Notes From the Field: The Birds

HawkSouth-Central South Dakota.  First, the pheasant.  While driving north on one of South Dakota’s countless gravel roads, I glanced to my left at a clump of trees and brush growing along the north side of a perfectly circular prairie-pothole.  Huddled beneath the misshapen branches of a deformed tree, I spied a puffed-up, multi-colored ringnecked pheasant.  Knowing that stopping the car on the road in front of the pheasant would likely send the bird airborne, I decided to drive on, hoping the rooster would consider me just another disinterested farmer and stay put. About a hundred yards beyond the bird’s sun-bathed location, I pulled to the side of the road, put the car in park, turned off the engine, and gently opened the driver’s side door, trying not to clang the seat belt’s metal buckle against the car’s vinyl paneling. Once out of the vehicle, I turned toward the door and quietly closed it, careful not to fully shut the door for fear that the “click” sound made by the engaged latch would alert the pheasant. I then gingerly opened the rear driver’s side door, picked up the camouflaged cloth case holding my shotgun and slid the gun out. I calmly loaded three shells into the 12 gauge, pushed the car door closed without latching it, and started walking south toward the wetland. Only a few minutes had passed since I first saw the bird.

As I hastily walked down the road, I envisioned the bird’s likely flight path. I figured it would have to fly southward, over the pothole. That was the only easy escape route. Heavy brush, branches, and trees grew to the north and west of the bog. I determined there was no way the rooster could bust through that tangle. It was also unlikely the bird would fly toward me – it would be too afraid to make such a brazen move.

A couple of minutes later, I was standing next to where the bird had been sunning himself minutes earlier, but it was gone. No doubt the rooster had heard me coming down the road and decided to slip into the tall grass lining the fringe of the wetland. Believing the bird might still be nearby, I bounded off the road into the grass. As soon as I started walking through the slough, I heard one, then two, and finally a third rooster break from the thicket to my west. Each one of the pheasants let out a loud series of cackles as it took to the air. The birds had taken flight so fast and disappeared so quickly over a nearby hill, I never got off a shot.

Not sure whether any birds still hid in the slough grass, I decided to circle the wetland, heading south and then east before slogging my way back north. I thought I might flush a stay-behind rooster – one of those old, sly birds who have learned over the years to hold in place until the coast is clear. Pushing through grass, reeds, and cattails, I expected a ringneck to blast out from under my feet at any moment, but nothing budged. Apparently  the pheasants had vacated the place. Near the end of my circuit, I approached the spot where I had first stepped into the grass. Only feet from closing the noose and exiting the bog, two roosters rocketed from the grass, headed east. If there is one thing I have learned from years of hunting pheasants, it is this: focus on one bird until it is down and down hard. If you don’t, and you nervously shoot at two or three rising birds, you risk missing all of them; or worse, you chance wounding a rooster that still has enough strength to run into cover and hide.

After I pulled the trigger, I watched as one of the roosters shuddered, slowed, and then teetered on the edge of the sky.  I fired a second time.  The bird shook and dropped lower.  I fired a third shot, but the ringneck had flown beyond my gun’s range.  That last shot merely peppered the white clouds in the distance. I lowered the gun and watched helplessly as the wounded pheasant wobbled from side to side over the crest of a grassy hill. I thought surely I had lost the bird; it would soon be on the ground running for dear life. Hell, for all I knew, the pheasant was already a mile away.

Defeated, I walked back to the car and drove north. I stopped the car at the first intersection beyond the wetland. A dirt road ran east in the direction of where the bird likely went down. I thought about giving up on the bird and continuing on to the north.  But I turned right, drove about 100 yards, and pulled over to the side of the road. If I could, I’d find the wounded rooster and put it out of its misery.

To the right of the car, two hundreds yards into the grassy field, grew a short beard of tall grass and weeds.  Surely the pheasant had gone there after overtopping the hill to the southwest.  There was no other thick cover for hundreds of yards in any direction. I convinced myself that I only needed to walk to that place and kick around in it to find the rooster. I got out of the car, walked to the barbed wire fence enclosing the field, climbed over it, and walked directly toward the small bit of cover.

In Dakota you can retrieve a dead or wounded bird on private property so long as you leave your gun behind.  I left my shotgun in the car before starting out on my search. About halfway between my car and the area I believed held the rooster, I scanned the grassy field from right to left, trying to discern the telltale signs of a downed ringneck – the dark hump of feathers against a backdrop of green.

