again. It swallows easier with a local beer on the tailgate. It’s a hell of a recipe for closure, but not this year.

Good bird hunting writing has a way of tapping the vein, the vein of connection and nostalgia and longing. One of the best things I ever read came from this story, Coyote, in Gray’s. At the time I’d just moved away from the trio of gents I bird hunt with almost exclusively, I worried it was a harbinger of what’s to come – the jury is still out as of now.

The last paragraph hit me so hard I set it as the screensaver on my phone for years. But, the line before that last paragraph is the one I think of most when I am wistful for the season, when the melancholy runs deep and I just want to escape from the grief into the better-than-bourbon-antidote that is following a dog with your people – “I miss days of walking without complaint, the dogs racing to the next covey, the news over the phone all good, the winters gray, the future bright. I miss my friends.”

The news over the phone has sucked this year, and I miss my friends.

I’ve listened to the hum of that chord pretty damn closely since April. It’s become a bit of a meditation, and within it I’ve found a bit of comfort. It may not be the version of them I want here, but they’re here nonetheless, and I’ll take it.

While it may not feel it in the moment, while it may hurt beyond belief right now, and while I thought I was done with burying dogs, mine or others, I learned a lesson I know to be true: next season will come. Like it always does.

It did for me as it will for the dozen or so others who suffered bad breaks with dogs too young over the last year.

One of my best friends, he’s a part of that trio I mentioned earlier, jokes around that you shouldn’t brag on a dog until they’re gone. They have no way to prove you wrong with their shenanigans from the afterlife.

Next season will come with its share of collars on vest straps and pilgrimages to coordinates committed to memory where the beauty of the work in our minds outshines the scenery. It’ll come with a hell of a lot of bragging and perhaps more than a few healthy pours over toasts and laughs about all the shenanigans of the past. A chance for the news over the phone to be all good again. 

There’s a lot of good stories left to tell.

Nope, not done at all.

Book update: March

A huge thanks to all of you who pre-ordered the book. You guys are the ones bringing this print copy of MOF to life. We couldn’t have done it without you and we are so grateful to each and every one of you.

We have stories from 18 writers and we are so proud of the incredible stories in the book.

If you pre-ordered a book, you will hear from us about our progress in the coming weeks via email.

After we ship the pre-order hard covers in early June, we will have a soft-cover book available to buy. Stay tuned for more information about the soft cover.

Thank you.

Thank you for reading. Thanks understanding this thing that we do here at MOF. And thank you for supporting this project.

Mouthful of Feathers hardcover limited edition available for preorder

It’s always been about the dogs and the words.

The words are still here at the blog – 337 blogs over the last 13 years – enough to fill a collection of books. We still had a few new things to say and so did some of our favorite writers. I am happy to say that the Mouthful of Feathers print book, featuring exciting new material and due out this summer, is available for pre-order.

We are starting out with a limited amount of hard cover, limited edition books and a print from our friend Frederick Stivers. You can learn more or to pre-order a copy, here.

We expect to deliver books summer 2023 and once we sell out of the initial hard cover run, we will be offering a paperback as well.

Thanks for the support. Thanks for the encouragement. Thanks for reading.

Winter On

December at this latitude is cold and dark, the days all start late and every glimpse of the fleeting sun is considered a minor miracle. The skies are grey and low, night comes quick and the northern wind sneaks a bit of it’s bitterness into everyone.

Outside our window we watch the snow fall and drift and swirl and we dream of heading south, but even a long drive in that direction still leaves us pretty far north.

The birds, like the rest of us, head into a little seasonal depression after the first honest cold snap. They hunker down in the spruce boughs, just as we curl up with the dogs in front of the great flickering game. All of us, content to choose warmth above all else.

But eventually we come to the realization that winter marches forward and we dig out our long johns, double up our socks, dose our vitamin D and get back to our daily lives.

The birds start moving around again and so do we.

Peak Bird Dog

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal.

