17 February 2014

After Prairie Chickens - Hunting in Illinois

The Hunters' Keen-scented Dogs - A Sportsman's Outfit - How the Birds are Found and Killed.

A Chicago letter says that a glance, almost any day, into the baggage cars of the trains leaving the city for the West and South will reveal an unusual sight. In addition to the piles of trunks, empty milk cans, and the usual promiscuous heaps of all kinds of luggage, anywhere from six to two dozen dogs of various sizes and colors may be seen securely chained in different parts of the car. They may be chained singly, in pairs, and sometimes in double pairs; but the different groups are kept carefully apart and out of each others reach. The reason is that they are apt to be belligerent and are extremely valuable, and a "scrapping match" of even short duration might result in the destruction of serious damage of several hundred dollars' worth of property of a kind not easily replaced, and the delay of a hunting trip just begun. The secret is out. They are hunting dogs and their owners are starting out for the corn fields and grain stubbles in search of prairie chickens. Contrary to what one would naturally expect, the dogs are far from being plump and sleek after the manner of well fed and comfortably housed pets. In fact, they are quite the reverse, and, as a rule, are lean and gaunt, although clean and sound of limb. They are kept thin on purpose, that they may work easily and without fatigue, and are trained with all the care bestowed upon a champion in the ring. Few of them are valued at less than $150, and a check for ten times that amount would not buy a number in the car. Born with the instincts of the hunting dog of pure pedigree, they have been as carefully trained as children, and at a large expense, by their owners or by professional trainers, who make a handsome living at the business. The ordinary pup is worth from $50 to $250, according to the size, color, disposition and pedigree, and his training costs from $50 to $100. If well treated and intelligently handled the trained dog is a miracle of docility and intelligence, and the hunter's bag would be woefully small without his aid.

In the smoking car will be found the hunters themselves. While their costumes are much alike, the similarity ends with their clothes and outfits. A dozen or more conditions of life and business interests are represented by the group. The chicken shooting in Iowa, Minnesota and the West is generally poor this year, and the hunters as a rule have obtained most of their sport in Illinois and Indiana. These men are bound for the central and southern parts of Illinois, and the rich corn and grain fields of the Prairie State. The outfit of each is quite similar, varying only in quality and completeness. It may be briefly enumerated as follows: A dog or two, a gun, a "shell-box" filled with loaded cartridges, rubber or leather hip-boots, a pair of lighter shoes or boots, stout breeches, hunting-coat and cap, rubber coat and game-bag. The coat is the most remarkable part of the costume. It resembles the Irish-man's cannon, which was built around a big hole, in that it appears to be constructed around innumerable pockets. It is made of stout canvas, the color of dried reeds or an oat stubble. The hip-boots are for use in the morning when the dew lies heavy on the fields and for wading in the marshy bits. In the afternoon in dry weather the lighter shoes or boots may be used. In the pockets of the coat are a short rawhide whip and a silver whistle, articles of whose use the dog is well aware. the prairie chicken is an accommodating bird, and may be hunted in pleasant weather; and this fact may partially account for the ardor with which it is pursued. Chicken-shooting, however, is a fascinating sport in itself, the game being wary, strong of wing, and extremely palatable. Daylight finds the hunters — for they generally, like their dogs, hunt in pairs — leaving the farm-house where they have passed the night. At the word of command the dogs leap into the wagon, and a few moments' drive brings the hunters to a "likely field." The hunters alight, slip a cartridge into each barrel of their guns, and turn into the field. The dogs are eager for the sport to begin, and at the words "Hunt 'em up," and a wave of the hand, spring out into the stubble at full speed, one hunter and one dog to each side of the field. The dogs work from the edge of the field to the centre, cross, keep on to the outer edge, return, and cross again, covering the field in every-varying and irregular circles. Now and then one pauses and snuffs the wind blowing down the field, or turns quickly aside from his course and follows up for a few yards an old scent in the hope of finding it grow stronger. Suddenly one of them running at full speed in long, elastic bounds, with ear and tail waving as he leaps, falls, flat as if paralyzed and remains motionless as a stone. Quick as is the movement, the other dog has also crouched and is pointing at the first dog, "backing him up" with implicit confidence, though the scent may not have reached his keen nostrils. Then the sagacious animals turn their heads and look back at their masters with intelligent eyes, as if he says, "Hurry up; here they are!" The men move rapidly and noiselessly up to the first dog. the intelligent animal, who has not moved a muscle, except to turn his head and look back, rises slowly and crouchingly to his feet, and with nose extended steals slowly forward, intelligence and wary caution expressed in every movement of his eloquent body. His feet are lifted and put down like paws of velvet, and his progress is noiseless and as true as the needle to the pole. The hunters follow carefully close behind, guns cocked and ready for use.

Down goes the dog as though shot dead, and this time he does not dare to look back, the tremor of his body giving warning that he can go no further without walking into the covey. The men take one, two steps — whiz, whirr — three birds rise, two to the left, one to the right! Bang! bang! bang! The man on the right kills his bird, the man on the left wills with his first barrel and misses with his second barrel. Neither hunters nor dog stir a step. The left-hand man breaks his gun, draws out the discharged shells and slips fresh ones into their places. While he is loading, up rises a fourth chicken, this time to the left. The right-hand man knocks it over, and at the discharge of his gun the chickens rise on all sides. The left-hand man gets in both barrels and knocks down two birds. They reload, and the dog is told to "hunt 'em up." If the birds are plenty and the stubbles in good condition, the chances are that a covey will be found in each stubble-field. Hunters often "draw a blank," as they term it, and sometimes two coveys are found in one field. The coveys vary widely in size; sometimes as many as thirty of forty birds are found together and sometimes an old cock is found alone with a field all to himself. The chickens in different coveys also behave differently. At times they will get up singly, and in such a case two shooters will get nearly the whole covey. At other times the whole covey will rise together, and it needs quick and skillful shooting to make each of the four barrels count. If the country and flight of the birds allow, it is sometimes possible to "mark a covey" and follow them from field to field, unless they fly into the corn, when pursuit is hopeless.

December 2, 1885. After prairie chickens. How the wild birds are hunted in Illinois. The hunters' keen-scented dogs - a sportsman's outfit - how the birds are found and killed. Forest Republican 18(33): 1.