08 December 2006

Birds Help the Big Game Hunter

I remember the first moment I caught the connection between birds and hunters. I was 16 years old. Old Joe Urban and I were hunting together. Dad had come home for a few days and had planned to hunt with us, but then did not want to get up early that morning. It was an icy, snowy morning. I was stunned when he reached into the headboard of his bed and tossed me the keys to his new Oldsmobile Toronado: "Take the Olds. You'll get stuck if Joe drives."

Late morning, I was moving carefully and quietly though a poplar copse along Fuller Brook, a tributary of Kinzua Creek on the northern Appalachian Plateau. It was the spot where a little spring enters the brook, straight across the shallow valley from the Beagle Club, where cousin Leo had caught that big brook trout (it weighed a pound) the previous spring. In my hands I held a rifle--the 30/06 Remington pumpgun that I had swindeled from my cousin "Billy Fatass" in a trade for a worthless Savage over/under combination gun. The snow had turned to rain on this cold day in early December. My Woolrich jacket weighed about 40 pounds. I was feeling miserable and looking for a whitetailed deer doe.

A flock of chickadees came to visit. I thought it was just chickadees being chickadees in their own peculiar carefree and trusting way. They gathered around me, and then moved a few feet away. I began to move, and they again swarmed around me, and then again moved a little further away in the same direction as they had moved the first time. Their rhythmic chirping was reaching a fever pitch. They were very excited. Somehow, I do not know how, I knew they wanted me to follow. Maybe it was because my rational mind was numbed by cold and fatigue. I was simply moving through the seams of nature without thinking about it.

So I followed. The chickadees moved a little further ahead and swarmed around a big old blowdown of a black cherry tree. I saw an ear flick and then another. Several deer were bedded in the branches of the blowdown. I shot one--a nice fat doe.

As I gutted the deer the chickadees again flitted around me. "OK, guys, I get it." And so I pulled some of the belly fat away from the entrails and hung it on a limb of the dead cherry tree. The chickadees expressed their exhuberance feeding upside down, feeding sideways, singing the happy song of a good meal.

From that time, as a deer hunter of the Alleghenies, I paid attention to chickadees. I came to think of them as little vultures of the woods, little vultures that knew the places of deer, little vultures that would lead me to the flesh we both hungered for.

On a canoe trip in the northern Ontario Temagami Wilderness, I met an old trapper. He regaled me, my fellow adult leader, and our boy scouts with his adventures. He told us a tale of a pet otter that could open the door to leave or enter the cabin, though it refused to learn to close the door. And he told us a tale of a pet raven that rode on his shoulder and that would fly ahead while making the rounds of his trapline. The raven would check each set and let him know whether an animal was in the trap. In this way, the trapper never had to go close to his sets and leave his scent or footprints unless it was necessary.

Since moving to Montana, I have enlarged my appreciation of birds as helper animals. Chickadees are generally unhelpful here, though I see them often while hunting elk. Both browncaps and boreals (the ones with the white eye liner) are common. They are friendly, but they are not helpful.

Whiskey jacks (aka gray jays or camp robbers) are another matter. They seem to cover a lot of ground in their foraging rounds and like the deer-loving chickadees of Pennsylvania they associate hunters with gutpiles and hence food. They know where the elk are, and I trust them. I trust them to lead me to elk (and occasionally other game), and I also trust them to find downed or dead game that I have shot.

Sometimes the whiskey jacks have alerted me to elk that have already passed by. They seem to think I have the power to make the elk come back. I have followed the birds straight uphill for a quarter mile, moving slowly and carefully, only to find recent tracks where elk passed by. That is OK, for if the snow is quiet and the wind is right and the elk are not disturbed, fresh tracks are nearly as good as a live elk (or a dead one, I might say, but I'm not that confident). And even if the snow is noisy and the wind is wrong and the elk are at a panicked run, well, I still thank the whiskey jacks. I brush the snow away from a log or rock and leave them a handful of granola. They tried to help, and do not understand my weak abilities. They are like small, trusting children who are full of faith, who believe their parents are capable of anything. Sorry guys. I still love you. It's the thought that counts.

Sometimes the whiskey jacks have helped me to find downed and dead game that I have shot. Several years ago, on the broad shallow curl of sagebrush covered hillside behing Old Charlie's place, I shot an antelope. There was a rock large enough to rest my rifle on and it was a good shot. I saw it go down and it did not rise up again. But I was about 300 yards away in featureless sage, and when I walked over to where I thought the antelope had went down I became lost. Up and down, back and forth, round and round I tramped through the sage. Finally, I walked back to the rock--one of the few features I could recognize.

I sat down on the rock, ate a snack, and began piece-by-piece glassing the hillside with binoculars. Nothing. I rose to walk back to where I thought the antelope had last stood. Then I heard it: the cries of several whiskey jacks coming over the top of the ridge. They must have heard me shoot and came to investigate. I suspected what might happen, and so I sat back down. Like trained falcons the whiskey jacks swept down into the sage and marked the downed antelope. I walked over, thanked them profusely with belly fat and strips of liver and the fat-covered globs of kidneys.

Though whiskey jacks do not seem as common in the sage brush hills where I hunt antelope or in the mountain mahogany canyons where I hunt mule deer, they do show up now and again--especially after hearing a rifle shot.

According to Native American stories, ravens too are a hunter's helper. Though I love and admire ravens, I have not found this to be true. Several times I have followed ravens that seem to be leading me somewhere--but after a mile or so without seeing elk I have given up. Perhaps the ravens are trying to lead me to elk that are still miles distant, and I have not stuck with the chase. Or perhaps they are trickster ravens, enjoying a game of fool the hunter, avenging themselves because of stupid hunters that shoot ravens.


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