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What’s All This About Wild Birds?

Wild birds, wild birds, wild birds, wild birds…”Our dogs handle wild birds”…”We prove our dogs on wild birds”…etc etc. We’ve all heard it before but what does it really mean? Does it really matter? Is it just an advertising tactic? In short, yes it really matters. But why and how it makes a difference is another story.

Simply hunting a dog on wild birds is not, in and of itself, the critical factor. It’s having the experience and knowledge to see and evaluate a dog’s ability to handle those birds. Making a point or two on birds he blunders into doesn’t make him a great dog. It’s the almost intangibles that make a dog great and, as a result, more likely to pass on greatness to his offspring. Only they’re not quite intangible. Is he thinking about where the birds might be? Does he evaluate cover? Learn where different species of birds live? Know how to use wind? Know when he’s following running birds? Learn what they’re going to do to try to evade him? And on and on. How many people actually think about these things while hunting? How many would recognize that these things are happening? I guess I don’t know the answer to that but I do know this. If you don’t hunt you can’t know what it takes, much less if your dog has it. And even if you do hunt you might not have noticed any of this.

Let me back up and start from the beginning, my beginning that is. My first setter was very good at finding and pointing grouse. She had plenty of faults but she was a really good grouse dog right out of the box. I was clueless and had no idea what set her apart so I decided I should try to learn what I could from her while I had the chance. The very next hunt I took her on provided an Ahah! moment for me. I was walking a logging trail as she ran ahead of me on the road. I watched her swivel her head as she ran, looking side to side at the cover on both sides of the road. She locked onto a patch of dogwoods, veered off the road, and swung around the downwind side of the birdy looking cover, slowing down to check for scent as she passed by. The exact place I thought might produce a grouse. I remember stopping dead in my tracks, mouth agape, and thinking “Holy $&*?, she’s looking at the cover!” I was amazed. Prior to this I guess I had assumed dogs just ran around searching randomly for scent. In hindsight it seems kind of dumb to not have realized she learned which types of cover grouse were likely to be found in. Of course she did and that was part of what made her so good at pointing them.

Hunting Chukar in Idaho
Hunting Chukar in Idaho

That observation led to 25 years of studying dogs’ performance and evaluating the way they search for and locate birds. What they learn and when they learn it. There have been plenty more of those Ahah! moments along the way. I remember taking Comet out for Huns when has was about 1 1/2 years old. Birds were sparse that year and he’d never seen a Hun but he hunted like an experienced dog, hitting the places I expected to find them. He only had a couple hunts under his belt with no contacts but he knew where to find them? How?

Fast forward to 2015. Iris is nine months old and has never seen a bird in the three hunts I’ve taken her on. Chukars and Huns were difficult to impossible to find that year but I’ve watched her slow to investigate likely locations over and over again. On her fourth hunt she’s swinging downwind of each likely location, checking for scent as she passes by. She was checking roost locations in brushy draws, feeding areas on steep ridges, loafing areas around rock outcroppings, etc. She was an experienced dog but with no bird contacts. How? By then I knew how and when she swung over to check out a feeding area, caught scent, then turned and worked forty yards to where she pointed a pair of Huns you’d think she’d done it many times. This is a dog that showed me she had the intelligence to figure out where to find a bird she’d never seen before. And she did so at only nine months of age. Made her first retrieve on one of those Huns too. Yes it takes birds to make a bird dog but this girl didn’t even need to find them to figure them out. She showed me more on a few hunts with zero bird contacts than you could ever learn about her with planted birds.

Those are the kinds of things that set the great dogs apart from the rest of the pack and you can’t begin to understand them unless you’ve hunted those birds where they live. If you aren’t familiar with the birds and their habits yourself, how can you recognize when, or how, your dog figures them out? You can’t.

