Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cripples: The search for answers

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


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Well written as always. I went all last season with no lost birds, and I had 2 in my abbreviated season this year -- 2 lost out of 17 in the bag is no bueno in my book. I might have had more had I not stopped shooting birds in killing distance but which were flying over tules.

As for picking up cripples, every bird you bring home finds a place in the kitchen; that poor pintail was one of 2 ducks we've tossed since we started hunting -- the other was that crazy cancerous scaup.

Hell, I made demi-glace from those spoonies, Ross' geese and that bufflehead you shot last weekend, and the breast meat from all of them went into a batch of meatballs tonight. Nothing a little herbs and pork fat can't fix...

hutchinson said...

Thank you, Holly. So much! An incredibly courageous post, but, of course, I know that's your style.

I cannot tell you what it does for someone like me, to have this fact acknowledged. I've tried for years to impress upon people the importance of "how" one hunts (especially birds) in the face of these types of injuries.

The duck you described with internal infection -- wildlife hospitals see this type of injury enough that it's not surprising. Disheartening? Yes, to be sure. It's a wonder anyone who works with wild animals doesn't become misanthropic and disillusioned, given the things one witnesses people doing (and not doing) to the animals that have no power in these choices. I confess to many, many tears shed over my lifetime.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing about this -- for caring enough to see it as an issue -- and for always doing your best to minimize your own impact. And, I believe, in the process, you'll help others who stop by your blog.

I think I've said before that I often feel as though I've taken a Hippocratic Oath of sorts: first do no harm. That translates, for me anyway, into assessing every aspect of my lifestyle. I'm grateful when anyone, in any pursuit, does the same. Our fellow earthlings deserve so much more than what we've dished out.

Holly Heyser said...

The hard part, Hutch, is knowing in all likelihood I've done this to a duck. But for me it's a powerful motivator to try to shoot better - which means passing on some shots, and getting it right when I do pull the trigger.

I do believe there are a lot of hunters who care about this more than it might appear on the surface. It's just a hard thing to talk about. But you're right - and you've said it before now: It is important to talk about.

murphyfish said...

Hello Holly,
I recently (yesterday!) picked up on your blog from your comments on others that I follow. This is your first post that I’ve read fully (I’ll be playing catch up later) and I’d just like to say what an intelligent, open minded and also brave piece that this is. If only all hunters took such a considerate view then perhaps there would be more respect, understanding and tolerance from those who do not involved themselves in the cycles of nature. But as always there will be the minority, whether they shoot, trap, fish or use a bow that will bring cries of condemnation ringing around all hunters by their actions, either with or without knowledge of what they are doing wrong. Perhaps it comes down to education (lack of) in the right ways to interact with nature or perhaps it’s just a case of blatant ‘I’m alright jack’, but whatever the cause it’s something that I feel will be with us for a long time. As for statistics, I’ve never trusted them as they always seem to support what ever the people who publish them are banging on about. Like you, the only figures that I trust are the ones that I’ve counted and not some survey carried out without my knowledge of the method of, or of who conducted the counting of the actually survey (if indeed the figures were not snatched from thin air). Congratulations on this piece, I’ll tag along for a while if you don’t mind.
Best regards,

Matt Mullenix said...


I'm glad you followed up with this idea for another post. I was so struck by your recent description of grabbing multiple wounded birds on a hunt: proud of you and embarrassed at the same time.

It is said often (I say it myself) that there are "no cripples in falconry." It is almost true; cripples are very rare. In 25 years I've seen a handful of ducks hit by falcons over water, later retrieved by dogs or falconers and found to have a broken wing. Such ducks are as crippled as wing-shot birds, of course.

But a hundred times more often, the duck is caught and carried to the bank by the falcon; or the duck is hit over land, stunned and shortly grabbed; or the duck killed in the air over the pond and retrieved.

If a duck (or any bird) is grabbed and escapes, the falcon is left with two feet full of feathers. This is arguably why the feathers of many game birds come loose (think doves).

Almost never does an animal escape after receiving a mortal wound from a raptor.

Of course, in the most common outcome of any chase, the duck simply dodges the falcon and gets away without a scratch. This happens at least 5 times as often as a kill, even with an experienced hawk.

My own preference in falconry is to fly hawks (rather than falcons, proper). Hawks are binders, not strikers. Like falcons they often miss, but when they hit they generally hang on. They kill with their feet alone (falcons often kill with their beaks) and have tremendous strength in their talons.

