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The chance to kill a bird never struck me as a legitimate test of he-man-manship. This is, perhaps, a carryover from an earlier day when, with my Red Ryder carbine, I brought to earth a sparrow whose presence had menaced the neighborhood. In flight the sparrow is a fluttering, darting, impossible target, a hot-dog wrapper on the wind. In hand it was a pitiful lump of inedibility. There are laws to protect little sparrows against young fools with BB guns, and they are good laws.
It was, therefore, a surprise the other morning to find myself preparing to hunt pheasant on a shooting preserve maintained by a former poacher named John Joseph Cox in Dutchess County, N.Y., two hours north of Manhattan. Whatever trauma had resulted from the murder of the sparrow 18 years before seemed to have passed. So indeed had the uncomplimentary thoughts I had harbored about shooting preserves. Gazing on the fat inmates of the Cox pen, the death row of pheasantville, I suddenly relished their execution. They were corn-fed and healthy, with meaty breasts and puffy necks. They looked to me like a thousand feathery Charles Laughtons. I indulged in a silent prediction: "You're going to get yours, Charlie boy."
What followed is an increasingly familiar tableau around the country. By estimate there are 15 million hunters who use shotguns in the U.S. There is also a drastically diminishing supply of hunting land. At a time when shotgun scores on posted signs, panel trucks, cats (domestic), plate glass windows and other hunters are increasing, and it is a hazard for the suburban housewife to get out to the clothesline during dove season, the emergent popularity of the shooting preserve is not only natural but necessary. The Cox preserve is one of 1,800 in 42 states (as compared with 750 in 22 states as recently as 1954). For the East it is large—600 acres. It is pretty land, with good cover and rough terrain, not considered easy to hunt, but there are plenty of birds. Cox has an annual turnover of 10,000 pheasants, 1,200 chukar partridge and 1,200 quail. The land is rich in bird cover—multiflora rose, for example, which has small red berries good for feed. He plants corn and lespedeza and cuts paths through the thickets to make walking easier. He has six guides on his staff and 22 dogs—German shorthairs, pointers, a few English setters and a Weimaraner.
There were two of us shooting on this day. Six birds—$39 worth on the Cox scale—were released five minutes in advance of our coming, six fat pheasants, which immediately fanned out over a portion of Cox's land, running through the goldenrod. Soon after, a cross-eyed German shorthair named Adam was sent out. A guide followed to call signals for Adam. Guide and dog came with the $39 package.
To the medalist hunter, the loping, sniffing, crisscrossing reconnaisance of the hunting dog is a beauteous sight, and so it was even for me, the tyro. Adam went about his business quickly. My partner and I stumbled along behind. I carried a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun and took care to mention three or four times that I had never fired a shotgun before. I did this for two reasons: 1) it was true; 2) I embarrass easily.
Nevertheless, we were famously successful. With Adam flushing birds from the goldenrod and the milkweed and cornfields and alfalfa and bog grass with equal vigor, his great ears flapping like pillowcases in the crisp autumn air, I was given enough shots and enough time (three hours) to get my share. The three pheasants I shot were like the sparrow only in that they were dead. No predator had damaged their plumage and careful maintenance had insured their plumpness. Pangs of conscience gave way to pangs of hunger.
We had, in retrospect, experienced most of the sensations of hunting in the wilds without actually being in the wilds: confusion when Adam carefully found, followed, then erratically lost the scent; burning lungs as we struggled up and down hillsides and through swamp beds; boredom over long intervals between shots (this is particularly boring when you're paying for it); excitement when a bird made that fateful pause in midair upon being hit, then fell.
We had, too, proved what hunting purists contend to be true—that it takes less than a hunter to be successful on a shooting preserve. Even so, we managed to avoid the gaffs that have been committed by some of the two-footed horrors who have invaded the Cox domain.
"I remember well a party of four," says Cox. "Great sportsmen. Three of them fired at one bird. It came fluttering to the ground, not quite dead. The fourth came running up and bang! the coup de gr�ce. 'What a nice shot we made that time, eh fellas?' he says, a big silly grin on his face. 'What a nice shot.'
"Sometimes they come up here skeptical. There was this big limousine full of seven Irishmen. One of them asks me how the hunting works. I told him. 'Sure and that's a fine swindle,' he says. 'You take the liberty to put out the birds. Why, you'd never put 'em out. And if you did, you'd go and shoot 'em y'self.'