So when I say my dogs handle wild birds this is what I mean. Not that a dog made a point or saw a few birds, they really know how to handle them. Have learned where they live and how to locate and point them. Follow/relocate if they run off. Anticipate where they will run. Then find and point them. It’s a beautiful thing…

Cliff Weisse


  1. Tye Sonney

    Excellent article. I have tried to express this to friends that are new to the dog world but have never really found the best way to do this. Over the years with my dogs I have made some observations myself.

    The last few years I have primarily hunted grouse and woodcock with some occasional prairie chicken and sharptails hunts (MN birds). Prior to that I lived in an area that had good-great numbers of pheasants. I lived close to public and private land that held birds and could get my dogs on wild birds every day of the week if I wanted to.

    On one hunt I had some friends that had never really hunted with dogs much so I acted as a guide and left my gun in the truck. I believe the lack of gun and the openness of the grasslands allowed me to be more observant of my dogs. We hunted several areas that day and the wind was fairly strong. In the first field my setters ran to the edge of the a cut corn field and worked the adjacent grassy areas. I didn’t lead them there they just went there. We had a cross-wind and the dogs were running parallel to the cut field in the grass but off the edge a good distance. They pointed several birds that had been feeding the cut field and ran into the adjacent cover. Most flushed before we got to them due to the wind but I felt like I started to get an idea what was happening.

    At the next field the wind was in our face and the dogs quartered perfectly. On the way back to the truck the wind was at our back and the dogs ran to the front down an edge and would then quarter on their way back to me. At that point it clicked with me. They were working in a manner that kept the wind in their face as much as possible to give them the best opportunity to scent the birds. I have always liked that my dogs quarter naturally but seeing them adjust their ground pattern to get the wind in the face was an amazing eye opening experience for me. It wasn’t trained it was instincts and/or intelligence that allowed them to make the connection that the wind would allow them to have a better chance of scenting the birds.

    As I started grouse hunting more and more I have tried to observe them in the woods as well. It’s quite different as you can’t see them as well but if you watch you can still learn a lot about how they applies themselves. One thing I learned was from observing Haze, our oldest. He has never been prone to unproductives but occasionally we all get them. One day he seemed particularly convinced and didn’t want to release from a point as he usually would. I tapped his head, and gave his release command, OK, but he wouldn’t budge. I made some circles in the area but couldn’t produce a bird. He finally released and he worked circles in the area as well. I noticed this a few other times and suspect that he was working small circles trying to locate the scent. He was convinced the bird had moved on but not flushed and was working circles trying to pick up its scent.

    I have noticed Chip and Betty doing this as well. I generally give them a few minutes during these situations and they have occasionally located a bird. I cant be positive that is what they were doing but it wouldn’t shock me at all.

    While I hunt most weekends with a friend we don’t hunt together all that often. We hunt the same general area but usually hunt separately all but a few times a year. One of the reasons I like to hunt this way is because I like to observe my dogs. It gives a greater appreciation for them and allows me to evaluate them and how effective they are at searching the available cover. My dogs all seem to seek out objectives and from my experience that makes all the difference between a dog just out for a run and a dog that is seeking game.

    Thanks again for the great write up Cliff.

  2. Autumn Time English Setters

    Cliff, Nice write up. I’ve had many dogs over the years and as I look back they have taught me a lot. Some were average some were down right terrible and a couple just new what the game was right out of the box. When I started bird hunting I was fortunate enough to hunt with a guy who knew and taught me how to “read” a dog. Reading your article brought back some good memories and a smile. Thanks

  3. Nick Kenney

    Enjoyed the write up and the comments.
    Reminded me of a friend’s Griffon.
    “Duke” was a very experienced grouse dog.
    Late in life, he began “pointing cover”.
    It took a bit of time to figure out this out.
    He had reached the point where certain pieces of cover
    looked so good that a grouse simply had to be in there.
    Obviously, this was a major fault.
    However, it does show that he was very aware of what he was seeing, and the though process that led him to do what he did.

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