A hunter’s reflection on the complexities and associated emotions of the moment we find ourselves bird-in-hand…
In the closing minutes of the last day of Wisconsin’s ruffed grouse season, I shot a beautiful mature gray bird that flushed wild high out of a mature aspen. Holding that improbable bird, part of me wanted to let out a wild barbaric WHOOP, one which would rip through the surrounding woods, but doing so never seems quite right to me in this sober moment when I have just ended the life of such a wildly noble creature. On top of the elation, I felt regret, twinges of guilt, I even foolishly wished we hunters had a shoot-and-release. Part of me wanted to throw that bird in the air and watch it fly away, but hunting requires pulling the trigger or at least the intent to do so, otherwise it isn’t hunting. It’s something else, I don’t know what, but it’s not hunting.
At any rate, after all my years of hunting, crouching down bird-in-hand, with the dog bouncing around me and burying his nose in the feathers, these bittersweet feelings course through me, the satisfaction of a job well done mingling with the thought that I had just killed the very thing I love. With 30 years of hunting behind me, I still can’t adequately explain the complexities of how I feel bird-in-hand. After all this time and all the birds my hands have held, I don’t ever expect I’ll resolve it either. Let me know if you do.
The bird-in-hand moment is one of possession. It is quite literally the taking of a life and also what was once defined legally as the state’s property (all game animals are) and making it yours. What was once wild and so often eludes us has been brought to hand, put in the bag. We have taken possession of what we thought about for all those hours in the office, in the factory, driving down the freeway, looking at screens — we have made virtual reality reality. We hold in our hands our dreams. It’s an iconic moment, and other than the tailgate shot, perhaps the one most photographed.
It is a moment of quiet beauty, holding that upland bird, whether it’s a ruffed grouse or a woodcock, a sharptail or a Hungarian partridge — fill in your favorite upland bird. They never look as beautiful as when we take them from the dog’s mouth or pick them up off the ground. They often look bedraggled when we go to clean them hours later after they’ve bounced around for miles in a gamebag and rigor mortis has frozen them. They are then simply bone, feathers and meat and look nothing like they do that moment when their life has just fled back up into the clouds or who knows where, in that moment when their eyes are still clear, and, I like to think, still seeing.
Mixing with these solemn feelings are those of satisfaction and gratification, a complexity which might be difficult to understand unless you have kneeled down in the woods or crouched in a field and held a just-killed bird-in-hand. These feelings, in the end, override my uneasiness with pain and death. We succeeded, we did what we came out to do. All that persistence, patience and training paid off. All those miles of walking, up and down hills, through rough and brushy country, places we would never go unless we were hunting. Our dog pointed or flushed one of those feathery rockets, and when we pulled the trigger, it tumbled back to earth. I can’t think of too many things in my life more satisfying than this.
In the end, it’s the gratitude that covers it all. I’m grateful to walk in beautiful country and to hunt a beautiful bird, grateful for the land and what it provides. I never feel thus when I’m in the supermarket dodging other shoppers and hunting down shrink-wrapped chicken. Out in the field or woods, we know the cost both to us and to the bird, something not measured in dollars and cents. I can think of no other moment in my life which makes me more thankful, more prayerful than holding a bird-in-hand.
About | The Author
Mark Parman lives and hunts in Seeley, Wisconsin with his wife, Susan, and two setters, Fergus and Jenkins. He has been a Ruffed Grouse Society member for over 20 years. He is the author of Among The Aspen, A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac and a regular contributor to the RGS & AWS blog.