Friday, July 11, 2008

On Hunting Chickens

My favorite gamebird (for the time being) is the greater prairie chicken. I particularly like their behavior around pointing dogs, their habitat, and the niche of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem (and folklore) that they fill.

Ted Gartner made the following comments regarding the prairie chicken in a blog post recounting last season's opener:

"For the uninitiated, prairie chickens are the quintessential native upland game bird of the prairies. They roamed the central part of the United States long before the more gaudy, noisy, and ubiquitous pheasant was brought to our shores from China.

"Prairie chickens inhabit vast expanses of rolling grasslands, mostly in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. As such, pursuing them requires a comfortable pair of hunting boots, rangy but disciplined bird dogs, and a healthy dose of optimism."

I have probably only dedicated a dozen or so days over two seasons hunting chickens, but it didn't take long for them to carve a place at the top of my totem pole of upland bird worship. If thinking about chickens was a paid profession, I could turn in two 40-hour timesheets every week. As Ted mentions, they mostly inhabit tallgrass prairie land in the northern half of Tornado Alley. In Kansas, most of the native grassland fell victim to the plow long ago, which has seriously reduced their range and population. However, there are certain parts of the state where crop agriculture didn't strongly take hold, mostly because of the limestone just a few inches under the topsoil. This layer effectively caused the preservation of some native prairie, because the shallow rock didn't readily allow the ground to be worked with farm machinery. In these areas, I find chickens in pastureland still teeming with native grasses, flowers, and other food sources--although chickens will readily fly miles away to feed on crops.

As you can see, the vast expanses of land and sparse cover allow an independent dog to range far, probing the front and flanks for scent. And when he does locate birds, he can be seen from long distances, making the approach all the more endless and antagonizing. The younger birds are likely to hold for a point in the early fall, and they aren't predisposed to running, although with chickens it's not out of the question, either. The right situation can mean pointed covies in November or December, like this past Christmas Eve. Usually, these covies are rather large.

Their erratic flight isn't strong, and their death comes easily with a well placed pattern of #7.5's. But these birds are neither tame, nor weak. They can detect a hunter's presence and flush wild hundreds of yards away. And they can survive the harsh winter storms that leave pheasants and quail frozen in snow drifts. Simple, and nearly archaic, in appearance, they are known mostly for their wild and extravagant mating rituals.

I'm going to miss hunting them this September, that's for sure.

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