And as hawks hunt closer to the falconer than falcons do, the falconer is generally close behind to lend a hand in a struggle.

The largest prey I typically hunt with my hawks are jackrabbits, which are the largest animals most North American raptors can handle. Unlike most prey for trained hawks, jacks are typically caught rather far from the falconer and are often strong enough to pull free from a single hawk if grabbed in the hindquarter. I've seen many escape a brief bind and continue to run a mile out of sight with the hawk left holding some fur in his feet or nothing at all.

Similarly, I've cleaned dead jacks that show signs of having been caught previously by wild hawks. But these are superficial wounds, generally well healed lacerations to a rear flank, and were never apparent during the chase.

I don't mean to say there are no moral dilemmas in falconry. There are plenty---as there are with every human activity---only that Holly's experience grabbing cripples at the public duck pond could not have happened before duck hunters switched from falcons to guns.

Now that we've largely made this technological switch (made it, to be clear, hundreds of years ago), we should do everything Holly mentions and everything else we can reasonable do to avoid wounding animals we meant to kill, take home and eat.

oldfatslow said...

I found that using larger
shot (#4), 3in shells, fast
shot (>= 1550 fps), putting
the dekes closer (15 yds),
and not trying so many long
shots has significantly
lowered my loss ratio.
Also, you can count any
crips against your bag


Tovar Cerulli said...

Thanks for the wonderful post, Holly.

Like you and Hutch, I feel that we need to discuss these things honestly and do everything possible to minimize the harm.

I often think about these same questions as they relate to deer. Since concern over animal welfare was one of my main reasons for becoming a vegetarian, it’s also central to how I think and feel about hunting.

Shewee woman said...

Thanks Holly as always you give good food for thought. It is a brave post and I agree with you 100%. If only we could get other waterfowlers to think more like us and really be aware to the fact that maybe they wounded a bird and they can go after it. It is hard without a dog, but that is the sport.
I always look forward to your posts in the morning and this was a really thought provoking one. Thanks, Dawn

Holly Heyser said...

Murphyfish: Welcome! And you're right about the minority. The question is, how substantial is it? From where I sit - hunting with a lot of friends who are really conscientious - it's small. But I'm sure there are other vantage points where it looks huge.

Matt: I think about that often, the degree of crippling loss in natural predation, and I've always assumed it was much smaller, but still there. A couple years ago I got a spoonie hen that had obviously survived some sort of attack - she had scrapes on her back that were almost healed up when I shot her (which of course made me sad - poor thing couldn't catch a break).

But I still don't see myself taking up falconry. I have gone on a hunt with Rebecca and I find it to be beautiful and thrilling. But quite honestly, I like duck a lot, and I want to eat a lot of ducks. Getting one once in a while is not enough. Selfish, but true.

OFS: Do you shoot a 12 or 20 gauge? I'm trying to do most of the things you say too, though I haven't tried putting dekes closer. Where I hunt, the birds are extremely wary of clumps of tules, so I'm wary of putting something close to me in the water that might draw their eyes to me.

But if they don't come close enough, I just don't shoot. And I definitely won't shoot if it looks like they'll drop in dense cover. Sometimes you can't control which way they'll drop, but I try to avoid the obviously bad landing spots.

Tovar: I'm sure some hunters out there will cringe at the extent of my honesty here, but I believe it's important - dishonesty, or pretending problems don't exist, does us a greater disservice in the long run.

Shewee woman: I think a lot of waterfowlers do think like this and just don't talk about it. It's extremely rare that I'll see hunters not go after a duck they've dropped, and usually it's a function of them not having seen the bird drop. That is one of the perils of hunting in blinds at water level - low visibility.

That happened at Yolo with Alison last week (last post) - the guys on the great blind south of us sailed a pintail a good 300 yards and didn't go after it. I didn't either because I would've had to tromp through 2-3 other hunters' blinds, but when the neighbor hunters got up later, I told them where it had gone and they went and looked for it.

It happened to me and Hank once too: We were hunting in rice and he shot a speck and it got away. Or so we thought. When we packed up to leave, the hunters in the neighboring blind said, "Hey, you dropped that speck. Over there." Hank went to get it, and found it stone dead. We never would've known.

