Locating Downed Birds

Posted by  Tuesday, October 08 2013 1:00 am
A hunting buddy — other than your dog — can help you mark your point of the shot while you search.

Every bird hunter dreams of the perfect day afield with crisp, cool fall mornings and antsy dogs anxious to wind that first bird of the new season. Picture perfect points, flushes, shots and retrieves to hand cloud our minds. However, every seasoned bird hunter experienced the desperate disappointment of losing a downed bird even though every aspect of the hunt had been flawless to that point.

Adaptive Camo

Game birds are a product of their environment. Eons of time have designed birds, which remarkably resemble the cover in which they hide and thrive. Much bird cover is thick, almost impenetrable. Lady Luck plays a key role in hunters being able to see a bird flush from such coverts, much less knock one down. Judging distance is difficult in the thickets A good rule of thumb to remember is that your fleeing quarry is usually closer than you might think. If you are not sure where your bird went down, begin your search by looking near to far.

After you connect and tumble a bird into dense cover, the work begins to make your best effort to recover it. Most often a bit of work is in store for you. Downed birds have an uncanny ability to vanish before your eyes, even if you are at first and goal. Those birds have simply blended into the surrounding cover. A bird can skid, tumble or flop into over, around and through vegetative cover forest floor duff, which will mask its presence. It is your duty as a hunter to find it.

More than one bird hunter has been astonished when his retriever returned with a bird he thought he had missed cleanly. Good hunting ethics require you to make an extra effort  to look for birds, even if you think you missed. It may result with a bird in hand. At the least, you can continue your hunt with a clear conscience.

Making the Shot

Shooting well in tight cover takes skill. Skill is acquired through practice. Visit your local sporting clays range regularly prior to the season opener. When the long desired flush comes, you will be happier with your performance and put more birds in the game bag. Increased accuracy and confidence in your shooting abilities will result in more clean kills as well. However, the best form does not prevent thick cover from swallowing up a bird just as you pull the trigger. This scenario haunts many bird hunters every season. Did you down the bird? Only a well thought out search plan will give you the answer.

Mark Your Spot

Fools rush in where seasoned hunters fear to go. The thrill of the moment overwhelms excited bird hunters. You make a perfect  shot and watch the bird tumble from the sky. Instinct urges you to rush in and claim your prize. Haste makes waste in bird hunting situations, too. It is astonishing how quickly surroundings can change if you don’t locate your bird immediately. First, before taking a step, note the exact spot where you stood when you took the shot. This will be your reference point for the duration of your search. Mark the spot with your orange cap, trail tape, toilet paper or anything visible.

When hitting a bird, watch the trail of floating feathers to help give you an idea of its location.

Look for Floaters

Keep your eyes trained in the direction of the shot. Look immediately for feathers floating on the breeze. If the wind is blowing left to right and you shot the bird to the left, align the left edge of the drifting feathers with a landmark, such as a tall tree to give you a line to strike for your search. If you have a hunting buddy along, the search is much easier. Have him stand at the point of the shot, while you strike the line to find your downed bird. You can easily return to your marked beginning as many times as needed.

Use Your Senses

Wild birds use all of their senses to escape predators. As a hunter, you must utilize all of your senses as well in order to consistently find and retrieve your downed game birds. You have already observed your bird’s path of flight. Listen closely for sounds of the bird falling through limbs, branches and forest floor litter. You may hear a muffled thud when the bird strikes the ground. Also listen for the continued wing beats or thrashing of the bird once it goes down.

Search Here, Search There

If you fail to locate your bird where you thought it was, begin a dedicated search. Look around near the spot you thought the bird fell. First thoughts are surprisingly correct and  your bird may only be a few feet away. Hunters are keen predators and possess a sense of the presence of game. Practice improves this helpful attribute.

A retriever greatly improves the enjoyment of any bird hunt and reduces losses of birds as well.

Scan the area around you in a complete circle. Move out a few feet and repeat the process. Watch for any telltale signs of the bird: tiny droplets of blood, a faint feather or rustled leaves are clues to look for.

Change the angle or position from which you are scanning the cover. Crouch down a bit, then kneel down. Laying down on the ground gives you an entirely different perspective of the cover around you. When all else fails, look up. Retrace your steps to your point of origin, all the while scanning the trees and bushes from eye level up. I have retrieved doves, ducks and pheasants from trees. It is definitely worth the look.

Man's Best Friend

There is no arguing that hunting with a bird dog greatly reduces losses of downed birds. Too, the hunt is more enjoyable while sharing the experience with a canine companion. However, as luck dictates, the dog is not always present at the shot. Your finder skills will greatly enhance the dog’s chances of locating the bird a this point. Combine your skills with the “dead bird” point of your dog and the two of you will be a keen dead bird down finding machine.

Final Shots

Days afield are too few. Our passions for new bird hunting memories drive us to the fields and forests when the time is right. like a fine wine, a quality bird hunt must be nurtured from beginning to end. That includes the patience and ethics to execute a follow up after the shot. As the old adage says, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” And the succulent meat of our game birds compliments a fine wine perfectly.

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Last modified on Friday, October 25 2013 12:00 pm
Bill Cooper

Bill Cooper is a 40-year veteran outdoor writer from Missouri. He is a Distinguished Military Graduate from the University of Missouri where he earned a Masters Degree in Outdoor Education. He is a member of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and a past president of the Missouri Outdoor Communicators. Bill received the Conservation Educator of the Year Award from the Conservation Federation of Missouri in 2000 and the Conservation Communicator Award in 2008.

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