It’s not always easy to spot a wounded bird — and it may fly on for some distance after being shot — so do keep your eyes peeled, advises Ian Grindy

I was standing with my dogs more than 200m away from the line of Guns. The birds on this drive were being pushed from a gamecrop situated on high ground. There was a strong wind blowing from behind and these birds were flying down the valley at one heck of a speed. From my position, I could see that some of these birds had been hit by one particular Gun at the end of the line, yet they continued to glide onwards with set wings for some considerable distance.

I marked two birds down on the edge of a wood about 300m away and set off in pursuit. I picked up both birds — one dead but the other still alive. This bird had run for the nearest cover but the dog soon found it. With both birds in the bag, I felt fairly smug when I met the man who had shot them.

“I’ve picked-up those two birds,” I said, in a matter-of-fact manner. “What birds?” came the reply. “The two that you pricked on your right,” I explained. But I could see that I was wasting my time. It was
obvious that he had no idea he had hit those birds.

From my position I had seen both partridges clearly flinch or shudder slightly when the shot hit them. The pellets must have struck something vital, but they had not done enough damage to bring them tumbling out of the sky. A high-flying bird with a strong wind at its back can travel a long distance when it is hit, even if it is mortally wounded.

Eyes on the prize
If you think you have spotted a wounded bird the guiding rule is: if in doubt, mark it! Keep your eye on the bird all the time and don’t let it out of your sight. Use a landmark — this could be a fence post, tree, gate or anything else that will help to guide you or the pickers-up to that bird at the end of the drive. Be as accurate as possible: if the bird dropped near the edge of the wood, say so, but also describe what it looked like — did it tumble, fall or run when it hit the ground? If the bird dropped 20m from the corner of the wood, tell them that is where it fell. If it had a leg down or a broken wing, the pickers-up will want to know that, too.

It’s important to get a picker-up or dog on to a wounded bird as quickly as possible, while the scent is still fresh and before it regains enough sense to start running. Speed is of the essence. Some people frown on birds being picked while a drive is in progress, but my view is that the welfare of the bird is paramount: if it’s wounded, it should be picked-up immediately — no excuses — so long as it is safe to do so.

Always check
When I am picking-up, I carry a small pair of binoculars in my bag. If I think a bird is hit and may fly on a long way, I follow it with the binoculars, so I can spot a wounded bird and follow it. I thought I was unusually clever doing this until last year a fellow picker-up also produced a pair from his bag, so it’s not such an exclusive idea after all.

If you think you have hit a bird, you are probably right, so treat it as being hit or wounded until it’s proved otherwise. And don’t assume that the pickers-up have seen it fall — always check. If a bird has a leg down or a broken wing it is obviously wounded, but it is the less subtle signs that you need to look for.

I have mentioned how birds may flinch or shudder when they are hit, and you need to keep your eyes open for this, particularly with partridges. If you see pheasants react to shot with a slight upward flick of the tail feathers, you have probably hit them too far back, and need to start swinging through more before pulling the trigger. Birds hit at the back end are usually dead by the time the picker-up gets to them, but they can fly a long way before dropping.

picking up
It’s hard to be too prescriptive about how birds react to shot. A pellet in the lungs, head or heart doesn’t always produce a set reaction. A bird in flight is subject to momentum and this is determined by speed, height, ddistance and the ability to be carried by the wind for a considerable way. Other than the blindingly obvious, such as a broken wing or leg, there are too many variables to allow you to be absolutely sure what damage has been done by the bird’s reaction to shot.

A single pellet will do it
My old friend Mike was watching over a small group of people shooting duck on a small pond during evening flight, when a bird circled, and they all missed it. Mike knew something was not as it should be with that bird as it flew away, apparently unscathed, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. He decided to run the dogs out in the area into which the duck had disappeared, just to satisfy his curiosity,
and sure enough he found it, nearly 200 yards away from the pond, dead. When it was plucked
and dressed, he found a single pellet in it. This pellet had penetrated the breast and gone straight through the heart, yet nobody thought they had hit it.

When you have been shooting for a long time you usually develop an instinct, like Mike, for spotting wounded birds. but it’s an instinct that can be developed by anybody, as long as they are observant and have a good idea what to look for.

There is a degree of controversy about whether it is shock or penetration that causes death when a bird is hit. I am no expert on this, but I do know that some birds are more resilient to shot than others. Duck and geese are notoriously tough when it comes to taking shot and this is why they require a bigger shot size and a heavier load of cartridge — non-lead, of course — to do the job properly. When shooting duck or geese, always watch carefully for a bird that separates itself from the rest of the party or skein. If it takes off on its own, it is likely to be wounded.

Birds that recover
It is also important to watch for a bird that falls but something tells you that it is likely to get up and fly again. This can happen if it’s been stunned or taken a shot in the beak. The shot seems to knock it senseless for a while but the bird can recover quickly and fly again when a dog is sent out to find it. You can usually recognise these birds by the way they seem to recover quickly before landing. If you think a bird is only stunned, tell the picker-up about it. A bird like this needs picking-up with somebody standing close by with a gun.

When this happens, check the area first for safety. If you have to shoot the bird again, it will usually be flying very low — is it going to be safe to shoot? Keep the dog in close control until you are in the immediate area of the fall. The last thing you want is for the dog to flush the bird again out of range before you get there.

The other bird to watch for is the one that seems to fly on unscathed but then suddenly “towers” — in other words, starts to hover or fly upwards at a vertical angle — and then falls out of the sky dead, often several hundred metres away. These birds have usually suffered brain damage but there are other explanations. Nine times out of 10 they are dead when the picker-up gets to them

Dos

  • Do use the correct shot size and cartridge for the type of shooting involved.
  • Do watch for odd feathers floating about after you shoot. This usually indicates that a bird has been hit or grazed by shot somewhere on the body. Shot will also cut through the primary flight feathers, leaving a slight gap in the wing — so keep an eye open for this too.
  • Do watch for birds that “tower” or suddenly fall a long way away. They are usually dead but you must mark them well.
  • Do check where the pickers-up are standing before you start shooting and, if you think you have hit something, tell them about it as soon as it is safe to do so.

Don’ts

  • Don’t take your eye off a bird that you think has been hit, no matter how many lost opportunities to shoot another bird this may create. The welfare of the bird is paramount.
  • Don’t swing on to another bird unless you are sure that the bird you have just shot at is dead — use the second barrel to make sure.
  • Don’t assume that the picker-up has seen a bird fall — always check.
  • Don’t be tempted to shoot at birds that are out of range.