I think the single most important thing we can do after shooting is keep our eyes on birds we've shot at until they're out of sight. But even then, if I see a bird drop 500 yards away, I'm probably not going to go after it, because if it's not dead, it's definitely going to find cover by the time I get there, and if I wasn't able to mark the exact spot it dropped, I don't have a chance in hell of getting it. That's when I hope fervently that another hunter will have seen the bird drop and take it for himself - as I did repeatedly last week.

oldfatslow said...

I shoot a 12ga, but my
younger kids shoot 20s.

We had a crappy hunt last
week and therefore had
lots of time to talk in
the blind. I was hunting
with a very experienced
hunter. His conclusion
was that keeping absolutely
still was more important
than your cover. I don't
know if I completely buy
that because I really like
to camo up the boat blind,
but it's something to


DarrenM said...

That chart you're looking for is indeed in the Colorado Waterfowl regulations. The online version here: has it on page 4. You can see it flash up on the screen as you scroll through the pages but there's some trickery going on to hide it from view, copy/paste, and save as.

I have a hardcopy of the brochure handy if you'd like anything off it. The whole thing is pretty vague though, only mentioning HEVI-Shot for Large Geese and "Steel 6 to 2" for "Large Ducks Over Decoys" with a reccomendation of "I.C. (20-35 Yds), M. (35-45 Yds)" for the column marked "Choke Starting Points".

There's contact information for use permission if you'd like it just let me know.

I'm surprised by how few people pattern their shotguns. A nice even pattern at the range you plan to shoot has got to result in a much cleaner kill.

Holly Heyser said...

In my four whole seasons of duck hunting, I've become convinced that the most important thing is looking like you don't care. How else can one explain the fact that when you light up a smoke, eat some food, drop your waders to take a leak, or just sit there yammering with your hunting partner, birds will come in like crazy? But when you watch them with only one eyeball moving, somehow they're tipped off?

Chad Love said...

Great post.

It does suck, truly, to lose a bird. You can go through all the motions: practice on the skeet field, spend time at the patterning board, practice your yardage estimation, et cet. ad nauseum and you're still going to lose a percentage of what you hit. Just a fact.

And really, the only key to reconciling that unpalatable fact is your own conscience.

If you know you've done all you can to
A. minimize the chances beforehand through practice and good judgement and,
B. Make every effort to retrieve that bird when it does inevitably happen, then I see absolutely no philosophical or ethical conundrum whatsoever.

But it's obvious it's bothering you and practically speaking, if you're asking what can be done about it I think sooner or later you're going to have to get a dog.

I don't think there's any one better way to raise your recovery to loss ratio than a dog. They will find birds you simply can't.

Last week I lost a quail in a stand of thick cedars

Here are my thoughts Speaking to the issue of cripples and how to minimize them

Holly Heyser said...

OK, so it's NOT my imagination that people are going to great lengths to hide this chart from people on the internet. It took me several tries, but I was able to get that. It's not as detailed as I'd thought it would be. And while it doesn't mention gauge, at least it mentions pellet counts.

As for why people don't pattern their shotguns, here's why I haven't - at least not in a useful way: I don't live in the country. I cannot fire my gun in my yard. At my shooting range, I can't fire anything but lead on the skeet range, and on the rifle range, my only option is to shoot at 25 yards, which prevents an examination of pattern density at different ranges.

I have patterned lead with my gunsmith at Camanche Hills, but we can't shoot steel at the patterning board because it's steel and the ricochet would be dangerous. He did say that steel patterns tighter, so if I'm shooting at close ranges, I probably need a really open choke - like a skeet choke, which did not come with my gun (most open is IC, which my gunsmith says shoots like a modified), so I need to hunt one down somewhere.

Do I sound a little frustrated? I am.

Josh said...

Great post, Holly! As you know, I lost three cripples this year, and as you also know, that almost never happens because I rarely get three shots in a year...

I've had the same problem looking up that lethality table. In fact, over a year ago I was going to post about it at my blog, but I couldn't find it, either.

Matt, as for falconry, I may have to disagree with you a bit about the concept of chase just a bit. As a park interpreter, we had to constantly educate the public on the dogs off leash problem at the beach. Dogs would chase birds, tire them (but not catch them or even touch them), and then the bird would lose too much body heat to survive that night's rain or wind. I know that falconry doesn't do this to that extent, but only because there are very few falconers. Were there more, and were they hunting conditions similar to the public duck lands of California, you would probably more birds dying from exhaustion/exposure over time. The same goes for mammals. I've watched an osprey drop a ground squirrel from over twenty feet up. It ran off, but it had to have been wounded bad. I've also watched a red-tail grasp a tree squirrel for a good five minutes before the squirrel got the better of the encounter. That hawk, I'm sure, had more than a fistful of fur.

