Birds with an attitude

“We are not that different you and I.” He caught me off guard with those words.  The dogs slipped by the little male Hun without catching his wind and he stuck his head out of the rabbit brush and started his speech. Strutting and proud at 10 yards in front of me.  I shouldered my old Fox, looked down the rib and then dropped it to my side in amazement as he continued.  He was puffed up now, showing the big brown bar on his chest like a badge of courage. Head up straight and wings tucked back on his hips as he spoke. He tried the big authoritative boom of a Prairie Chicken but he couldn’t help the occasional squeak, like a worn-out washing machine as it spun.

“Don’t look at me like I don’t belong. Maybe my type is not native here but neither is yours. You just act the part because you have a double barrel and some smokeless powder. I am more like you than you care to admit  My clan was bounced out of the old country too. We were forced into ship hulls and box cars and spit out in a strange land. Hell, come to find out this is a whole country of immigrants. Who knew? Them bombastic Chinese parrots that your kind loves so much and the red-legged middle easterners…they are all invaders. And then there is you.  None of us are exactly Sharptails and Sage Grouse if you know what I mean.”

He was right I thought, Busse might not be Hungarian but it sure as hell is not Blackfeet or Sioux.  I’d always felt a kinship with these little birds and now here I was being set straight by a particularly sharp-witted specimen.

He went on, “I’ve seen you out here day after day. You go back to that town when you are done but that place is not you. All of that civilizing has pushed you into the scablands too. I can see it in your eyes. You’re an outcast just like us.”

He was right, I loved the challenge of hunting huns in big country.  Didn’t much care for parking lots and traffic lights.  He must have been listening as I mumbled to myself in the hills. He went on, “These are the places we have left to live and we like it. Those city songbirds think us partridges are simple country fowl, but we like it out here on our own. They wouldn’t make it a second in this country. A sharp-shinned would gobble them up in a single bite.  We eat better too. Seeds and bugs like it ought to be. Not that industrial birdfeed crap they eat.  Yeh, this place steep, rocky and dry.  But this is real livin’.”

I had always said that my dogs are smarter than a lot of people but now I was confronted with a bird who might have us all beat. He hopped up on a sage brush branch, snuggled down in a squat. His version of kicking back in a lazyboy. He was ready to give me a talkin’ to.  I cracked open my gun and tossed it on my shoulder as he expounded.

“I been meaning to tell you. Ya might want to take a message back to all of them puffed up peacock-humans in the big fancy buildings back in your towns.  We are getting a little tired of being squeezed around the edges out here.  I mean, you guys take the flat spots, the river bottoms, the best grass and the any place that will grow a kernel of grain.  We like it out here, but damn!  You are going to have to stop the march of progress at some point.  I mean we love rocks, but we are not going to make it if you just keep pushing us into the last pile of skree.  If we go, then you’ll be stuck in that town morning noon and night.  Might want to think about that.”

Before I could think about it I heard the dogs coming back into range.  Since I first hunted these birds, I had developed a deep respect for their craftiness and style. They seemed to have an attitude.  The lecture from this little guy was only confirming everything I already thought. Just then, Teddy swung downwind and locked up tight. I turned from him and in and instant the professor-Hun was in flight.  Up to speed in a single flap just like they always do.  I thought I caught him smirk at me as he rose. He zeroed in on the bill of my cap and knocked it off with his tail as he passed.  Before I had my gun snapped shut he was out of range.  Just before he dipped over the ridge he looked over his wing and chirped back at me.  “Gotta be faster than that cupcake!  Oh, thanks for spreading that cheatgrass.  We love the stuff!”

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Born of a random barstool

“What do you know about pheasants?” That’s how it started.  A challenge I lobbed at a guy in a bar. My target had folded his 6’5” frame onto a barstool at the local watering hole. From there he was pontificating about bird hunting. James had a particular way of speaking. Not quite southern drawl. More like a stern traveling preacher minus any hint of piety. Voice slow and booming. Occasional Canadian twinges mixed with colloquialisms of his own making. A style bordering precariously between off-color, authoritative and hilarious.

