Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bird season

In many parts of the country, hunting seasons for some birds open on September first. Not so celebrated as the Glorious Twelfth and driven in part by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the first of September marks the beginning of dove season for a lot of hunters. For many of us in the West, it also marks the beginning of squirrel season and grouse season. The season for Band-tailed pigeons also opens in some areas. In other words, September first is opening day. Except for perhaps one or two short periods, some kind of small game will be in season from now until early February.

As I've mentioned, I grew up with dove hunting and was spoiled by plentiful birds and nearby hunting locations. Stories from California hunters of driving for hours through the dark to catch a sunrise flight of birds in the desert struck me as really strange. Dove hunting was something that happened after school and after work, minutes from the house and always in the afternoon. Currently, I live in too large a city with too little nearby agriculture to have a lot of doves, despite all those mourners and whitewings crowded on my feeder:

In the last couple of decades, I've only shot doves once that I can recall. On the other hand, I've spent a lot of time, miles, gas and boot leather looking for grouse. In the Southwest we have blue grouse. In southern and western Colorado I've seen them in oak brush and pinyon margins near higher elevations. Further south, they appear almost exclusively on high ridges, usually around open meadows and in areas with mixed aspen and spruce occur. Generally, if you find grouse in an area one year, you'll probably find them there again. This is mitigated by the fact that populations are cyclical, the birds move around a good bit, and the birds are pretty easy to just walk past and you can't count on them flushing when you do. The Colorado Dept. of Wildlife estimates you walk by 5-10 birds for each one you see. (They also offer advice on finding the birds). In my experience hunting for grouse generally involves a lot of walking in high country while looking around, something worthwhile in its own right. Not a classic bird hunting experience for me, I generally carry a .22 rifle, sometimes a .22 pistol. On the one occasion I used a shotgun, I went three birds for three shots- since then I've avoided another go with the scattergun in the sure knowledge that I have many misses stored up for myself. For that matter, I've seen the birds launch themselves off tree limbs and out over canyons at truly impressive speeds, making me glad I wasn't carrying a shotgun with which to embarrass myself.

So, this post was designed to be about anticipating opening day and the start of fall. The kicker is that, in an unusual display of care and thoroughness, I decided I'd check over my state game proclamation (pdf at this link) before hitting "publish". A couple of years ago, New Mexico extended the blue grouse season to mid-October from the previous Sept. 1-30 limitation. The extra couple of weekends were nice. Now, checking the regs, I see that after thirty years during which there has been exactly one change in the regulations with respect to blue grouse, this year there's a permit requirement as well as opening the season on August 23 for one section of grouse range centered around the southern Sangre de Cristo mountains and the Pecos Wilderness. Folks hunting up there can start early. Head that way and, what do you know, today is opening day!


Matt Mullenix said...

You hunt grouse with a pistol? How does that work??

mdmnm said...

Hey Matt,

The less sophisticated Western grouse will frequently just hold real still, in hopes you walk right by them. Alternatively, they'll fly up into a tree within a hundred yards or so and perch on the limb, in either case sometimes letting you approach to within fifteen yards or so. The challenge of hitting a bird on the wing with a shotgun is replaced by the challenge of making a head shot with a pistol.

Henry Chappell said...

Great post. A few years back, one of my quail hunting buddies was doing some solo backpacking in the Pecos Wilderness. Although I'd told him about ruffed grouse hunting in Kentucky, he'd never encountered a grouse of any kind. Well, he "encountered" a blue grouse along the trail. It flushed off a low limb and nearly gave him a heart attack. We've been talking about making a western grouse hunt ever since.

mdmnm said...


If you all get a trip put together, give me a shout and I'll point you to a couple of places. The low limb thing is a specialty of blue grouse, as far as I can tell. They usually get me when elk hunting. I'll ease up to the edge of an opening and stand in the shadow of a bushy spruce tree, maybe get a drink of water, just kind of try to blend into the woods, when suddenly a grouse will launch itself off the limb three feet above my head where it has been becoming increasingly nervous. Ten minutes later, when my heart rate has begun to approach normal, I move on.