ID On The Wing by Gary Adair
The importance of properly identifying game birds on the wing not only helps to keep you legal, it can add birds to the bag and may even serve as an unscientific conservation tool. But, based on some uncontrollable variables, identification can be tricky.
Although the ring neck pheasant is the only game bird in which males can only be legally harvested, differentiating them from their female counterparts does not always come easy. Case in point would be the North Dakota opener some years ago where Mother Nature played a role causing a late hatch with the pheasant population. The end result was immature birds, lacking their customary gaudy adult plumage, making identification on the wing a rather difficult task. While listening for their boisterous cackle can help, not every rooster announces his departure; it is not something one can always rely on. I always look for the white ring around a rooster’s neck, the presence of spurs and the characteristically long tail, not present on every bird that year. But the best rule to apply is when in doubt don’t shoot! I refrained from squeezing the trigger on several birds that week, although others had apparently not done the same based on the number of dead, crippled, birds that Cinnamon found.
Another time when bird ID is critical is when hunting the mixed-bag opportunities of the prairie states. With possibilities of encountering huns, quail, prairie chicken, pheasant, prairie, sage and sharptail grouse, it’s paramount to properly identify your target.
I remember my first trip for pheasant, first hunting trip actually, where I had the opportunity to expose my young chessie, Cinnamon, to sharp-tailed grouse. Well, being a novice prairie grouse hunter, sharptails are easily confused with hen pheasant, Cinnamon would flush several singles before I realized that the “duka-duka-duka” I heard was coming from sharptails and not the hen pheasants I had thought. This common rookie mistake of not listening more attentively or looking for the short, pointed tail can create missed opportunities, as it did for me, and bring hen pheasants to their demise. The latter happens far too often during the opening weeks of grouse season and beyond.
Current weather conditions can also cause confusion with bird identification. Paying attention to telltale signs such as coloration, bird size, vocalizations on the flush and tail lengths and shapes are a great aid when hunting overcast days, during a driving snow or when looking into the sun.
Luckily, most states have implemented aggregated limits on those species, which are similar and might overlap. Blue, ruffed and spruce grouse, sharptails and prairie chickens, mountain and valley quail, gambels and scaled quail usually fall under a combined limit in most states. Knowing what you’re hunting and what is on the wing before firing is still sound protocol.
Although junk-science, I apply my own method of conservation by being gender-selective and harvesting only the males of certain species when possible. And I practice this religiously when hunting favorite coverts, fragmented populations and certain species of birds. With sage grouse it’s been easy since the males, bombers, are quite larger than females and their coloration darker. It’s the opposite with woodcock as the females coloring resembles the males, but are noticeably the larger of the sexes. One can even be gender-selective with quail on the wing, although not quite as reliably as with the other species.
Learning to ID birds on the wing is only a matter of studying each bird’s attributes. This not only benefits the hunter, it can help preserve the resource as well.