Here he was holding court to a couple of fellow beer drinkers about a recent pheasant trip. He held peanuts in one hand and beer in the other. Waving both around as if in a pulpit. Booming again, he let fly a beauty; “They were flying around like goddamned bees. Everywhere!  We were shooting the hell out of things. The dogs were crazy as shithouse rats and the birds were piling up like cordwood”.  Even above the hum in the bar it was like the guy had a megaphone. I did not know a soul in the place and had yet to make a friend in this new town. That left me to focus on a sermon about birds. Jim’s verse got my attention and I had nothing better to do. So, I butted in with my challenge not knowing what might come of it.

Standing now he wasted not a second and shot back, “Well, quite a bit and who the hell are you?”.  He looked down his nose, eyebrow cocked.  If I did not know better, I would swear I was at home plate with Randy Johnson on the mound staring me down as he took a sign.  James bore a strong resemblance to the iconic Seattle pitcher and I felt like the Big Unit himself was about ready to throw hard and inside with a 98mph fastball.

I had grown up on a ranch.  Pheasants galore. So, I was ready for the pitch with my retort, “You guys think you know what pheasant hunting is, well you ought to see where I grew up.”  Smack.  I hit it out of the park. That was all he needed. A hint of wild birds in big country. A few months later, James was strolling across the grasslands of our ranch in the biting cold. Never mind the 1200 miles or the uncertainty of an unknown place. He took me up on the challenge of “real” pheasant hunting. Just the sort of gamble I would have taken.

Our hunting styles were a match. I loved to cover miles and James was a born walker. Like a moose at a long distance he first seemed slow and gangly. But up close he moved across the bird country with stretched effortless strides. So long and flowing that almost no one could keep up. He’d swing and shoot and walk all in the same motion. He hunted with purpose. We could rack up impressive daily distance totals that others came to call death marches.

Our shared a passion for birds soon drove us to range over huge swaths of bird country together. In the ensuing decades we strode across untold acres from Montana to Kansas. Between hunting days finding small towns, dingy hotels and greasy spoons.  We explored it all.  Always on the lookout for a new territory to hunt.

During our hunts I came to know Jim as a master story teller and our adventures became parts of new tales. He picked out the interesting places and people then wove them in the loom of his mind. Spinning until the fine fabric poured out. I mostly just listened and then cajoled him to repeat. His stories would usually arrive at unexpected hilarious places. “Did I ever tell you about the time I took out an entire motel in a runaway grain truck?”  Turns out he had done just that.  Nearly killing the last person in the place which was thankfully almost empty due to the late morning timing.  He too had barely made it out alive.

In classic Jim fashion a few years after the wreck he randomly met the survivor on the same barstool where he and I had first discussed pheasants. Of course, he started holding court and drinking beer with her too. They ended up laughing over another of Jim’s stories even though she was minus a few key internal organs from the accident.  Like me, Jim was always focused on procuring more hunting spots.  Even though he had almost killed the gal with a Peterbilt he did not fail to ask if she had any good hunting property.

Jim wove this and scores of other tales with the magnetic pull of the finest novels. He came to be in high demand by my friends and family. Inquiries about upcoming hunting trips from them now focused on whether Jim was coming along as if I was an afterthought. His attendance would make or break the trip. Random strangers he hunted with over the years still ask me about him today.

The truth is that James was the kind of guy who you just wanted to have along for the ride. At least partially because he prided himself on being silver tongued when it came to prying permission from even the prickliest ranchers. I have to admit he might be the best I have ever seen. After a hard “no” through the screen door he would begin a booming sermonette and find a way to remember a distant cousin that maybe went to school with a friend, or a last name that sounded about right and then he’d throw in a good story and a slight exaggeration. The door would open, and he was inside, drinking coffee and eating cookies. Drawing maps on paper towels.  He’d swagger back to the truck with his wool hat tipped just so and then bellar out; “hope you got some goddamned ammo Busse, ‘cause we can hunt ‘er all!”.  Off we would go, striding across another swath of prairie.

You could always depend on Jim to be true and authentic. He became a corner post in the wobbly fence of life. Something steady and predictable, always to be relied upon. Following birds was the catalyst for it all.

