Duck scavenger. Cripple Queen. Crip magnet.
That's me this season. Usually when I count my ducks for the season, I include a count for the ducks I've hit but lost. This year, I should add a column for other people's crips I've shot or picked up, because there have been so many. It's been downright freakish.
Sometimes they're the duck that's shot elsewhere and happens to come to my pond to die. A gift from the sky.
In one case, though, it was a bull sprig handed to me by a pheasant hunter after his dog found him. The bird was alive and looked "fine" - I had to finish him off. But when I plucked and dressed him, I was so disheartened by what I saw: A good 15 shot holes. An angry red wing wound, maybe the result of marsh critters picking at a shot wound. And when I opened him up, the horrifying stench that revealed his guts had been shot up and had been leaking for days.
I wanted to cry. I had to throw his poor carcass away because the meat was obviously tainted. That's something I hate to do, but that's not what upset me; it was the thought of him living like that for who knows how long. I am willing to accept that animals must die for us to eat meat, but I'm hard-pressed to feel good about the ones that are shot for nothing because we can't recover them.
This bizarre streak I'm on has raised lots and lots of questions for me, and answers have been hard to find. Read more...
The most obvious question was asked by our token vegan/non-hunter Hutch in the comment thread on my last post: How can you reconcile this - the fact that so many birds are wounded and not retrieved by the hunters who shot them?
Well, honestly, Hutch, it sucks. I reconcile it because I acknowledge that pretty much every breath we take as humans does incidental damage - we cannot walk through this world without leaving a wake. No animal can. Lots of animals die as unintended victims of the quest to produce vegan food too.
The fact that I'm a hunter means I face this fact pretty directly. Many people have no idea what the incidental cost of their grocery-store food was - from rodents killed by plows to eggs crushed by farm machinery to hawks smacked by the semis that delivered the food to our local markets. With my hunting, I know all too well the incidental cost.
That leaves two other questions: What is the magnitude of the situation? And what can be done to minimize it?
Now, many anti-hunters have quoted statistics on the wounding loss rate in bird hunting - anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent or even worse. But sorry, I'm not going to trust that until I see who did the studies, and it seems they never provide links to these studies.
(And I have seen first hand how anti-hunting organizations like HSUS will just make stuff up - like the "fact" that hunters don't eat doves because there's so little meat on them. Please. Note the photo on the left. Don't lick your computer screen.)
Then I came across a page on "reducing wounding losses" on the South Dakota Game & Fish website. Here's what it said:
So, what is the magnitude of struck-but-unretrieved waterfowl in the U.S. and Canada? U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) harvest survey results show that hunters reported an average annual wounding loss rate of 18 percent from the 1930’s to the present time. However, hunters do not see all the birds that they wound. Numerous U.S. and Canada research studies have been published involving trained observers that record the harvest efficiency of thousands of duck hunters in the field. These studies document wounding rates of more than 30 percent. Therefore, if you reconcile hunter and trained observer reports, the wounding rate on ducks is at least 25 percent.
First of all, this came from a source I trusted - South Dakota does not have a vested interest in making hunting look bad. In fact, that state invests quite a bit in hunting tourism. You know, the pheasants there are as thick as mosquitoes in a Minnesota summer.
Second, the hunter-reported wounding rate of 18 percent wasn't too far off of mine - I'm at 14 percent for my entire four seasons of duck hunting. It was 18 percent last season, and it's 10 percent this season. (Though having lost four crips and picked up 10, I feel perhaps I should have a negative wounding rate in the cosmic accounting of such things.)
But I still have questions about these studies: Do they in any way account for what happens to the bird after it is hit, but flies off (or, as is often the case with me, hides in tules where it can't be retrieved)?
This season I have gotten many cripples that were obviously shot the same day, so if trained observers were watching the loss but didn't see me get the bird, would that still count as a loss?
Then there are the other birds that heal and just keep on living. I got one on Sunday with my friend Charlie: A Ross's goose came flying at our blind so low I thought it was a seagull. Until we realized it was a goose.
We shot. He fell.
"Did you see his leg hanging down?" Charlie asked me as I went to pick him up. "I think he was wounded."