By Greg McReynolds

It’s big country and birds are thin, so I let her run. No other dogs, no other hunters, just the setter and me.

It’s been an odd season. I haven’t hunted alone much. I’ve asked much of her to put friends on birds and counted on her to make a good showing in front of people I respect. I committed her to a charity hunt and called on her to rise to the occasion of hunting with some exceptional dogs. And she did.

For the first time in a while, it’s just us. I’m not handling her at all. Just walking across big country in the sage and the grass and watching her run until she drops over a bump in the horizon and disappears. If I had a friend in tow or someone else’s dog on my left, I would have turned her or stopped her to wait for me. Today, I let her run.

I hear the beeper when I crest the top of the hill, but it takes me a bit to get my bearings and then jog toward a creek-bottom thicket on the edge of a CRP field. 

I see the setter tail cocked at angle, bent where she has contorted herself into a point amongst the brush. There is no way to walk in and flush and still be able to take a shot, so I try to release her, but she’s held fast. I resort to tossing a stick. It doesn’t work, so I move and then wait. The setter is solid, but I can see her trembling.

After a long minute, the birds burst upward, looking for clear air. Just above the trees, I take a snap shot and hit one solidly. It flies downhill for 50 yards, towers and then plummets into a patch of cover. We search hard, but don’t pick it up. It’s stick-in-the-eye thick in here, and now that I’m in it, I realize my mark was poor. It would be easier to find if it was alive. After 10 minutes of bushwhacking and yelling and keeping the dog in the cover, she finally locates a hard-earned bird, lying dead on a bed of red and yellow leaves.

I slip the bird in my vest and call her back when she starts out again. I pour her water and sit down in the leaves with my back against a tree. She comes and sits next to me, still anxious to hunt, but willing to humor me for a minute. This is my best dog — 6 years in — as steady as I can get her, but still with the fire of a young dog.

She’s the middle of the pack I’ve always wanted. One old dog, one in her prime and one coming up. Three different dogs, three different eras.

A dog’s life is a parabola. An arc, heading skyward from a crying, whining ball of fuzz peeing the floor and barking in the kennel before plummeting downward toward an ending peeing the floor and barking at the ceiling.

There is a moment of weightlessness at the apex. It’s pulling the tow release on a sailplane and feeling the bottom drop out before you nose over into glide speed. It’s topping a hill at 17 years old, redlining fourth gear in an ’82 mustang.

The apex is a dog, running steady at a pace that eats up the country, cutting it into tiny blocks, breathing the air and floating past vast swaths of “no birds” until she locates them and holds them tight and steady so that you never fear whether she will wait for you.

There are the upward milestones, house trained, name recognition, recall, frustration, steady, first point, first bird, first retrieve, frustration, first road trip, first scare, pride, perfection, imperfection, frustration.

This setter took a gradual course to apex with some notable dips in altitude along the way. There was a beautiful October day when as a young dog, she blew through a field at light speed, flushing three different species of birds without ever tapping the brakes.

And there was one particular cold, wet day late in the season a few years back. My number one dog at the time had hunted the first field, but my hunting partner — my 14-year-old nephew — hadn’t yet had a good shot. I let her out with a little trepidation only to have her run with perfection.

She ran big and pinned down a pair of roosters and held them fast. He walked in a wing tipped a wild, mature bird which my little setter tracked down and brought back. I stood and watched a young man and a young dog and couldn’t tell which of them was happiest about that bird. I wasn’t even carrying a gun and it is one of my fondest memories afield.

There are the downward milestones as well, hardheadedness, blind, deaf, not-give-a-damn, last bird, last retrieve, last hunt. There comes a day where every point or retrieve is a gift. And the day when you have to pat her head to wake her in the morning so she will get up and go out. And then we lament how short the life of a good bird dog is and how the true burden of having dogs is outliving them.