And, that is the problem of predation, for all predators. Sometimes, the prey barely escapes. You try to improve, and you make it an ethical prescription to be very good at what you do, but sometimes these things happen. It is also good to feel bad about it.

Hutch, this in no way absolves people who believe they can opt out of death. My ethos requires an honest look at my physical impact on the world. Vegans' impacts, in my opinion, may arguably be worse (which is why I choose not to be a vegan, but hunt instead), because it creates the illusion that one is doing less harm, when in actuality, one is doing merely different harm, and in some cases (pleather vs. wool, monoculture of soy to supplement protein vs. grass-fed beef or buffalo) the damage is worse. This distance from the realities of nature is a bad road for our environment. I very much appreciate your perspective, and I believe you are truly trying to do no harm, but it simply isn't possible. I do wish it were, though, and I've held the dying bird in my hand and felt it breathe its last while I tried to save it, more than once. It still crushes me that I couldn't, so I in no way mean my comments to be disparaging or mean-spirited.

Holly Heyser said...

Chad, we'll get a dog eventually. But it's worth noting that out of the nine birds I lost last year, I lost six when hunting with dogs - including one spoonie drake that was almost in the dog's mouth, but the dog fumbled and the spoonie burrowed into some tules never to be found again.

It does concern me more than a little that I could spend thousands of dollars on dog, training and vet bills, and expand my household in a significant way, only to eke out a marginal improvement in crippling losses. I have a huge mortgage and I'm a state worker in a state with a massive deficit, which means there's a fabulous chance I could take ANOTHER pay cut this year, if not lose my job outright. Hard to justify a dog under the circumstances. Sorry to whine, but that's my reality at the moment.

Chad Love said...

Doh! Just edit out that last part Holly. I was trying to publish two different posts and they got combined and garbled...

What I was going to add was that just last week I lost a quail in a thick stand of cedar saplings. I was hunting along, without a dog (actually I was cutting wood and just took along a shotgun in case I saw a covey, hence the dogs' absence). If I'd had a dog that quail would in all probability been found.

Speaking to the issue of reducing cripples, I shoot three-inch steel #3s most of the time, in a modified choke, and I always limit my shots to 30-35 yards max.

Like you, I definitely fall into the conservative range estimation camp. I like 'em close.

But I think the best way to know your gun's limits is with the patterning board. Only by actually being able to visualize what a pattern looks like at 15, 20, 30 and 40 yards can you really get a good feel for when to shoot and when to holf off.

Holly Heyser said...

Josh, you're right - there is no tidy predation. "Minimize damage" has got to be the goal.

I'm going to find a way to pattern my gun with the shot I use, but I'm pretty sure it won't happen before this season ends.

Hopefully Tom Roster will call me back to talk about the lethality table. I'm really baffled - if it's in all these different states' hunter guide books - WHICH ARE FREE. I don't understand why it's not just out there.

oldfatslow said...

The most important rule
is that the ducks always
come from the way you're
not looking - so look that

And there's no better duck
attractant than taking a
leak or stuffing your
face with Sweet and


Chad Love said...

Good point. Sometimes I forget a dog may not be practical for everyone.

As for the patterning board dilemma, damn, that sucks. Any way to find some private land to shoot on? I'm confused why 25 yards is your only option at the rifle range.

Holly Heyser said...

Our rifle range has a 25-yard range and 100-yard range for rifles, and the latter is obviously not useful. We can't just go out and put targets anywhere we want.

I can arrange to get out to the country - it's just going to take some planning because I'll have to improvise everything - no ready-made target boards, no ready-measured distances.

I tell you, it is not easy being an urban hunter!

Anonymous said...

Holly, Your comments are wonderful, and you've taken on a sensitive subject in cripples. I only use a 12 gauge for ducks and geese, however several friends use 20's and shoot only on decoying and close birds. That's the moment when ethics and discipline allow for good sportsmanship with a lighter gun & load.

The one factor you have not touched upon is having a retrieving dog. I have a fourteen year-old and her daughter, who is eight. They are wonderful companions, when we're not in the field, and have dropped lost birds to single-digit percentages (along with careful shooting). I grew up without a dog, but would now NEVER hunt waterfowl without "one of the girls".

Again, many thanks for your thoughtful and articulate posts. Wish "boyfriend" a speedy recovery. Maybe we'll all meet someday!