Over time things got busier and I traveled more. Life happened. We hunted together less. On one of my work trips Sara called me to explain that our beloved Shorthair with whom I had hunted nearly 16 years was on her last leg. Our vet advised we put her down that same day. I could not return for nearly a week and in tears on the phone I blubbered, “I’ll call James.” And of course, he dropped everything and was at Sara’s side within the hour as we lost a bird dog.  A very hard day for any hunter. He cried in the waiting room just as I would have and thought nothing of doing it. By now It’s probably woven into another of his stories.

Nearly 25 years has passed since our first bullshitting session. We’ve walked a thousand miles together and apart. New dogs have come and gone. Birds have indeed been piled up like cordwood. Family has passed, and a son has been named in his honor. And yet despite the march of time it is as if nothing at all has changed. We are just a couple of bird hunting buddies looking for the next ridge to hunt and tale to weave. Kidding each other about missed shots and permissions gained. A friendship between men based on the most elementary components first brought together from a random encounter. All we have ever really done is follow our dogs and tell stories. Simple things that are enough for us.

The Sharptail Caucus

As a young man I once stood on a mountain ridge so beautiful that I now find it impossible to describe. It was summer and a bird dog was at my side when I first discovered the place that would change my life. It came to be part of my very being.  Like a military boot camp it broke me and then built me back up. Wild, remote, harsh, and unspoiled by the hand of man. Owned equally by all citizens of the country. Many of my best days on the planet have been spent there.

Soon after I adopted this place as my spirit home it came into the sights of energy companies. Just another place for them to profit from one fossil fuel or another.  And of course those big companies had guys in very nice suits to infiltrate the highest halls of government.  And between those fellas with the Italian ties and the former energy bigwigs in the executive branch they cooked up schemes to roll dozers and derricks into my sacred spot.  I came to find out that my story was one of many.  The only things that changed in the other tales were the actors who played my role and the location of the wild land.  The rest of the script was the same.  The sequels are playing out in the sagebrush steppe and the canyon country still today.

I became a fighter, and student of the fine print. A purveyor of press conferences and pithy quotes in national newspapers.  A lobbyist.  A student of Ed Abbey.  A political animal.  I sharpened my existence and my tongue.  I assessed what mattered pressed my shoulders into saving it.  Of course politics were involved.  I figured out how to engage in battles and win wars. I committed never to shy from either.

Those were the days that wiped the crust of naiveté from my eyes. From that time on, politics and policies have never left my consideration because their impacts never exit my days.  I’ve known people who say politics don’t matter or that they are overplayed or that people like me care too much.  I don’t buy a bit of that dribble. I say your politics is a window to your soul.  What you care about and how much you care about it can be seen through your political window like an old gas lamp on a pitch black night.

I care about wild places and losing myself within them. That’s probably why I love bird hunting so much. My panes are wide open but you don’t have stick your head in to figure me out.  My politics and life are one in the same and nowhere is this more evident than during bird season.  In other words if you wanted to do a political profile on me, just follow me around for a couple days in October.

On an average day you’ll find me hitting the road early in the morning before anyone else is up. And if I don’t ditch the tail you’ll follow me to a remote chunk of public land.  I’ll drop the dogs and we’ll be gone for hours, maybe all day.  I rack up ten miles or more and dogs will do thirty.  I like big tracts of wide open country.  Unspoiled.  The less human intrusion the better.  I feel alive in the vastness.  I am an explorer on my own land. I like going where others won’t.  I imagine people in far off farm houses looking at me through binocs muttering at my stupidity before they go back to watching the news and drinking coffee.  I imagine some of them voting for people who want to sell these places and the anger at this drives me up the incline.

You might note that I stop to examine grasses or flowers. I watch deer and elk.  I hope to see a badger or a northern harrier falcon.  When I am not admiring the place I am laser focused on my dogs and the terrain. We hunt wild birds first and always and they require tenacity.  My dogs have never even smelled a bird from a pen.  I hope to keep it that way.  I tell myself that if I depend on wild places I am more likely to fight for them.

