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One Lost Bird

On day three of the 2002-03 season, the wind blew a heady 20-25 miles per hour, not an ideal day to hunt quail, but when you've been waiting through a miserably hot, dry summer for the season to open, such impediments become mere inconveniences. My dad and his dog joined us, more for the walk than the hunt as neither are hunters. About an hour after we left the truck, one of my dogs approached a patch of briars with birdy suspicion. He circled it a couple of times, never coming to a solid point, so when the first two birds flushed I was wholly unprepared. He circled around to the other side of the patch once again and when the third bird made a break for it, I was prepared and dropped it with one shot in a flurry of feathers.

Typically my dog will streak to the site of a downed bird, scurry in a random zigzag pattern until he finds it, pick up, take a step or two, then drop it and continue hunting. Not ideal form, I know, but I rarely lose a bird. Style notwithstanding, the team of two people and three dogs searched for nearly thirty minutes and found only a single feather. I re-created the shot twice, slowly raising the gun, swinging through the shot, then following the arc of the bird back down to the ground, exhausting every possibility of where the bird could have landed. And still came up with nothing.

On the surface this doesn't seem like a big deal. In spite of the most diligent efforts, sometimes you lose a bird to extremely thick cover or moving water or some other natural obstacle. Tempted by notions of fate, you could easily assume that there is a creature that needs this meal more than you, a possum or some other opportunistic feeder that has gone hungry for a few days and needs a break. I don't make a lot of money, but I can afford food for the table and do not truly need the game I shoot. Although I enjoy cooking and eating it, I could live a happy life off of the chicken and beef and pork I bring home from the grocery store. Far be it for my sport to get in the way of another creature's survival.

This notion leaves a lost bird too easy to dismiss, a very handy excuse for anyone eager to get on with the hunting, as my dog was, now that the shooting was over. It may have been stubborn pride that kept me rummaging through the leaves. I make such a conscious effort to mark downed birds, despising the waste implied by leaving a shot carcass in the field and refusing defeat by such a simple task of point, shoot, watch, and pick up. It's the same stubbornness that keeps me working on a clogged sink or a non-cranking chainsaw long past the point of diminishing returns.

I've lost countless things in my life. Pocket change, car keys, which is why I keep a spare set in my desk drawer at work, phone numbers that I write down and leave in places where I won't forget them. In my school days I lost a homework assignment or two. I've lost my wallet several times but always managed to get it back, contents intact. I did lose my credit card once, in a Charleston restaurant, where the next patron picked it up and had a hotel stay on me. Some of these are ridiculously insignificant, others a cause for varying degrees of concern. All hold the inescapable truth that your mind is not as sharp as you would like it to be, hence the stubborn refusal to accept that something is not where you thought it was.

I choose not to tempt fate and reluctantly admit that my mind is not the precision machine I wish it were, but these two concessions still do not explain the empty feeling I carried from the field that afternoon. Finding a downed bird is not a matter of life and death. It's already been a matter of death, which leaves it significant in its own way. It's more like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, one where you can see the picture in spite of the annoying hole in the middle defiantly beaming the solid brown of the tabletop beneath.

Hunting quail is a sequence of events, a sum of parts that have luster by themselves but truly shine when brought together. It is not just the flush of the covey and it is not the point of the dog that led you to that covey. It is neither the shot that drops the bird nor the fine English double, handed down through many generations, which fired the shot. As beautiful as a dog sweeping through fields and dancing between trees may be, that alone does not make the hunt. Nor does the right temperature or a favorable breeze, nor the unexpected encounter with a deer or a rabbit. A hunt when the dogs never point can be quite enjoyable, but most of the time it leaves you wishing for just a little bit more. A point without a flush is striking, but incomplete. A flush without a shot is heart stopping, but hollow, and so on until the bird is dropped. It ends when the bird is found.

Some of these you control, some you do not. It's much easier to walk away from the ones beyond your control. My dad and I made a dutiful effort to find the bird that afternoon and although I went home unhappy, I felt no guilt. A clear conscience, however, could not keep that missing piece of the puzzle from staring at me.

The next day, I took my dog back to the same piece of property in weather much more suited to finding birds. When we walked past the site of the previous day's disappointment, I encouraged the dog into the woods where the ghost bird fell. He made a quick loop of the area, stuck his nose into the leaves almost arbitrarily and pulled out a nice hen quail, one that we must have stepped over ten times the day before. I cannot explain the lift I got placing that bird in my vest any more than I can explain the dismay I felt 24 hours before.

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