Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ooooh, pretty birdie. Pretty dead birdie.

Before I became a hunter, one of the most confusing things about hunting, to me, was the bizarre reaction hunters have to their dead prey, the way they sit there there stroking the animal and saying how beautiful this thing is ... this thing they just killed.

Gary Sorensen over at Base Camp Legends got me thinking about it the other day with a post about hunting success and emotion. And then, of course, I immediately went out in the field the next day and behaved in this very perplexing way myself.

It was a bluebird day - not ideal for duck hunting - but a sometimes-gusty north wind gave me hope that the ducks might be getting all stirred up at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. So I loaded up the car, aimed north for the 90-minute drive and got in line for a blind I could occupy until sundown.

A few hours later, I found myself setting up decoys right next to one of the closed zones, a primo spot because there were no hunters between me and the birds' "safe" zone. There was still a good breeze, and it was downright toasty in the low 40s, so I was plenty comfortable. Ducks swirled overhead as I spread out the decoys. It might be a good day after all! And it'd certainly be more pleasant than Sunday's miserably wet hunt had been.

But, of course, the minute I loaded my shotgun and settled down in a clump of tules, all duck movement stopped. Not much action around me, and absolutely none in my area. After watching birds take a left turn when they neared my decoy spread a few times, I got out and tinkered with the arrangements.

Several times.

Still nothing.

Finally, the guys in the neighboring blind took a shot at some birds, and one of the ducks, in his haste to get away from them, zoomed straight over me. A beautiful spoonie drake. He tumbled into the water on the second shot, and he did not escape into tules, as had both of my ducks on Sunday.

Whew. Not skunked!

But 84 miles was a long way to drive for just one duck. I was hoping for more.

A while later, I was periscoping, turning this way and that to see if I could catch any movement in the sky, when I saw the unmistakable twirl of three teal bobbing and weaving my way at light speed.

I turned my body, but my legs - stuck in the muck - didn't move. The ducks kept coming. I turned my body the other way, and now my legs were wrapped around each other like an old twist tie you've used on too many loaves of bread - not pretty. The ducks kept coming. I raised my gun hoping to get off a shot as they veered around me, but I never could get in position.

I'm pretty sure I heard them laughing on their way to the next pond.


The sun was dropping pretty quickly.

I moved to a place where I could get my feet under me more efficiently, and I was very quickly rewarded with a string of three dark little torpedoes coming at me from the east about 20 feet off the water. I stood, fired one shot, and watched as one crumpled and hit the water, lifeless.

Wow. Whew.

I am still so grateful when I can stone a duck in one shot. This little guy had no idea what hit him. I jumped out of the tules and made my way toward him.

Too dark to be a scaup.

Five feet away, I could see a single golden eye in an irridescent black head. Goldeneye?

Then I picked him up and saw the unmistakably lovely bill - the black tip and the gray middle, ringed by white. It was the most dapper bill in duckdom, the spectator shoe of the duck bill world.

I picked him up by the head, delighted. As I did, the light of the fading sun hit his neck, illuminating the faint ring of reddish brown that gives this duck its name: ringneck.

He was absolutely beautiful. I beamed. I've never gotten a ringneck before. I was inexplicably proud.

Twenty minutes later, the sun finally disappeared behind the coastal range. I counted down the minutes and the seconds to the end of shoot time without being interrupted by any more ducks. And I smiled anyway. "The marsh has blessed me today," I said to myself.

I don't know why it pleases me so much to get a certain type of duck, or to get my first of any duck. I have yet to take a bird to a taxidermist. I'm just going to eat it.

But there's something special about walking up to that lifeless body and seeing exactly what you got. It's like opening a present. Or getting a particularly good baseball card.

It certainly doesn't seem right to view a dead animal that way - it's a bit like seeing a fresh human corpse and saying, "Dang, she was a knockout! And she's my first blonde corpse, to boot!"

But I can't deny the feeling. I can only hope some day that I'll understand it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

It is really weird, but I think we all feel it. Scholars say it has something to do with possession and beauty; when we take control over something (in this case by killing it) we somehow tap into the power of whatever it was. There's been a fair bit of research on this in anthropology, but I have never really been able to explain the feeling well, either. And incidentally, this is a phenomenon that goes far beyond hunting...