It all matters. It’s all love and memories and life-altering companionship. But sometimes you see the apex — a moment where a dog reaches peak altitude. Her legs are strong and her stride is as efficient as it will ever be. She is no longer an out of control starship headed for another galaxy. She is a ballistic missile, headed for an ending that I know is coming far too soon.

That’s the trouble with peak bird dog: it’s fleeting. Two seasons, more if you’re lucky, before the gradual decline begins. A good dog will make up for it — hunt smarter, pace themselves — try to milk the golden years. And we will help them. Give them shorter runs and better conditioning, let them have the choicest spots.

But it’s still too damn short. So I stand and dust off the leaves. I fold and store the bowl in the pocket of my vest. When I pick up the gun and reach for shells, she is off like a bolt. I watch her stretch out. She checks back once, then begins to make long, wide sweeps, each one taking her farther out front. With the good weight of a wild bird in my vest, I strike west following the dog and savoring the apex. 


Got ’em.

I could do this every day. Walk the roads. The tall grass. Carry the gun broken over miles of empty fields just for the heart-race that is the “snick” of the gun readied. Thumb on the safety, gawd-almighty-get-ready. Do it forever, every day of the season from infant October to bitter good bye January, the ditch parrots flushed and cackling and sometimes escaping. The gun swinging, the bird falling, the glorious dog upon it as if this is all there is in this world and for her, perhaps it is and for you that’s the case as well, if you stop and look deep enough to admit it. Engulfed. Forever, a new place, a new door knocked, a new acquaintance, an old place, a cover where you know the ambush front and back and sideways. Forever and repeat.

But what of the miles of empty road, the flat tires, the permissions refused, the hot days with water running low miles from the pickup? The down years when it’s just miles and a few carry-over birds sailing out of sight? What of the misses, the wiffs, the outright slumps? What of letting her down after all that hard work she did thrashing the deep cover that towers over her little head, you fool? A flat-footed, no-excuses miss. The blisters, the rain, the wet stench of tired foot? The field of nothing but hens, or worse, roosters running goodbye-gone-and-a-day and flushing at beyond what is even prudent rifle range? The cover cow-burnt to the dirt? What of Russian olive thorn and prickly pear dagger? What of tired leg and chaffed groin and a shower needed, badly. What of someone else beating you to it, halfway across the field before you turn up the county road? Forever? Really? I call bullshit.

Try me. Just try me.

For Those Who Know

It’s stubborn dogs and disappointed spouses, pigeon shit and pissed off neighbours. It’s early morning training sessions and an ever-growing to-do list. It’s puppy blues and terrible twos, pocket kibble and “it gets better” promises. It’s failure and frustration, two steps forward and four steps back. It’s ecollars and kennels, bells and beepers, leashes, launchers and leads. It’s living on good credit and bad coffee, staring out the windshield with half-lidded eyes. It’s out of date maps and middle of nowhere flats, busted ball joints, bent rims and blown fan belts. It’s scraped skid plates and gas price laments, dusty dead ends and permission denied. It’s heatstroke under an all-conquering sun or frostbitten fingers and sideways sleet sting. It’s thistles and thorns and slivers, sand and grit, mud and blood and sweat and tears. It’s rattlesnakes and forgotten snares, badger holes, barbed wire and “Are they bluffing?” bears. It’s tailgate trauma centres, porcupine quills and vet bills. It’s the ghost of gone dogs and all the heartbreak you can handle.

All for a few fleeting moments here at the confluence of nose and scent, where lead just might meet wing and time holds in brief suspension before the blur beckons and begins again.

And if you can’t find the beauty in that . . .

Well, you wouldn’t be here would you?



It’s not always easy asking for help. Sometimes you don’t know you need it, while others you’re too stubborn to admit that you do. As a hunter, it can be at times, nearly impossible to force to question out of your mouth. 

Still, as an enthusiastic bird hunter that came to the pursuit shortly after their 30th birthday, early successive years of complete failure left me exasperated and ready to reach out to any benevolent voice of experience. 

