As we turn off of the highway and onto the dusty dirt road heading towards the chukar hills, our bird dog stands up in the back seat of the pickup and sticks his nose out of the crack in the window, snorts, and wags his stubby tail in excitement. The last time we turned up this road we were heading out for a bitter cold January hunt. Dogs have a keen sense of memory. Does he remember the turn, the smell, or something else?
The chukar hills are always turning with the seasons. Bright red Indian paintbrush, brilliant yellow arrowleaf balsamroot, deep pink sweet pea, purple Rocky Mountain penstemon, multi-colored wild lupine, verdigris sagebrush, and spring green grasses are now flourishing after a long winter. The reward from the snow melt is habitat and food for wildlife and a new batch of chukar that soon will be hatching in these hills.
We all wandered in different directions across the hillside covered in wildflowers blanketing the ground in a blaze of yellow and red. It was a short walk to admire the views and to collect some arrowleaf balsamroot seeds for our own wildflower garden. We eventually met up and sat down on some flat rocks in the warmth of the setting sun to quietly take a moment to reflect on the last time we hunted on these chukar hills.
Angus, I think, continues to struggle with his off-season routine, or lack thereof. The combination of repeated, unsolicited, bad haircuts, bombardment with daily sessions of depressing bagpipe music (“Unjust Incarceration,” “Ronald MacDonald of Morar’s Lament,” “Too Long In This Condition”), unpredictable feeding times, boating, numerous nomadic sprinklers throughout our property (lifelong hose-hater), and – now – a robin family with extremely protective parents has left Angus off-kilter.
Earlier this week, four robin chicks fledged from their nest cradled in our DirectTV dish above the garage door, too early in my opinion. The fledglings displayed their weak aviation skills every time we walked outside, launching in serpentine flight patterns like a drunken balloons buffeted by the breeze. We could see their apparent destinations, our cringing increasing as their accuracy decreased such that they would miss their targets by wide margins. Striving to land on the shop roof, a baby robin collided with the wall two feet below the target and crashed straight to the ground 15 feet below. How many times can a baby bird’s little legs or organs handle that kind of impact? But it gets worse…
Yesterday I was out watering. Angus followed me as he likes to do. Heading back to the house I heard a sudden commotion of bird shrieks and turned to see two adult robins dive-bombing Angus, who was trying to juke his way between the sorties while carrying a screaming fledgling toward me in his mouth.
My response taught me something about my priorities. Despite how much I love bird hunting and marveling at Angus’s expertise as a bird dog, my instinctive shout at Angus to drop the baby bird trumped everything else. I didn’t want that baby bird’s blood on my hands. Hunting is blood sport. For me, yardwork ain’t hunting, and shouldn’t involve blood, mine or anything else’s. But how could I blame Angus for not knowing the difference? I suppose I could squabble over species differentiation, and how he should have known better than to go after a robin. But really you can’t expect him to know the difference, especially since baby robins aren’t much smaller than a quail.
So I yelled at him, implying his instincts were wrong and to drop the bird, stat. He complied, and was rewarded by more aggressive robin attacks, even as we fled in another direction. I tried to distract him to dilute his confusion by getting him to play chase. Mama and papa robin interfered in this, keeping close eyes on us despite moving far away.
Things calmed and I went on about my watering in another part of the yard on the other side of the house. Angus hovered, looking through the tall grass nearby. While moving a sprinkler, I noticed the robin parents following Angus. The next thing I know he’s got another baby bird in his mouth. I yelled, “NOOOOO!” He dropped the bird and ran toward me but didn’t see the sprinkler head between us and got nailed by the stream of water, causing him to bolt away. He stopped and looked at me as if to ask, “What next? Will the sky fall?” The poor boy. September 21 can’t come fast enough.
I just happened on a youtube video of Rock Partridge in Greece, and it’s one of the most captivating films on partridge that I’ve seen. Some of the terrain (which I assume is in Greece) is strikingly similar to the Hell’s Canyon hills I hunt. These birds look and sound like alectoris chukar, but apparently differ a bit. Anyway, check it out…
So I’m playing my bagpipes at the Tilted Kilt the other night, and it’s nutty and people are shoving $1 bills in my arm garter, and this fetching woman comes up and puts some cash in there, looks me in the eye and says, “I prefer metric shot.”
There’s only one other person on earth who’s ever uttered that sentence, and it was my friend Greg in our “Stuff Bird Hunters Say” video. The impact of his impromptu line clearly exceeded our expectations.
“Who sent you,” I asked, feeling pretty freaked out, kind of like Fox Mulder in pretty much every X-Files episode.
Talk about random coincidences. She and her husband are from Nebraska. They watch the video. They hunt birds. They’re moving soon to Boise, and just happened to be here for the weekend and just happened to decide to check out the new Tilted Kilt joint, and just happened to connect the video with me. I made another video once that was partly about my inability to construct a rational connection between my passions for bagpiping and bird hunting. I concluded that there isn’t a connection aside from me: it’s not natural, it’s human. This is another reminder.
So if you want to join the rapidly expanding “I Prefer Metric Shot” subculture, consider picking up one of our new t-shirts…
What an ungodly time to post anything about chukar. Right now, all here is mud. Now is the time to focus on the losing battles of keeping your house as clean as you in no way can. Now is the time to ignore dirt drying on carpet if at all possible. Now is the time to look at pictures of the fall in a silly, futile effort to pretend things are drier and cleaner.
I just happened across this photo from last December. It appears to me now as some sort of miracle. Taken by my wife in a fraction of a second, one frozen moment of my 51-plus years here, followed by two boys a fraction of my age, traversing velvety-beige glowing, basalt-infested undulating slopes of cheatgrass choked earthfolds, its surrealness starts tears. How does this happen? What things had to align themselves for this one moment, regardless of whether – but only because – it was photographed? It is uncanny. And then you realize that every photograph says this much and more.
Thank god. Thank god for life and memory. We do what we do, and – as long as we can – we remember.
Last Saturday’s hunt brought clarity to me on the real reason why I enjoy chukar hunting. I was a bit under the weather but didn’t want to miss a chance to go down into Hell’s Canyon with Bob and our visiting friend Greg and his dog Ava. We picked up “the kid” and his older brother along the way. It was the older brother’s first time chukar hunting. We also met our other friend Sam and his dog Hannah down at the bottom of the canyon at the designated meeting place. We set out walking slowly together on a gradual uphill road for about a mile before splitting up into three groups heading into different directions. It’s big country down there in the canyon; you can hunt for hours before running into your hunting partner or partners.
Our group of four and Angus headed uphill. We went up and down, the kid and his older brother following Bob closely. Angus, nose to the ground, was having a hard time pin-pointing the bird scent in the changing winds at the top. Angus did manage to point a couple of coveys, but the shooters missed after busting them. You never know where they’ll come up. “Pointing” is a relative term.
We chased Angus around, back and forth, and then back again like he was leading a parade. Tired at the top, we found a couple of nice spots blocked from the wind to take a break.
This is where the clarity part comes in. Admiring the view from the top, spending time with super nice people, recounting all our own hunting experiences afterwards, and sharing some good laughs watching Sam feed the dogs vienna sausage with a spoon to thank them for a good hunt. That’s what it’s all about.