Chad Love said...

OK, I see. So your range won't allow you to put up targets at randon distances. Strange. And a bummer.

Our local public ranges are a little less, uh... regulated.

Yes, it can be a real PITA being an urban hunter sometimes. I certainly don't miss that aspect of living amongst the seething hordes of the undead...

Here's what you do: Go find an isolated county road stop sign. Make sure no one's driving by, then pace off 20 yards.
Fire. Observe your pattern on the stop sign. Get the hell out of there, quick.
Go to the next mile marker. Repeat at 30 yards.
Go to the next mile marker. Repeat at 40 yards...

OK, I'm obviously kidding, but judging by the condition of our highways signage I'm pretty sure that's how it's done in Oklahoma...

Holly Heyser said...

Chad: LOL - that'd make a great story in the Sacramento Bee. "Local hunting blogger caught blasting county stop signs." Love it!

Anonymous: Some day. Just not now, with all the economic uncertainties I'm facing.

Holly Heyser said...

OFS: Re "The most important rule is that the ducks always come from the way you're not looking - so look that way."

So true. And I've tried! LOL. One thing I've gotten good at, in all seriousness, is when gawking at big Vs of geese that are way too high to shoot, I always drop my eyes to the horizon, because that's when ducks do the sneak attack.

Blessed said...

Great discussion and love the post that started it all.

I hunt with a 20 gauge and I simply take shorter shots than my husband does with his 12. And we back each other up and our circumstances make it to where we can have a dog - that does help, especially when we hunt big water, which we do a lot of around here. Oh and it also helps that our dog is a bit insane and dives and swims underwater and everything else in pursuit of a duck... we've had to get the boat out and go rescue him on occasion when he's worn himself out doing a big retrieve. Thankfully we can send him out, I can keep an eye on the dog while Hubby gets the boat and then can direct Hubby to where the dog and bird are from the blind with the same hand signals we use for the dog and he can conduct a successful pickup of the bird and the dog.

Lost birds really bother me - I think it's good, it's made me conscientious about the shots I take.

Matt Mullenix said...

Re.Falconry points: Holly, I hear you on love of ducks and need for more volume in your hunts. Falconers' answer to this is to fly hawks instead of falcons. Generally speaking, hawks catch more per hunt and "reload" faster after kills. A great day with a falcon might give you 2 ducks (or none). A great day with a hawk is the legal limit.

Josh your point is well taken. Simply flushing game is an interruption of an animal's day and costs it some energy and exposure. Repeated flushing of the same animal probably has measurable detrimental effect (as does a long fight with a game fish).

Many wild predators simply wear down their prey by repeated flushing and chasing--canids do this, for example, as opposed to the more typical ambush strategy of cats.

Hawks do both, depending on the species. Some are dedicated coursers and others are habitual ambushers. Generalists (like my Harris' hawk) will use either strategy as best fits the need.

With a falconer and a dog to assist the trained hawk, there is very little wearing down of prey that then eventually gets away. Anything flushed twice is usually caught. And if caught, it is quickly killed.

Greg Damitz said...

Everyone cripples and loses birds. Minimizing the number is the key. Many good ideas on here how to achieve that goal; a well trained dog, practice shooting, not shooting birds over thick cover, working birds in close, and using a more dense load such as #4s in a heavy load (not good for the teeth though. You will still cripple and lose a few even if you do not realize it (All those clean misses aren't so clean).

Greg Damitz

Josh said...

Holly, you didn't tell me you need to get out and pattern your gun. I'll bring some cardboard and a tape measure. Better yet, we should cut out, or draw in, some duck and goose silhouettes and just eyeball distances - I, for one, can never get the duck to hover there while I measure out how far it is! In archery, I eyeball my practice shots. Perhaps I should do that in shotgunning, too, because the distances aren't that different, and the concept of eyeballing for a shot within a pie-plate (to make up for about 5% error in archery guessing, and to cover shot grouping on pie-plate sized birds in shotgunning) might just work...

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

By the way, Holly, here's the link to that PDF on Eastern Mallard Adaptive Harvest Management, with reference to the 20% unrecovered kill rate:

SimplyOutdoors said...

I loved this post, Holly. This is a topic that all good hunters think about, but hardly ever talk about.

And I hope that Hutch realizes that most hunters really do anguish over the loss of an animal. I've lost one deer in my life, and I still agonize over it. I spent probably 16 hours looking for her, and it still kills me to this day that I didn't find her.

