Marking Birds and Finding Feathers

Article contributed by E. Castillo.

The only thing more difficult than connecting shot on fast flying doves, snipe, quail, and prairie chickens maybe finding them. Marking the exact spot where a bird falls is an important part of bird hunting with or without a dog. Every ethical hunter has the responsibility to make every effort to recover fallen birds.

In fact, game laws are specific about “wanton waste”. Both Kansas and Federal Wanton Waste Laws states that by regulation, hunters will make every available effort in attempting to find any game crippled or killed. This is easier said than done, even if you have a well-trained bird dog. Birds that are killed in flight sometimes fall in some nasty overgrown weedy cover. Obviously, a dog’s sense of smell is far greater than ours and well-trained dogs are able to find downed birds with a little bit of work. However, many factors do play a part in retrieving game. Moisture, wind, and temperature can and will affect your dog’s nose. That simple wet knob on the end of the muzzle can work olfactory wonders if conditions are right.

Often times, a wing tipped bird will sail a long way. Some fall hard and others don’t appear to have been hit very hard, but in truth they are and many can be recovered.

Use these easy tips in the field to help you make sure you don’t lose any feathered game:

  1. Pinpoint the location by mentally marking it.
  2. Go straight to the marked spot.
  3. Use nearby landmarks to help you judge distance and location of downed birds.
  4. Do not approach downed birds with an unloaded gun. Injured birds can re-flush.
  5. If you miscalculate the spot, use your cap or other item as a marker then start making ever-widening circles.

The Hat Trick

The trick is marking the birds fall or landing as well as you can. Walk directly to that location and place your orange hat where you think the bird went down. This spot is your anchor or mark and by leaving a marker you can always return to the location where you think the bird has dropped. If you are fortunate enough to be hunting with a dog, then from that spot command the dog to hunt dead.

Surveyor’s Tape

Don’t want to lose your hat. Then start bringing a small roll of surveyor’s tape to the field. Instead of dropping your prized headwear, use surveyors tape as a reference point to start your search. The bright orange tape is easy to see. Wrap it around a branch, corn, or milo stalk.

Want to get creative. How about tying a piece of the bright orange fabric to a small collapsible tent pole! Tent poles come in various sizes, and can be trimmed down to about twelve inches so that it will fit in your game vest for easy transport.

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Marking birds while huntingGo to the place where you marked the shot quarry. Stick the pole into the ground and start your search pattern making increasingly larger circles around it until you find the bird.

  1. If you are hunting with someone, help each other by guiding them to the location. Sometimes they had a better vantage point to where the bird fell.
  2. Look for signs. Feathers and shot-shell wad can help you determine a general area and gives you a starting point. If the dog isn’t already tracking the bird, take the dog to located feathers and have them start their track from that location.

Understand that birds may hit the ground running if crippled, especially roosters. That’s not to say, quail won’t run. Recently, while quail hunting, a shot quail ran over thirty yards towards heavy cover to avoid capture from both hunter and dog. Birds that take a full shot of pellets can still wander off.

  1. Make EVERY effort to find a downed bird. If you get an imprecise mark on a bird, you need to make up for it with persistence.

The terrain, lay of the land, and habitat may be contributing factors in making it more difficult to locate downed birds. Tall cover and heavy brush can wreak havoc in finding downed game. Birds shot dead can still hit the ground and bounce into holes or under clumps of grass and vegetation. And don’t let short wheat stubble, or a plowed-up field, or even snow fool you into thinking it will be easy to find your shot bird. Think again.

Remember gamebirds are mainly ground-dwellers, therefore many upland birds use camouflage. Camouflage serves as one purpose for upland birds; self-defense. Plumage, colors, and markings that break up the outline of a bird and help it blend into its environment can help keep it safe from predators. These same color patterns will still work in the birds favor when they are shot dead.

Marking birds while hunting

Hunters also tend to assume that if a bird, especially ones with a lighter or white breast or wings fall on their back that they are much easier to locate. This is not always the case. Yes of course sharp-tails with their white underneath bellies are easy to spot and identify upon flushing and in flight, but it’s another story when they end up on the ground. That white coloration still manages to blend into the ground cover.

The same goes for bobwhite quail and doves. Throw in a white canvas of snow, and birds can still manage to be difficult to pinpoint.


About the Author
Edgar Castillo is a twenty plus year veteran law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. Edgar also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Besides his faith and family, his passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.

Follow his upland adventures on Instagram @hunt_birdz and Facebook hunt birdz – Gear Reviews, Tips, & Info for the Uplands.

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