Three hundred yards to my left, I saw the stricken bird. Even from that distance, I could tell that its head lay buried face down in the short grass.  Every time a gust of wind swept the field, the pheasant’s long, elegant tail feathers rose off the ground, fluttered for a few seconds, then slowly descended back to the earth.  I immediately started running toward what I thought was a dead bird.

A hundred yards away from the pheasant, the rooster staggered to its feet, shook off its stupor, and took off running. I was stunned. I had thought I had him.  But now the bird was running so fast that I knew I would never catch it. I could see clearly where it was headed – a distant roadside ditch blanketed in brome grass.  I half heartedly ran after it for about 50 yards, then stopped. I knew the gig was up.  The bird was going to give me the slip. Unable to close the distance between us, and without my shotgun, I stood in the middle of the pasture and watched as the rooster made its dash to freedom.  Then just when I thought all was lost, my fortunes took an unexpected turn.

High above the field, I saw a circling hawk pull in its wings and gracefully roll into a dive.  I stood in silenced awe as the hawk fell earthward. About forty feet feet from the ground, with its head straight out and it wings still tight to its sides, it arched toward the fleeing rooster.  In a blur of speed and feathers, the hawk’s beak struck the rooster solidly on the back of the head. The shock of the blow stopped the rooster dead in its tracks.  The pheasant awkwardly stiffened before falling face forward into the grass. The rooster lay completely still, its body hunched over and seemingly lifeless. I couldn’t believe it.  The hawk had delivered a knockout punch against a bird twice its size.  The hawk, which I later learned was a Cooper’s hawk, stood over the rooster, its long wings cloaking the fallen pheasant, its head bent down examining its prey.

I quickly ran toward the two birds, intent on bagging the pheasant once and for all. Upon my approach, the hawk went skyward.  When I got within twenty yards of the pheasant, it stood up and started running again.  But this time it ran more slowly and erratically.  Undoubtedly the whack to the back of its head had hurt it.  Although I was able to get close to it, I couldn’t get close enough.

The rooster and I now began an odd dance.  I ran behind it till I could run no more.  As soon as I stopped, the rooster stopped.  At one point we stood ten feet apart, staring at each other, me taking in great gulps of air, the rooster moving its head up and down and side to side, as if trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was up to.  As soon as I would move toward the bird, it would start trotting away.  This bizarre chase continued on and off for at least five minutes.  Had the rooster simply continued running, he may have made it to safety.  But he always stopped when I stopped.

As my energy waned, I disparaged that I would ever catch the bird.  But then the rooster inexplicably started to run in circles.  I followed – running around and around behind it.  After five minutes of riding the rooster merry-go-round, I got near enough to the bird to lunge at it, but it hopped a short distance and I missed it.  I next took a long bounding step at the animal.  My right boot came down hard on the bird’s back.  My weight pressing down on its small body, the rooster let out a subdued, wheezing cry.  I had it trapped to the ground.  I reached down with my right arm and with my right hand grabbed the rooster by the neck, lifting it straight up off the ground.  Dangling by its neck, the pheasant looked at me, blinking fast.  I headed back to the car.  Halfway there, I realized I hadn’t yet killed the bird.  Somewhat ashamed that the pheasant was still alive, and a bit unnerved by the bird’s blinking, frightened eyes, I spun his body in a rapid clockwise motion till I felt the upper neck bones separate from the lower neck bones.  As soon as I felt a soft gap of flesh in the neck, I stopped spinning the bird’s body. The pheasant’s eyes slowly shut, but they didn’t fully close.  A sliver of lifeless eye still shone through the lids.

Nearing the car, rooster in hand, I thought of how fortunate I had been.  If it hadn’t been for that hawk, which still flew above me, the pheasant would have gotten away.  I felt grateful to the hawk, even though I knew the hawk hadn’t attacked the pheasant on my behalf.  There isn’t any altruism out here.  The hawk wanted the rooster for itself.  My presence in that grassy field had kept the hawk from killing and eating the pheasant.  When I reached the car, the circling hawk turned to the southwest and flew off.  I put the dead bird in the trunk, got behind the wheel, and drove away with my kill.


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