I might stand and watch as a sharptail rises from a point. I pass on the shot and just watch him flap a time or two then hear him cluck as he starts to glide.  I watch him in earnest as he gets up to speed.  A marvel of aerodynamics.  I’ll stand there until he is only a dot in the distance and then gone from my sight but still in flight.  I think how far he flew on this one small journey and how much grassy country he requires to exist.  Its fall, nearly election day, and I’ll dream of that sharptail voting his self-interests in the booth.  I think I know which ovals he would blacken.  If you could document my thoughts you’d note that I am thinking of gathering up the sharpies into a great caucus so that we might vote together en masse.

If I see a BLM, USFS or game warden truck I will stop and chat with them. Sometimes for an hour or more.  I always thank them for the work they are doing and note that I understand they have a tough and largely thankless job.  I want them to know I appreciate what they do.  I know this place and opportunity did not happen by accident nor will it continue to exist if we are apathetic.

Somedays you might find me hunting in the CRP. If you were in my head, you’d see memories of my father planting thousands upon thousands of acres of native grass in Kansas during the heyday of CRP.  A disciple of Aldo Leopold on a 4230 John deer and a 12 foot grass drill trying to restore his corner of the Great Plains.   And you’d see the resulting pheasants I chased, seemingly everywhere as if mosquitoes in Alaska. Even a mediocre dog could find a limit in short order. A kid with a Model 42 Winchester could fill a vest in a couple hours.  I was that kid. You might note that I count the acres that are being removed from this federal program now.  I glaze over, staring at a newly tilled field as I remember where a covey once lived.  You might hear me gritting my teeth.

I like to stop by a local bar when the bird day is done. I figure those big national corporatized chains have figured out how to make plenty of profit without me providing too much aid.  I want to eat and drink where the locals are.  I like authenticity and dirt under fingernails.  I want to know how things are going for these folks and what beer they drink.  And if the waitress grew up on a big ranch up north that just happens to have a bunch of birds, all the better.  “What’s your dad’s name again and you think I could call him?” I might ask.   When she hollers her dad’s name in an affirmative tone, I’ll respond, “That’s awesome, I appreciate it, and Yeh, I’ll have another beer” And then I’ll mutter under my breath with a slight grin, “I sure hope he don’t care that I am a redneck hippie.”  As I take my first drink from the beer I’ll wonder if maybe he will vote with the sharptail caucus too.

 

OMG I’m A GMO

If I could peer into the twists of double helixes deep inside the cells of my dogs I am confident there would be no Monsanto signature. No corporate trademarks. No sign of the tiniest of tweezers selecting one protein and replacing it with another. And if Teddy, Ruark or Aldo could probe me on a cellular level I am equally confident that there is no Monsanto chicanery to be found within the twists of my mitochondria. Yet here I am GMO and proud, and there are my dogs, modified to act in ways that would make a modern geneticist smile.

Fifteen thousand years ago before big ag was even a glimmer in banker’s eye, a few of our ancestors and few of our dog’s ancestors started toying with each other’s genes. Some brave wolf sauntered up to some open-minded hunter. Then few smart hunters began using wolves to help on the hunt. That’s where it started and before long the slow guys in the tribe had labs and the smart ones had pointing dogs. This all happened over generations but was no less effective than a scientist engineering corn DNA to resist the active ingredient in Roundup.

 
Bird hunters often marvel at the magical connection we have to our dogs. Some even claim divine intervention. I admit to being struck dumb as a stone at what I believe to be nearly unexplainable moments of beauty. Once on a windswept Montana ridge my first great birddog crept then locked then trailed and locked again over and over as he tried to hold a running covey of huns. He was two and I was trying to control him. To whoa and break him and teach him all he needed to know. As he locked on to one more point, he held but the birds had broken again, and he looked over his shoulder as if to ask for permission. I waved and muttered and he started a half mile loop which culminated in him cutting into the wind and locking the huns between us at about 500 yards. I ran up and dropped a couple birds. As he scurried to pounce on a wounded bird I remember standing there almost in tears at the wonder I had just witnessed. If the water in my Nalgene bottle had turned to wine I would not have been more amazed. I now know that it was not permission he was asking. Rather it was him telling me he was in on the same secret. We were both products of the same science. We were literally bred to do this.