When I dressed the goose, I indeed found that his leg had been wounded - it hung strangely, and I could feel a piece of shot in it. But I couldn't find any evidence of the wound - it had completely healed over. Would that goose have counted as a wounding loss, even though he continued to live until Charlie and I brought him down for good?
Unfortunately, I have not gotten to look at any of these studies first-hand, so I don't know the answers. (Anyone know where I can find 'em? Please tell me.)
But in all honesty, this is quibbling. Everyone who hunts birds knows that we lose some of them. We don't get to use scoped rifles on standing birds; we use shotguns on speeding birds, and you have to be a really good shot to kill them instantly every time. And even big game hunting where you do get to aim scoped rifles at standing animals has wounding losses. It is a fact of life.
So the more important issue is what can we do to reduce wounding losses?
Kansas Wildlife & Parks has a nice brochure detailing 15 causes of, and 15 solutions to, wounding losses.
The key causes? Poor shooting skills. Poor distance estimation. Using the wrong load or choke for what you're hunting. Taking shots with a high likelihood of the bird landing in dense cover.
The part about distance estimation is interesting. Somewhere in my research on this subject, I read that many hunters will estimate that a bird is at 40 yards when it is really 30 yards away. I know I do that - I routinely pass on shots I later realize are 30 yards because they feel too far for me. I want them closer. When they're closer, the birds tend to drop a higher percentage of the time. And while sometimes people will chide me for not taking shots they thought were achievable, doing this research has made me feel good about my conservative bent on shooting.
Now, the part about the shot we use. There's a respected hunter and ballistics researcher named Tom Roster who has done extensive studies on this subject, and he has produced the "Steel Shot Lethality Table" that lays out exactly what you need to use to be most effective.
The Holy Grail! Something I could analyze with respect to the type of hunting I do and make the best choices.
But good luck finding that thing. It's copyrighted, and for the life of me, I haven't been able to find it on the Internet - not even in a place where I could pay for it, which I'd gladly do. (Hey, as a writer and photographer, I totally respect copyright.) At least one state game agency includes the table in its hunter guidebook. I found a PDF of that guidebook online, and the PDF included a reference to the table, but the table itself was not in the online version.
I have seen references to the table though. The South Dakota page I mentioned earlier says steel No. 3 shot has shown the best all-around performance for taking ducks. But what choke? And I shoot Hevi-Shot, which has different properties than steel - where does that fit in the equation? And does it matter that I shoot a 20 gauge - is this table geared toward people who shoot 12 gauge?
I've seen other people quote this table saying No. 4 is better, or even No. 6. So clearly, hearsay is not doing anyone a great deal of good here.
I've called Roster because I'd love to talk to him about this, but I haven't heard back yet. I'll keep trying.
In the meantime, I'm going to keep working on reducing my wounding losses. I've spent good money to have my gun fitted to make my shooting more accurate. I do practice with skeet and sporting clays when I can, though I know the predictability of clays doesn't do justice to the unpredictability of live birds. I use Hevi-Shot at a freakin' $2.40 per shell because I believe it's more lethal, even though there are only three shot sizes for 20 gauge (2, 4 and 6 - I use mostly 4s).
I've even given serious thought to whether I should get a 12 gauge. Pride makes me want to perfect my shooting on the 20 gauge - to be accurate with the smaller number of pellets I get in my shells. There's a faction out there that sees the 20 gauge as a more honorable way to hunt. But would I knock them down more consistently with a 12 gauge?
In the field, I continue to do what I've always done - and what I see many other hunters doing as well: I look long and hard for ducks I drop, and believe me, I have done some epic searches - with success, even without a dog. (Oh yeah, dog. But a well-trained dog is an expense I can't afford right now, and I refuse to take a poorly trained (i.e., self-trained) dog into the field.)
And I gladly pick up other people's cripples. Even if they're not the best-tasting birds. Even if they might be emaciated from having sat out there for a few days before I finished them off. Because I don't believe any bird should be shot for nothing.
Not if I can help it.
© Holly A. Heyser 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Duck scavenger. Cripple Queen. Crip magnet.