I think all of us hunters need to do the things that help to minimize loss: practice, proper shot selection, and practice.

A great discussion you have going here, and a great always.

Holly Heyser said...

Blessed: What a great dog you have! When I get one, I hope she'll be like that.

Matt: A limit? Geez louise... You are rocking my world.

Greg: I hear you on the teeth.

Josh: Let's do it! And funny you mention silhouettes - I was saying that very thing to Hank. I need a life-sized teal silhouette and a life-sized mallard one, and I am just dorky enough to do that. But eyeballing? Dude, I'm a Virgo and I'm Dutch. I'm going to have to borrow a rangefinder for this. Precision, baby!

And I was scoping out jumpshooting spots in the city today and found a place where people clearly do a lot of shooting - clays, computer monitors, etc.

Tovar: Thanks for the link to that study - I look forward to digging into that. It sounds like USFWS may take into account that other hunters will pick up some crips.

Simply: I think from Hutch's perspective, it would be easy to see a lack of concern on hunters' part. Even from mine, I'll sometimes wonder what the hell is wrong with a hunter who doesn't chase a bird when in reality, he probably just didn't see it go down.

Nathan said...

Nothing frustrates me more than losing a bird I know is down. Yesterday I lost my first bird in over two years. I have a great dog and we still couldn't get it. One thing that helps me reconcile not finding the bird is knowing that nothing is wasted in a marsh (or the woods for that matter). I spent 5 years working on Mendota WA and can honestly say I've never seen a dead bird that wasn't scavenged by something. I also had numerous cripples that survived into summer and would become regulars at our duck banding traps. Once while hunting before I had a dog, I sailed a teal. I decided to wait a bit before trying to retrieve it, knowing I woldn't catch a swimmer in the cattails. After half an hour, I walked to the spot only to find a marsh hawk had already helped herself and was sitting on the carcass.

I'm still frustrated about yesterday, but know that life was not taken in vain. Some coyote, weasle or hawk will feast on a fine mallard.

Anonymous said...

There are some bunnies that haunt me. I shot and they disappearred and try as I might, I could not find them. I don't like talking about it. You would never find me expressing this to someone who does not hunt and does not understand the sense of loss I feel. I started it and I should finish it.

As much as I can, I hunt for my food. I do not wish it to suffer. All I can do is to try my best. And accept the successes and defeats that make up a predator's life.

Am I making any sense?


Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

You're making perfect sense to me, Jean. There are some badly hooked fish that haunt me.

Holly Heyser said...

Ditto, Jean.

And Tovar, I was turned off of fishing for a LONG TIME because of something that happened when I was fishing off the dock once with a boyfriend and his brothers. We were fishing for no reason at all - which I would never do now because I don't believe in catch and release - and when we tried to unhook one of my fish, it pulled out a bunch of his innards. I realized it was ridiculous to maim an animal for no reason, and I don't think I fished after that until I met Hank, who has introduced me to fishing with purpose.


Hi, Holly --
Really liked your comments on the crippling issue. Kudos to you for using HeviShot.

My preference, because it shoots as deadly as lead was when we I first started duck hunting, is bismuth. It's also truly non-toxic. But, it's very expensive.

I normally use steel and take shots much closer with steel than I ever did with lead. Also I go up to sizes unheard of during the lead years for ducks: 2s instead of 4s. Finally, I use proper choke tubes: all factory issue shotguns come from the factory with chokes too short. An efficient pattern is offered by a choke close to 3 inches.

On the dog statement, I'd have to disagree with your "i.e." comment about "self-trained".

As one who has trained his own dogs, with only the tutelage of one the greatest books on training ("Gun Dog" by Richard A. Wolters), I've been able to help great genetics reach their highest potential. One was a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and now I have a spectacular Brittany, who pointed his first limit of chukar and phesants at only 6 month old in 2008, and who Hank had a chance to hunt with last season:

There's a deep connection a hunter gets with their dog that can't be replicated by sending a dog to a trainer. This is not to say that sending a dog to a trainer is a not a great idea...if needed for such things as finishing and minute problems, for which you don't want the correcting techniques associated with you, and perhaps effecting the bond between you and your, i.e. force-fetching...though I also don't think dogs need forcefetching if they were started on fetching with enough enthusiasm and correctly as pups. I've got a pointer that I use as a utility dog for ducks because he also will sit in a blind fetch my ducks:

But, training your own dog and building that alone training time, creates almost a telepathic bond, like that which parents have with their children and longtime couples with eachother also.

