Out of Bounds

All Quiet on the Game Bird Front

I’ve seen some remarkably late-hatching birds over the years

By Rob Breeding

We’re entering the “quiet period” in the uplands. Depending on where you live, game birds are pairing up and breeding. Nesting will soon begin in the southern states. 

Up north we’re still a month or so away, but it won’t hurt to start adjusting your dog training plans right now.

Where I live, I can afford to let my dog run wild during the fall hunting season, winter and only the chilliest parts of spring. I have a nice spot along the river where Jade can stretch her legs and run loose while I plod along on the trail, contemplating my developing contempt for winter.

Once it warms up at all, anytime after March 1 basically, I have to keep her on a leash and out of the grass. We live in tick country, and they emerge with a vengeance as we near St. Patrick’s Day. After that, Jade gets most of her exercise jogging alongside me on developed trails. It works to some extent to expend her energy, but it in no way provides the kind of free-running exercise that best helps her stay in shape.

That’s all we’ve got until school gets out and we can head for higher, less arachnid-infested country. 

Pheasants Forever’s social media and website are sharing a map that shows by state when the upland bird nesting season begins and how long it lasts. That’s May 1 where I live and May 15 in Montana. That’s pretty early for actual nesting, but the birds need space to get settled into their business. A bird dog hot on a pheasant’s spurs is not conducive to a rooster or hen getting in the mood.

The state closes wildlife management areas to dog training around here on May 1, and the Feds follow a similar calendar. That’s no problem for Jade and me since the ticks have already scared us off, but the restrictions last through summer when the bloodsuckers become a little less prevalent. This gives broods of pheasants and quail time and space to get their flight feathers on before hunting season starts.

Depending on conditions, late hatches can boost numbers, so I stay out of bird-producing uplands until September, or later if summer temperatures linger. I’ve seen some remarkably late-hatching birds over the years. 

In Arizona, I once stumbled upon a covey of Mearns’ quail in a thick oak forest. The adults flushed too quickly for a shot in the heavy cover.

Then I heard something rustling in the grass at my feet. I looked down and watched as about 10 downy, stippled chicks scurried off in the direction of their parents, eventually lifting off into erratic bursts of flight, careening off oak limbs and crashing to the ground as they tried to catch up with mom and dad. They couldn’t have been more than two weeks old. 

It was just a few days after New Year’s.

Young male pheasants look like hens, so if I’m seeing any that young in late October, I’m not shooting anyway. Last season, or maybe the one before, I flushed a hen and four or five obviously juvenile offspring, but that’s rare. I have killed a few roosters that were spurless young-of-the-year birds. Their plumage wasn’t fully developed, but they were clearly males on the flush.

Once, scouting out on the chukar grounds a few days before the mid-October opener in Wyoming, I came across the scraggliest covey of birds I’ve ever seen. A pair of adult chukars led their weary conscripts as they crossed the road in front of me. What followed were a couple of mangy, mid-sized juveniles that looked almost as if they’d been plucked, followed by a couple of chicks that appeared to have barely grown out of their down.

All of those birds benefit from the break of the quiet period. Let’s give them their space.