I sometimes like to think us bird hunters have a corner on the canine connection. But the hunter’s genes are spread throughout our population just like those from the first few domesticated wolves. Granted it can be hard to identify in flushing dogs and semi auto shooters but it’s not hard to see glimmers of our shared genetics if we just observe.

 
Grandmothers proudly bend rules to allow Bichon Frises to ride on airplanes with them for made up mental health reasons. In those cases, the dogs clearly demonstrate their relative mastery of the gene modification process. Most kids, or at least those with any hope in life, are automatically drawn to a puppy. I’d bet a case of shotgun shells that they all have roots in the same hunter gather tribes that spawned Teddy, me and other bird hunters with their dogs.

 

Genetic science clearly demonstrates that distinguishing traits and behaviors can be bred into a population in just a few generations especially in small populations. Oh yes, both dog and human have long been GMOing ourselves the old-fashioned way. In small tribes and with trial and error. We picked the ones that held points and retrieved with a soft mouth. And the birddogs were modifying us too. Selecting out those who would feed them let them lounge on couches with us.

 
In bird dog circles I sometimes hear the chatter about god and magic and unexplained phenomena. But a wider perspective tells me that what I feel with my dogs is not magic or divine. It is even more powerful. Its bred into us. Our species have been honing this relationship for millennia and it is locked in our genetic instruction sheets. Maybe that’s why my excitement about a big runner with a staunch point on a sharpie comes as natural as my next breath. For me, both the breath and the excitement are of equal importance. Guess I am just gonna have to be OK with being a GMO.

In defense of Alexander Supertramp

I remember the august summer light shining through the western Kansas dust. Its angle illuminating gangly sunflowers and clutches of pheasants along the dirt roads where I grew up.  That light still triggers a combination of hunting season anticipation and lazy almost-fall memories.  August was the in-between-season for a young ranch kid and so my mind was left to wander.

I’d drift off to considering stories I had read and weigh the supposed attributes of great sportsmen. Perhaps someday I could be counted in those ranks.  I’d find myself lying on patches of native buffalo grass, hands cupped behind my head staring up at the passing clouds in one of my contemplative moods.  I’d merge my intrigue about famous sportsmen and my favorite curiosity.  The great explorers and undiscovered hunting grounds of past centuries had long captivated me and dreaming of them had become almost an obsession.

My favorite musings revolved around imagining I was alive in 1800. I’d continually pose the question; “who in their right mind, would not have sprinted to find Merriweather Lewis, or Captain Clark and beg to join up with the greatest expedition of all time?” Maybe I could have been their hunter.  Well, ok – Just me and George Druillard.  I’d lay in the hot summer wind and dream of wading across the Marias, or seeing the great Sioux villages, or the vast bison herds, or hearing the dancing sharptail grouse in the vast and unmapped wilderness of the Dakotas and Montana.

I was 10 or 11, and a few minutes of daydreaming would inevitably spur me to meander back home, grab a 22 rifle and strike out on a hike into the grasslands, over a new hill, or to a new prairie dog town. If I could not join the corps of discovery, I’d discover on my own.  Eventually my exploration obsession filled my bird seasons, and my fishing adventures.

It followed me to college, where I smuggled a Brittany spaniel named Mitch into my dorm for weeks at a time. We’d cut class together and I’d run out of town away from campus to a new quail spot.  Some days I’d knock doors until I found out how to get permission on a river bottom or patch of native grass.  When that would not work I’d hop a fence and explore.  Sometimes with permission, sometimes with willful ignorance as to ownership.  Mostly no one seemed to care.  Occasionally a famer would drive up and lightly interrogate me then take pity and grant permission.  I learned early on that exploration, pushing limits and willful ignorance usually produced better results than societal stigmas indicated.

Listening to my inner Merriweather once led me to a still unbeaten collegiate record of 31 straight days of quail hunting. If it was a weekday I’d attend a crucial class, cut the others and run with Mitch to a spot I knew. Find a few coveys and stop short of my limit.  I’d then force myself to try a new one.  Just look around, walk, take chances, follow my dog.