That bond helped me recognize an opportunity to send my dog after a deeply-buried-in-the-tules cripple shot by someone else, that would have gone unnoticed by me (my Chessie knew it was there all along), had I not paid attention or been keyed to his non-verbal communications.

Hank said you and he had been thinking of getting a retriever and a pointer. I think the quicker you get one, the more happy you'll be in dealing with this cripple dilemma: my lost bird numbers went down immensely!

It went down so much that when I had to put my first hunting pal down, I didn't feel quite right bird hunting for quite a few years after: one for missing the time in the field with my departed buddy, but also, I didn't want to go back up to the shot-and-lost numbers pre-hunting dog.

If you'd like me to help you and Hank with your dog options and dealing with the issues of raising and training a great hunting dog in an urban environment, let me know.

It's a lot easier to raise one in the country, but how many people live in country as compared to the city these days? My Chessie, I gave his initial traing in the wilds of Alaska; my Brittany I trained completely in the concrete fields of Belmont and San Francisco: never lost a bird shot over either.

I wish every state would allow hunters to use dogs for recovering everything as they do in Europe: they have so few hunting opportunities, they make sure they do their best to keep lost/waste to a minimum.

How can a human compete with the nose of a dog? Nice article on the Purina dog food site:


Holly Heyser said...

Cork, I can't find that i.e. statement - was that something in a different blog post? Or is my search function busted?

Regardless, sounds like something I've said. When I refer to "self," I am narcissistically referring to "myself." I know myself very well, and I've never successfully trained even a lap dog in my entire life - I'm not going to trust the training of a hunting dog to myself.

I've written about hunting dogs and have heard many folks extol the virtues of training dogs themselves. I believe them. And I may do it on a second dog, but not the first, because it's more important to me to have a beautifully trained dog than a near-telepathic connection with a poorly trained one. My cat and I have such a connection. It does not make her disciplined. Charming, yes, but not disciplined.

As for when, it will be later rather than sooner because not only am I not made of money, but I could take a second pay cut or actually lose my job this year - that's a piss-poor time to start investing thousands of dollars in a new member of the household. I must content myself with pursuing other means of reducing wounding losses.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-dog. A well-trained dog is a beautiful thing. The partnership is something I'm looking forward to - definitely something that's missing in my hunting now. But I have to be smart about these things.

Jon Roth said...

Holly et al. All very good and thought-provoking comments. I think you summed up my impression of what leads to the main causes of cripples:

"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."

I think one of the main reasons that waterfowlers don't do these things well (or as well as they used to) has some to do with when they banned lead shot. I've been hunting ducks long enough to have started killing them with lead shot, which was the only type of metal used in those days. Everyone knew what choke to use and what their effective killing range was using lead. A shot shell was a shot shell was a shot shell for the most part. There were very few variables to consider.

However, when they outlawed lead (still questioning the science on that one, but do support the concept), we lost that standardized shot. Then we had steel, and shortly after Bismuth, then tungston, then the 10 other nontoxic shots that have come out since; all of which have different ballistics (density, speed, pattern).

I honestly think that a big part of the problem is that hunters bounce around between shot types and haven't taken the time to pattern their loads as you suggest, and don't learn how these various shots perform nor how to shoot them. They think, "Insert shell, point at 50-yard duck, pull trigger". Even if they didn't have the history with lead, if they are buying different types of shells every few times they go out, its no wonder that their shot is all over the map - hence more cripples.

I get frustrated because you hear guys complaining about shooting steel and not killing birds, but when you ask them if a) they have patterned their gun/shot; b) how many times they went to the sporting clays course over the summer; and c) what 30-yards looks like; the answer is likely no, no, and "no, that would be 50 yards."

Oh, and you know my thoughts on dogs. Not only are they the best tool for recovering cripples, but they are what makes the hunt for me. I understand your circumstance, that's a bummer. But a dog is man's best friend, and a duck hunters best tool. (Well behaved and trained of course!).


Hi, Holly --

I reread the "(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.)" statement. Yes, I took it as a generalization and not specific to you.

...Thanks for being conscientous as to the responsibilities of ownership of a dog...or a pet for that matter. I get really ticked when I hear that another dog has appeared at a rescue org.

Nowadays with the economy the way it is, too many hunters have purchsed a dog, only to realize they can't deal with the demands of raising, training and taking care of bird dog and end up dropping the dog off...or worse...

