Hunting for a Good Dog

Regard the bird dog. Like people, he comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. he is equipped with a tail or without. He is intelligent or stupid, handsome or the proverbial (40 miles of bad road."

He is spaniel, pointer or setter, and he has been making up for man's shortcomings (inability to smell, limited range, lack of endurance) for centuries. It is a bittersweet relationship, but one that endures.

Havilah Babcock, the best writer of all the upland communicators and the dean of quail writers, said, "Bird hunting gets into a man's blood worse than the seven-year-itch. I've never known a bird hunter to quit. They die sometimes, but never quit."

Some historians trace the beginning of the man/dog relationship to about 7,000 B.C., but wingshooting of game birds didn't develop until the middle of the 16th century.

In 1517, Dr. Johannes Caius, University of Cambridge, said, "Another sort of dog there be serviceable for fowling, making no noise with foot or tongue whilst they follow the game. These attend diligently upon their masters and frame their conditions to such becks and motions and gestures as it shall please him to exhibit and make, either going forward, drawing backward, inclining the right hand or yielding to the left. In making mention of fowl, my meaning here is of partridge and quail. When he hath found the bird, he keepeth a sure and fast silence and stayeth his steps and will proceed no further and with close covered, watching eye layeth his belly to the ground and so creepeth forward like a worm."

This is an accurate, if clumsy description of a bird dog in action, taking hand signals, staunch to point. However, his master wasn't interested in a covey flush. He used the dog to herd birds into a net. Bird netters had all kinds of tricks to keep their quarry on the ground, including flying a hawkshaped kite.

Sport aside, the major reason Joe Birdhunter of 1517 didn't shoot on the wing was because the gun he carried was virtually incapable of it. Fowlers used matchlocks, and it was too awkward to manipulate a burning match to slow-burning powder, at the same time tracking a flying bird.

Today's high-tech steel-barreled shotgun, whether double, pump or autoloader, is a far cry from the matchlock smoothbores first used to shotgun birds in the mid-1500s.

It may come as a grim shock to the owner of pointers and setters, but