Bird hunters experience their longest nights of the year now. Summer heat isn’t the problem. Rather the earth’s position on its axis, creating neither north nor south migratory flights, suggests too strongly an in-between season in which memories of past autumns and anticipation of the next vie for attention, an unsettled time in which sleep suffers among uplanders and waterfowlers alike.
Pheasants and ruffed grouse, ducks and geese. Also doves and woodcock. Concern for these birds among wing shooters extends year-round in ways the general citizenry might not appreciate. Winter is too severe, or not. The spring nesting season is too wet, or not. Broods hatch successfully, or not. Day to day, month to month, these are the yardsticks by which bird hunters measure the welfare of their feathered populations of interest.
Downpours that swamped parts of southwest Minnesota earlier this summer provide examples. Some pheasant nests that held eggs were washed out. Surviving hens would have re-nested, and re-nested again if necessary. But chicks already hatched that died in the gully washers would be the only chicks their grieving mothers would rear this year, one brood and done.
These types of observations infuse parts of every day, and waking night, for bird hunters, year-round.
Even when the Legislature convenes in winter, when snow piles deep along roadsides in Murray, Pipestone, Lyon, Chippewa and Stevens counties among others, bird hunters show up at the Capitol to plead their case that roadside mowing should be delayed in summer as long as possible. The point is to conserve hens, their nests and chicks, and more broadly songbirds and pollinators. No one who makes these efforts is a casual observer.
Such passions often are rooted in the unforgettable spectacle of rooster pheasants rising from cover awash in the chromatic hues of autumn, or mallards descending over decoys, Canada geese banking wide on their final approach, ruffed grouse gaining altitude among aspens, or even a single woodcock helicoptering upward from its forest-floor camouflage.
Adults experiencing such wonders a first time are as amazed as children. But children benefit longer from the memories.
When I was a kid, my dad hunted every day he could in October and November, and when I was old enough not to cause too much trouble, I was taken along. This was in North Dakota, near Rugby, and when the autumn’s weather turned cool and winds blew from the northwest across the Manitoba border the mallard flights began, potholes filling first with the earliest migrants and soon the bigger sloughs also pockmarked with ducks.
Dad in those days had a favorite Labrador, Boze, who sat alert alongside us in cut cornfields awaiting the morning’s first light. Hiking, paddling, pedaling and climbing can yield similar thrills. But understanding game birds, their habits and tendencies, and placing oneself in their paths with the requisite equipment and skills to harvest a sacramental few ratchets up the rush. For Dad and me, autumn progressed. Snow flew. Morning by morning, birds showed or they didn’t. Either way, habitually, we clambered into fields before dawn to take our best shot, Boze at our side, also my brother, we becoming the experience and it becoming us, inseparable.
Pheasants similarly get under your skin. Some years ago I had an English setter named Risky. A good pheasant dog, she would lock up on roosters and as necessary remain unmoving. But if a cock bird ran, she would reposition herself and pin down the fleeing fowl until I arrived shouldering my vintage two-piper.
So it was one late October afternoon that a long-tailed rooster thundered upward from its redoubt, Risky on point, while overhead, across a prairie sky, hues of summer blue blended to midnight blue and crimson. This was in South Dakota, and from a distance the scene would have appeared a masterwork watercolor. Later, amid the yips of distant coyotes, I dropped my truck’s tailgate and sat there a long while, the sun setting, a Hunter’s Moon rising, Risky curled at my feet, a bird in the hand.
Sleepless now in late July, these and similar memories haunt me and other bird hunters, who speculate even in summer about Minnesota’s prairies and woods, also those of the Dakotas and Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the prospects these landscapes hold this fall for pheasants, waterfowl, grouse and woodcock.
Less often acknowledged, bird hunters worry that age, infirmary, work or other calamity might someday keep them from venturing afield in autumn, an eventuality to be deferred as long as possible, passion being the best defense.