Christine Cunningham takes us to school in a bird field and lines out upland hunting etiquette.
The etiquette surrounding upland bird hunting may seem daunting, given the often genteel look of the sport and the number of variables at play—species, terrain, weather, type of dog or dogs, private or public land. But really, it’s as simple as being safe and sporting. Etiquette in the hunting arena is similar to hunting ethics. There is not a set of written laws to follow, but a way of doing things that reflects a love of the sport, enhancing enjoyment for all involved.
An invitation to hunt another’s property, haunt or special covey is a gift. It’s best to show up early and take your cues from the person who extended the invitation. Don’t presume that the invitation includes anyone else, or your dog, unless they’re specifically mentioned. Upland hunters work as a team, and this includes the dogs. If there are signals or limitations to the hunt, these are usually discussed in advance. It’s important not to share the location with others, and this includes providing details socially. By no means can you bring someone else back to the same place. An invitation to go bird hunting is like being invited into a members-only club; it’s hard enough to get the invite, and even harder to become the kind of member who can invite others.
Good Dress Makes Good Company
Showing up in appropriate attire assures that you will be comfortable, capable and conspicuous (I wanted to use the word “visible,” but could not resist the alliteration). Much of my outdoor clothing is camouflage, but camo is verboten in upland bird hunting. The importance of being seen is not just a legal requirement in most states (make sure to check your state’s blaze orange regulations), it’s a safety essential. Upland hunters typically wear layers that allow a lot of movement. If you can’t reach over your head in your field clothes, they don’t provide enough room for movement in the field. Brush pants and waterproof boots will ensure that you stay warm and dry, and therefore as pleasant, as possible. A quality game vest or jacket is an investment, so if you don’t have one, be sure to bring a day pack or another means of carrying game from the field.
Firearms Safety Rules are the Bare Minimum
If a hunt isn’t safe, it’s less enjoyable for all involved. Firearms safety rules are often written and rewritten, but the unwritten rules are a logical extension of the 4 basic firearms safety rules. One of the worst sights imaginable is to be looking down another person’s barrel, so be careful where you point yours. Over/under shotguns are often the first choice of upland bird hunters. Break open the gun (or open the action) when handing it to someone else, and close it with the barrel/s pointing down. When birds flush—it can happen in a flash—be sure to pivot with the muzzle pointed skyward. If you are a first-time shot—someone who has never shot a clay, never shot a bird or never shot in company—a shooting course, lesson or guided/supervised hunting venture is the best place to start. Even seasoned shooters can make careless mistakes. Once in the field, shotgun safety is everyone’s responsibility. Special care should be taken to be aware of the dog at all times.
Don’t Criticize the Bird Dog
Bird dogs have a hallowed place in the hearts of bird hunters. It doesn’t matter if they ever win a field trial or even retrieve a bird to hand. If they eat your bird, they’re just having a bad day. If they relieve themselves in the back of your vehicle, they are just being humorous. If they jump up on your clothes with their muddy paws, don’t lose your cool. It’s ill-advised ever to criticize or command another person’s hunting dog. If you don’t like gun dogs—if you don’t love the way a good dog works a field or holds a point that makes his owner stop and stare—just don’t say so to the person who does. Praising the dog, on the other hand, can make up for many of your personal character flaws.
Be Sporting and Shoot Birds on the Wing
Each hunter has his or her own rules for voluntary restraint. Many only take males of the species, even when the law doesn’t require it. Some target a particular species and avoid others. No matter what a hunter’s personal value judgments are, it’s important to keep things sporting. It’s considered un-sporting to shoot a low bird or a bird on the ground or in a tree. Often hunters will work out beforehand what airspace belongs to which hunter. A bird killed fairly and squarely and fit for the table is the best kind of bird. Wounded birds must be dealt with quickly, and it’s considered bad form to leave birds on the ground. Retrieve a dropped bird as quickly as possible. If a skilled shooter is generous and allows a few birds to pass into your airspace, remember to say thanks. We all have bad days in the field, but complaining or making excuses can ruin another’s enjoyment. The best response to an off day afield is to credit the birds for being especially wary.
Be Worthy of the Game
The best way to show respect for your quarry and add enjoyment to time spent afield is to learn as much as possible beforehand. Learning how to identify game birds is fundamental, but most bird hunters go afield to find a sacred place, and they want it to exist long after they are gone. Understanding the regulations pertaining to game birds, including licenses, stamps and harvest limits, is important, but it’s also worthwhile to realize that many upland bird species are facing steep declines. Their grassland and prairie habitats are some of the fastest-disappearing habitats in the U.S. Joining a conservation group associated with the game species you are hunting is one way to show support and learn about the game. Picking up your spent shells shows you care about the places you hunt and the birds that live there.
What Matters Most
Although there are many variables and arguments about the kind of dog, shotgun, bird or approach best used in upland hunting, some core values are shared by all bird hunters. They dream of wild flushes. They have a story about a bird dog that makes them smile or brings them to tears. They have reverence for the species they hunt. And no matter what they tell you, they’re still learning every day. There’s nothing like the world of wingshooting, and many consider it an art. Like art, its value is held in the eye of the beholder and in what it’s capable of making us feel. Be safe and be sporting!
This Retro WON first appeared June 8, 2015.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham