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By Charlie Shoulders,
As Field Committee Chairman, you might think one of my biggest tasks is finding and transporting all of the birds that we use at our training and other events. As we purchase many hundreds of them each year, I could tell you a number of very interesting stories about these adventures! But, while hauling them is one thing, planting them is quite another. The DOGS would tell you that my most important job is PLANTING the birds where they can sniff and flush them out. I’m sure, after many years of planting the fields with game and hearing me holler “birds are in!”, that the dogs understand this phrase completely.
Actually, we try to plant them based upon the given dog and situation in the field, and what we would like to accomplish. “Planting” is simply placing one or more birds within a field of cover done with training exercises or other objectives in mind, including scenting, quartering, ranging, flushing, steadying and retrieving. Different types of birds require different planting techniques and this must also be adjusted for the cover and weather conditions. Young dogs or those just learning to hunt may need smaller birds planted, like quail, pigeon or chukar, and I would consider planting these birds in a narrow pattern, in lighter cover. Conversely, advanced dogs may need pigeon, chukar or pheasant, a wider or longer-ranging planting pattern, and more difficult cover to make the birds more difficult to find. What follows are some tips that will help keep the birds from “volunteering”, which is when they fly off without being flushed, and out of gunshot range. When this happens I get a dog’s dirty look!
First and Foremost
Take care of the birds, they can be a large investment and deserve your consideration. If you keep them overnight make sure they are safe from other wild critters. If they are out during long hot days, make sure their crates are in a shaded area and when necessary, provide them with food and water. I use cabbage, lettuce, or melon chunks, all of which contain moisture.
For planting, I use the following supplies: gloves, blunt end scissors, rubber bands, duct tape, and a couple of large, ventilated bird bags. I also wear a bird-bag belt, which has three single bird sized pouches hanging from it. There are many different commercial items at sporting stores and in catalogs for the purpose of handling birds, but a few simple tools will do. Your bird supplier may loan or sell you bird crates, or you can make them or buy them. Be sure they are suitable to the type of bird you are transporting and using. The old “chicken coop” is really too tall for game birds. Tall crates allow the birds to peck each other easily, resulting in damaged or dead birds in the crate.
Before training, walk the field you will use for planting birds. Inspect and memorize good planting spots. Check for poison ivy, picker bushes, etc. Decide if you want to consistently plant in the same general area for every dog, or if you want to plant differently for each dog. Make sure the field is relatively clear of large holes or dangerous debris, or steer clear of these areas. You can place flags at certain intervals along the middle and/or side of the course, to help you and others gauge distances and mark boundaries. Depending upon the size of the field and number of birds, it might take a bit of time to plant. If you working with a group and running a lot of dogs, you might consider “back-planting”, which is planting birds behind a working dog and handler. As they quarter and move down the field in their training exercise or simulated hunt, you can plant birds behind them for the next dog to use.
I usually follow an alternating planting pattern down the field. If the first bird is planted on the left side of the field the next one is planted on the right side of the field and so on. This helps enforce the thought that birds can be found anywhere in the field and lets the dog have a few more quartering passes before the next bird is found. For you handlers remember to send your dog to the opposite side of the last flushed bird. If you send him to the same side they typically get hung up in the area of the last flush, where there may still be scent. Sending to the opposite side helps “erase” the last bird and allows you move past that area on the next quartering leg. I also plant on the outside portion of the field where the gunners will be. This encourages gunner to gunner quartering in the dog, widening their hunting pattern.
In the first picture on this page I hope you can see that the outside primary flight feathers of the bird have been cut off. This can be done with a pair of blunt end scissors or you can pull them out. Just the primaries need to be cut not the secondaries. The primary flight feathers are the eight or so longest feathers at the wing tip. Stretch the wing out carefully and only cut one side! If you cut both sides the bird may still achieve lift and flight. Cutting one side will unbalance the bird, resulting in a lot of flapping and hopping but no true flight. If cutting or pulling feathers is not for you, you can tape the flight feathers closed with a small piece of duct tape or rubber band. This works well with all types of training birds.
Planting Chukar, Quail, Pigeons
Generally these birds are the easiest to plant. You just walk into the field holding them by their legs with their head hanging down, maybe shake their head around a bit and then drop them into cover. (See photo above.) This disorients them and they will usually hunker down in the cover and stay put. But every batch of birds is different and the time of year has some impact on what the birds will do as well.
If the cover is not thick enough birds will feel insecure and will walk out to find something more to their liking. While not bad for an experienced dog and good training for trailing birds it’s not the situation one might want for a young dog. Sometimes the “drop in” approach will not work and I have to resort to a more forceful method of planting. This involves a sort of overhand flick to the ground that momentarily stuns the bird, and it takes awhile for it to regain its senses. Obviously care must be taken with the amount of force used with this technique as you don’t want the bird too stunned to flush. Remember too that the throw is down not out. If the bird is thrown out and it’s not clipped you will be amazed at how quickly they can right themselves in midair and fly away!
The amount and thickness of cover is an important element in helping the bird to stay planted. Thick cover and the bird generally stays put, thin cover and the bird moves on. Pigeons are notorious for flying away from light cover as they are by nature a roosting bird rather than a ground dweller.
Pictured below is the suggested method for holding a Chukar or Quail when starting a dog in quartering drills. Rather than just grabbing the legs and swinging the bird around to get the dogs attention, grasp the bird with the first two fingers on either side of the head with the thumb and remaining fingers on either side of the body. This allows less room for the head to flop about and also spreads the wings out to help make a bigger object for the dog to see and be teased with. Holding the bird in this manner, and then throwing it in, in front of or behind the quartering dog, will make for an active target.
Of the game birds that I have planted the most difficult has been the Rooster Pheasant followed by the Hen. Hens can be dizzied and placed in heavy cover quite successfully, especially in spring when they are in egg production. At other times of the year they probably will have to be thrown in or put to “sleep” and placed into cover. To sleep a bird you simply need to tuck the head under a wing and hold the bird quietly for 20 seconds or so (see photo at left). Another way to sleep a bird is to place it on the ground belly up, cover the head with one hand and pull out on the legs with the other hand, stretching the bird out for a 20 count. You can often see the bird’s breathing slow down and relax indicating sleep. Care needs to be taken in both of these methods to prevent breaking the bird’s neck or damaging the windpipe.
I have found that the thicker the cover the better for Pheasant, especially for the Rooster. While sleeping a bird on it’s back is effective, it is not a natural position for them. In light cover they will roll over and immediately head for the hills!
Sometimes it becomes necessary to “shackle” or “hobble” a Rooster Pheasant. Sorry I don’t have a photo for this technique but it is the same principle used in hobbling horses. To hobble a bird I will use a large, thick rubber band knotted in the middle, or two smaller thick ones tied together with each end hitched around a separate leg on the bird. This allows the bird to walk and get enough jump for a good flight but prohibits them from running. If rubber bands are not available duct tape is a good substitute.
Remember that all of these birds have beaks, toenails and some have spurs and know how to use them! It is not uncommon to be pecked or scratched when reaching into a create. Male Pheasant are great ones for trying to dig their spurs into you and it’s not something you want to happen often. Also watch out for flapping wings when you pull birds from the crate.
I’m now out of room, so I’ll save more tips and stories for later. Good luck with your dog training and bird planting adventures.