SI Vault
William Humphrey
October 14, 1985
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October 14, 1985

Birds Of A Feather


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Whenever the dogs went on point, Paul would call me to the spot. There mother and daughter would be living statues, transfixed, motionless as long as the bird—invisible to us—remained mesmerized by their hypnotic glares. Should the bird move, the dogs moved with it, just so much and no more. In flushing the bird, Paul and I took turns. The unspoken understanding between us was that traditional code of the field—that, should the shooter miss, the second shot belonged to whoever could make it. Yet not so did I kill my first, my virgin, woodcock.

I knew it for what it was precisely because it was my first. In its total novelty to me, it could be nothing else. The wild twitter the woodcock made as it flushed, I had read, was not a cry that the bird utters but is caused by the rapid rush of air through the feathers of its frenziedly beating wings. This bird was not pointed. I was hunting some 50 yards from Paul and the dogs when it flushed wild out of a poplar. I shot and missed. It was a good thing that I did.

Let nobody ever tell you otherwise: Wingshooting is hard—all wingshooting. In woodcock hunting there is an added factor that can unsteady the hunter and throw him off his mark. Unlike grouse, woodcock generally hold close, either to the point or the set of the dog, or to the approaching hunter, and they are so perfectly camouflaged that you will never see one before it has taken wing. Thus the bird usually flushes quite close to you. You must curb your natural impulse, must slow yourself down, hold back for a moment, and let the bird gain some distance from you before shooting. The charge of shot must have time to open and spread, otherwise it is the equivalent of a rifle slug of large caliber and, being so compact, it will do one of two things, either miss the bird or demolish it.

Though I was hunting woodcock for the first time, I was not long in realizing that. You must not wait overlong, of course, else the bird will get away by putting too much foliage between itself and you, especially during the early part of the season when the leaves are still on the trees. You will often have some intervening foliage, for the bird is on the wing seeking new protective cover, yet you must not let this deter you. Shoot into the foliage, through it, at the departing and disappearing bird, or rather, at where the bird will be momentarily, when your charge arrives at the same spot in space. Some pellets, even tiny No. 8 or No. 9 pellets, will get through, and not many are needed to bring down a woodcock; he does not take a lot of killing. It is a matter of very nice judgment, this waiting but not waiting too long. Being tense and overconscious can throw the shooter's timing off, causing him to potter and thus to miss the bird by shooting behind it or to let it get away with nothing fired but the hunter's curse, intended for himself. Wingshooting at anything, from clay pigeons to wild geese, must be instinctive. To think about it is to falter and to fail.

There is yet another difficulty peculiar to woodcock hunting, another difference between this one and other game birds. The woodcock is the helicopter among them. The other game birds take off and travel horizontally, more or less, the flight pattern the wingshooter is used to. When afield after woodcock the hunter must readjust his reactions to shoot at a vertically rising target. This is hard to do, not just because it is unexpected, but because it is awkward; tracking no other airborne mark so contorts the body. It is as if a righthanded person had to do something lefthanded. So, although the woodcock is far from the fastest of game birds, it does things with its usual difference. A lot of those shot at time and again arrive for their winter in Louisiana whole and hale, with no trace of lead poisoning.

Once clear of the treetops, the woodcock is erratic in flight. The shooter may, in his mind, have this rather slow, easy-looking mark already in his game pocket, and then it will sidestep as the knight progresses on the chessboard, or from the altitude the bird has attained it may drop as though already shot on the wing and killed. Its fluttering forward flight much resembles that of the butterfly, darting, dipping. And if you miss one with your first barrel, it, this little feathered missile, has auxiliary rockets that can send it into orbit.

Considering all these things, I was not at all disappointed that it was only with my second barrel that I brought down my first woodcock.

By lunchtime, shooting over the dogs on point, I had killed two more, each with a single shot. Paul had missed two.

Lunch. Not back at the car but high on a mountainside, on the bank of a bone-dry, boulder-strewn stream-bed. A pick-me-up of strong tea, scalding hot from the thermos, laced with cognac but only a little, for alcohol and gunpowder make an explosive mixture. Chunks wrenched from a loaf of heavy, coarse black bread. Butter. Cheese. Sliced ham. A wurst made by Paul's neighborhood Hungarian butcher from venison supplied by Paul and mixed with an equal amount of pork. Apples. Raisins. Chocolate. All this from the knapsack containing, in addition to these things and others too numerous to list: extra collars for both dogs, a can of Sterno, a rope, a space blanket, several knives, a sweater, a small hatchet. Mostly survival items, in case while hunting alone he should sprain an ankle or break a leg. And with this pack on his back Paul not only hunts all day, walking as much as 20 miles over terrain as rocky as a streambed, up hillsides steep enough to turn back a tank, he actually gets his double-barreled 12-gauge to his shoulder in time to pluck from the sky a woodcock, often a pair, or grouse that go off underfoot like land mines.

But not that day. That day was my day, not Paul's, and when it was over, back at the car, with my five birds and his one lying on the ground, Paul said, as the dogs were being rewarded with a feed, "Well, Ipsy, Aïda, it's a good thing we had our Uncle Bill along with us, eh?"

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