A breakroom invitation from a few fellows at work got me into bird hunting. These were classic Pennsylvania “all-arounders” who graciously added me to their mid-October strolls in hopes of getting a few pheasants before it was time to sight in rifles and prep for frosty post-Thanksgiving deer stands. 

No dogs, tattered gear, and more pump guns than pomp were stored in truck beds and blanketed back seats. It was perfect. 

Those early experiences would breathe air into coals that grew flames of enthusiasm for the sport in a place where the best days of birds and habitat were long gone by the time my father had his 30th birthday. Despite making the financial and lifestyle commitments of new gear, more time in the field, and my first bird dog, I still hadn’t put my first bird in the bag. 

I finally did what so many of us find impossible to do, and asked for help. I was able to locate two local gentlemen easily 30 years my senior and secured an invitation to hunt with them. Confusion clouded most of that first early morning meeting in a state game land parking lot. These are far from the days when my generation seeks out mentors. It seems like you’re either blessed with them at birth, or you exist without them. 

We started our stroll that morning with usual and customary pleasantries set to the sound of wind brushing dry autumn leaves and bells on the collars of eager young dogs. 

“Where do you work? Where are you from? How do you like your truck? Any kids?”

Asking more questions than I answered, we made our way through tall grass and gnarled hedgerows. I watched my dog learn from their dogs as I did the same emulating their movements as hunters and absorbing it all. 

At the end of one such hedgerow, the dogs went on point and rooster cackles gave way to an explosive flush. Mounting, aiming, and firing I dropped one of the pheasants on a going away shot and my setter was quick on the fallen bird. A skill he knew he had, but not me. 

There’s no quantitative measure for the value of a good mentor. No dollar amount, no volume, no number of any kind will ever express our appreciation for their guidance. We keep the ability to go to them when we’re lost tucked away like a treasure. 

When I was shopping for my first double gun, I went to them. When I was buying my first house, I went to them. When an unexpected illness took our first dog at a young age, our bird dog’s older sister, I went to them. 

I still don’t know everything, so I keep a closed mouth and open ears when around those that are telling me something I’m thirsting to learn. How to take better care of my dogs or my guns. How to put better shots on birds. How to be more patient and a better man as a whole.  

Sitting in my truck after that first hunt, I marinated in appreciation at the fortune of now having these mentors in my life. Of how a little effort on my part by asking the question was rewarded with an invaluable resource in the form of two pleasant souls. This was one of those few times I knew something was changing, and I was moving into a new chapter I was excited to read. I sat there thinking about all of those wonderful heavy thoughts when I remembered I had a bird to clean, so I put the gear lever on my truck to “D” and let off the brake. 

Contributor to magazines, newspapers, and various blogs Brandon perennially seeks the marrow out of life by searching for his next experience. Whether it be less than sure about his location on a mountain top in Vermont, to pleading for a single bluegill on a local park stream, he appreciates the beauty of being out there. He’s been in way over his head with bird dogs for a few years now and sees no real reason to pivot from that trajectory.

Best Days

On our best days we are dog whisperers, shotgun wizards, cartographers of broken country. We move with poise and purpose, up steep chukar slopes, through thick grouse woods, out and over the windswept plains. On our best days we worship at the church of the wild bird and we leave our offerings out on the sagebrush sea, there in the chokecherry thicket, and just near the muskeg’s edge. We dance to the western wind and the ringing of the dog’s bell. On our best days we are tailgate raconteurs and field lunch gourmands, holding a secret knowledge of backroads. We drink from the well of wild and open place and we surrender to the present, wholly at ease with this world and our place in it. On our best days we come back home wind-burnt and worn, tired and thirsty. But we return home, generous at the tavern, gentle with our children, gracious with our partners.

On most days however, we are just funny folks in silly clothes, chasing impractical dogs. Staring down the tyranny of efficiency, forever searching for both birds and empty space.

Hoping for just enough breeze, so the dogs can lead us back, somewhere closer towards grace.

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