And so was born my respect for Alexander Supertramp who I first read about just before I graduated. Supertramp was his preferred moniker but he was also known by his given name of Chris McCandless. He made national headlines when he wandered from Arizona to Alaska, struck out into the wilderness and died of starvation in an old Fairbanks school bus.  Even today, he is a punchline in Alaska.  An example for the establishment Alaskans of a fool, a naïve tree hugging greenhorn who would have done well to adhere to the accumulated knowledge of others, read a map or check in with authorities at reasonable intervals.

That’s not how I saw him. I immediately respected his purposeful disdain of maps or guides.  He preferred to explore on his terms, not on the backs of others.  I came to see his desire to set his own course as emblematic of my own approach to bird hunting.

I moved to Montana in 1995 and there I further devoured the story of McCandless after John Krakauer penned his fantastic book about Chris. I began to incorporate Chris’s purposeful ignorance into my adventures in the broad landscape once visited by Lewis and Clark.  Year after year I explored Montana.  Much of it without aid of map or guide book of any sort.  I spent entire bird seasons allowing myself one day to hunt a spot I knew, then forcing myself to explore one I did not.

Sometimes I tried to obtain permission, sometimes it was impossible. Often, I would toil for entire weeks on what I now know is public land. It was my golden age.  Like “the time before the fences” as the old cowboys would say.  An attractive sharptail spot might be dozens of miles from a house and there was no GPS device to give me real-time ownership data.  I would be faced with the choice to follow a bird dog onto new ridges of promise or do nothing.  Following my dogs always seemed like the most sensible option.

Just like McCandless, I wanted the thrill of exploration and discovery and I wanted it on my terms. I never once regretted chasing a dog into a new haunt.  That’s not to say all explorations went perfectly.  Once while I was a mile or two from any road, I heard a rumble and turned to see a grain truck hurtling towards me at high speed.  Having been raised on a ranch, I knew that this was not a hopeful sign.

The big Peterbuilt stopped in a fog of dust, my dogs ran to my side and the guy in the driver’s seat started questioning. But it was all over in a few minutes, he gladly gave me permission and was just trilled to know I wasn’t some drunk high school kid out cutting fences or raising hell.  He drove off and a soon my lead dog Ruark locked on a big covey of huns.  My other dogs honored and I shot a double.

I’d bet he told the fellas in the coffee shop about the crazy guy in the middle of a pasture with a pack of dogs. They’d tip their caps back and listen as he poked fun at a fool who would walk for miles just to see a dog find a bird or two.  I’d imagine them getting a subdued farmer harrumph at my expense.  I just wish I could have been hunting out of an old Fairbanks school bus to make the story even better.

Now well into my forties with dogs of different names, I have only slightly altered my Supertramp ways. I now do everything possible to ensure I never set foot on private property without permission, but I do not shy from exploring new places.  Most are on public land and in places where people do not believe birds exist.  Just another way I can add value to an experience I want to be wild – devoid of previous explorers.  With arms crossed in satisfaction I think to myself about why I find these places and these birds.  It’s just because I took the chance and someone else did not.  I’d like to think Captain Clark or McCandless would nod in approval.

I’ve had to accept that I am not going to be one of those brave souls who join up with the Corps to explore the American west. Yes, that part of my dream is gone.  But I’ve not yet accepted that Alexander Supertramp was a naïve fool.  I prefer to believe that he and I are brothers of a sort.  Exploring our own personal Louisiana purchase.  I’d like to think that he once laid on native grass, looked up at clouds in an angled august light. He imagined untrampled country and wanted to touch it.

We are not that different I tell myself. There is a beauty in the way we live.  Forcing ourselves into unknown territory, experiencing discovery on our own terms. Embracing risk.  Mr. Alexander Supertramp did not want hints from others to be the spoiler for his own movie.  And I don’t think he cared what others thought about his unscripted ways.  I think to myself that I too am just fine not knowing all there is to know.  I even take a little pride in being the punchline for the old guys in the coffee shops.