Finding Downed Birds

By Nick Simonson

Pups, one day they’re on, the next day that knowledge is seemingly gone.  Working through some retrieves with my young lab recently highlighted a tale of two dogs, and what sometimes needs to be done to find a downed bird.  Two weeks ago, I dropped two young roosters just into the standing crop in an uncut wheat field. Ole was clueless as to where they were or seemingly how to find them.  Stunned, I ran switchback search patterns in the grain until I found them both on my own, while my dog walked behind me.

When my brother-in-law shot a rooster in a thick cattail stand last weekend, I barked out an order to mark where it crashed down, revealing the challenges I had previously experienced as we combed the vegetation.  While we diligently looked for the rooster, Ole snuck up behind me with the bird in his mouth, once again showing he knew exactly what he was doing, and perhaps he was just reminding me of what’s required to find a bird from time to time. What follows are some of my favorite tips for better retrieves.

On Your Mark

The number one way to keep from losing a bird is to watch it fall and pick out something at or near its point of impact as we did with the most recent rooster.  The human mind is great at quickly selecting landmarks and differences in surroundings, despite a large area of grass or slough that looks similar from front to back.  Try to find one or two markers – say a clump of thistle plants in the switch grass, or a taller stand of cattails – that are at or near where the bird fell and make your way to that spot as quickly as possible.

Get Set

Once you are in the place where you think the bird fell, if you do not have a dog to assist you, begin a visual survey of the site.  Take your time and be thorough, as the protective coloration of most upland birds is designed to help them blend in with their surroundings.  If you are hunting with a dog, call it over to the spot – preferably a bit downwind – and let it begin its search. While you survey, try not to move much as you may spook a bird into running, or mess up the scent profile in the area for the dog.  If you are not hunting with a dog, you can work the area in a spiral searching pattern a few steps at a time.  I like to give my dog a good five minutes to pick up scent and follow any moving bird.

Generally, if it is a downed bird that is not on the run, he doesn’t need that long to locate it.  When hunting alone, like in those days before I had a dog, I gave a spot at least 10 minutes of good searching before abandoning my efforts.  Watch for movement in the grasses on the ground and listen for the noise of kicking legs or wings which might give away the bird’s location.

Go Back

If your initial efforts are not successful and you are able to return to the spot where the bird went down, revisit it after your walk.  This allows time for a wounded bird to expire, or for a live bird to generate more scent as it hunkers down in the area.  Play the wind if you have a dog to pick that scent up or make one last visual search if you are on your own.

If you’re quick to get to the place where you think the bird fell, using either obvious or subtle landmarks to guide you, you’ll have a better chance of retrieving your quarry.  A situation involving a wounded bird is where the benefit of a good dog shines through.  Take the time to find downed game, look carefully and thoroughly and pay each bird you hunt the respect it deserves.

Featured Photo: In the thick of it.  Heavy cover will require some extra searching and a good mark when a bird falls. Simonson Photo. 

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