Ziggy's sleeping curled up at the foot of my bed and evidently pampered.


Hutch said...

Josh wrote: "Hutch, this in no way absolves people who believe they can opt out of death. . . Vegans' impacts, in my opinion, may arguably be worse . . .pleather vs. wool, monoculture of soy to supplement protein vs. grass-fed beef or buffalo)"

Josh, I've discussed this point here before so I'm reticent to dominate the space. I recognize the impossibility of being harmless on this planet and have said so in these pages. But many vegans/vegetarians are acutely aware of the effects you describe and try further to reduce their impact. I don't eat soy, for instance. I'm extremely fortunate to have much hyper-local produce grown and harvested in small scale areas where the type of machinery used on large scale farms is not necessary. I limit my driving. I rarely buy new items -- in order to reduce my impact through manufacturing. Etc and so forth. Even with this commitment, at great inconvenience sometimes, I must say, it does not absolve me of the harm I do innately by being human. You are right about that.

That being said, some of us are trying very hard to "first do no harm." The operative word being "first," endeavoring to the best of our abilities to not deliberately harm other humans and non-humans. Jainism as one example, is extreme in its concern for even soil organisms as they're harmed through plowing.

So yes, we're all culpable and I have never denied that here. It's a travesty how many people, yes, many non-hunters, are unaware how alternative practices affect the earth and the other animals with whom we share it.

But I think it's a bit of a spurious argument to critique vegan practices which at least endeavor to understand our impact on this planet -- much as hunters say they understand the cycles of life and how their presence affects the ecosystem. Yours is not an unfounded criticism, I get it. It's just that most vegans I know are leaving so much less of a footprint than others based on extending their consciousness to those very areas you describe. Not all vegans are ignorant, doctrine-toting, mass-consumptive soy eaters.

I would add that while hunting a rabbit in one's backyard and growing one's own produce -- while at the same time, purchasing no food, furnishings or clothing -- would, indeed, be more sustainable and humane than contributing to mass production -- most hunters are engaging in hunting and killing as well as those very same practices you criticize and more . . .purchasing mass-produced foods at the store or at restaurants on the way back from the hunt, using trucks and fuel, possibly not being conscious of how or where their clothing is manufactured. So unless you're living entirely self-contained and self-sufficiently, I would argue in return that a hunter's impact is actually more than a vegan's if that hunter contributes in any way to factory farming (burgers), mass-produced grains and vegetables, and any goods used that aren't used or recycled.

oldfatslow said...

I shouldn't have
spouted off about
cripples. We lost
two of our twelve
Saturday. Neither
shot was at extreme
distance, one bird fell
like a bag of hammers
and just wasn't there,
neither landed in
thick brush, but
repeated searches
turned up nothing.

I was especially
disappointed for my
son. He lost what
would have been his
first fulvous whistling


Holly Heyser said...

I lost a couple yesterday too - a pintail that we knew two of us had hit, but just wouldn't come down (he's probably now like the one I described at the top of this post), and a snipe that went into deep grass like a missile. We looked and looked. Sucks.

I'm really sorry to hear about your son's loss too - must be terribly disappointing. Glad you mounted your best possible search, though.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this post, Holly. And I agree it's a brave one.

Losing a bird should make every hunter feel like a punch to the gut.

At least that's how I feel when I lose one.

But I take some small comfort in knowing that every dead duck I find out on the refuge has been thoroughly picked to the bone by hawks, eagles, coyotes, raccoons and who knows what.

I know the handful of cripples I leave behind each year gives those predators a better shot at surviving the icy, cold winters.

In nature, nothing goes to waste, especially that which has to suffer.

Ryan Sabalow

gejandsons said...

I wonder if the persons responsible for making lead shot illegal for waterfowl, took into consideration the numbers that die unrecovered due to wounds from steel shot. I would be willing to bet that more ducks die unrecovered than ducks from ingestion of lead.

Holly Heyser said...

Gejandsons, somewhere in my research for this post I read that the wounding loss rate hasn't changed with the advent of steel shot. The South Dakota website I referenced it, but something else I saw in my travels addressed it really directly.

I do know from hunters I've talked to that when steel shot FIRST came out all hell broke loose in terms of success and wounding, before 1) people adjusted to steel shot and 2) shotshell manufacturers improved the product.

But having never shot lead at a duck, I obviously have no clue what the in-the-field difference is.