On a less esoteric note, the only real way to really understand a duck or any other wild animal fully is to hold it -- to touch, see, smell and, ultimately, taste the animal. For example, I've seen Canada geese my whole life, but it was not until plucking one that I fully appreciated just how thick their feathers are; they're like armor. You can't get that knowledge with a camera. Audubon did all his bird collecting with a gun, and for similar reasons.

Terry Scoville said...

That Ringneck is a real specimen, such a beauty. You sure you want to eat "that" one? Looked like a real gem for a Taxidermist.
There has not been a bird or mammal that I've harvested that I didn't "croon" over and admire its beauty. For me there is a touch of sadness therein too. Especially when the first shot is not a clean kill.

Somewhat of an oxymoron, hunting and being in awe of that which is the hunted. Nice post Holly, and congratulations on a most spectacular Drake Ringneck...WOW!

Live to Hunt.... said...

Ditto to Hunter Angler and Terry. For me it also has to do with respect. To simply flip the duck into the bottom of the tank or toss them in the bag seems unbefitting of the priviledge we are granted as hunters. To pause and admire is to respect.

And that is one of the prettiest ringneck drakes I've seen. You might want to consider him for your first mount.

Blessed said...

Ringnecks are a beautiful duck... we've got a whole one in our freezer right now - it was the only duck of the day on one of the last hunts "John" and my hubby went on - Drake caught it while they were picking up decoys and Hubby found that another hunter had winged it and been unable to recover it - we use some whole ducks in training and sometimes on one duck days we'll save those (it depends on the kind of duck) we saved that one and then "John" died and I keep thinking that if it isn't too late I'd rather take it to the taxidermist than use it in dog training...

I know exactly what you are talking about though - I always admire the birds we kill with a tinge of sadness at their death but the knowledge that they are dinner.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I think all of us hunters go through it. I know I always feel remorse, as well as respect, for every animal I kill.

I think it just has to do with the deep appreciation we have for our quarry. And as Hunter Angler said, you can't truly experience an animal until you can touch it.

I think both of those things factor into it. It is definitely a hard thing to explain....especially to a non-hunter.

Native said...

Ahh! Such a paradoxical situation which we hunters place ourselves in.

We embrace nature with a complexity of emotions which include, but are not necessarily limited to,
a combination of fascination,love and horror.
(I have been reading Poe too much of late)

Couple this with the innate urge that swells within each and every human breast to simply survive by means of our own hand and skills.
(This also includes the animal rights extemist)

And what do you get? The modern day sport hunter!

As always Holly, Great and very thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...

This is something that amazed me too, when I started hunting. It still does after ten years of this "lifestyle choice". The way I've worked this out in my own little brain is that appreciation of the beauty and strength and all those things is part of the grief and sadness I see at the loss of life. It is also the joy at having succeeded at what you were trying to do, along with the way the sunlight catches the antlers, or the thousand other things that cause you to be in awe. The sense of obligation to the spirit of the creature (that we see in our own hearts and minds) we have taken the life from - to use it's mortal remains as sustenance. What you have here is that another has given it's life so you can live.

For me, all those things go in a mental blender and pour out as joy and sadness in one cup. I am grateful that it brings all these feelings together.

You just can't get that at the meat counter in supermarket.

Did any of this make sense?


P.S. That is a beautiful bird.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh, sure, all of it makes sense to me because it's familiar. I guess I'm looking for the logic. I spend a lot of time trying to explain hunting to non-hunters, and while I can logically explain a lot (e.g., the whoops of joy when you kill something are about hitting your target, not about taking a life), I'm not sure the logic is there to explain crooning over a dead thing. At least not in a way that would really satisfy anyone.

Then again, nobody ever said emotions are logical...

Reid Farmer said...

Beautiful bird, Holly!

Cory Glauner said...

I have a friend who just grabs birds out of his dogs' mouth and stuffs them in his vest. It's always baffled me. Admiring the bird has always been one of the magical parts of hunting for me.

Anonymous said...

I think if hunters didn't admire and respect their kills hunting would be something less than it is. You're appreciating the entire animal, both for it's beauty and for the fact that it will nourish you and those with whom you choose to share your meal.

I think that's kind of beautiful, myself.