The dogs were acting quite "birdy" when they disappeared into the small thicket at the edge of the field we were hunting. A few moments later, the unmistakable cackle of a male pheasant announced its presence seconds before that long-tailed bird exploded from the cover. Such ample warning made an easy shot even easier, and the ringneck folded instantly when I squeezed the trigger of my shotgun. Before that bird had fallen into the strip of dried goldenrod below it, my hunting partner also shot, and I watched another pheasant tumble from the sky just a few yards farther down the fencerow.
"Didn't you see that second bird flush?" he asked me.
I admitted I had not. I was engrossed in savoring the moment of my own shot as well as marking where the bird fell. And while I might have allowed the opportunity to shoot a double on pheasants to go unchallenged, watching my friend complete the back end of that double flush was every bit as satisfying as if I had downed both birds myself.
Hunting small game, especially bird hunting, is always more fun with a good friend or two. Not that hunting for more glamorous game such as deer or turkeys with friends isn't enjoyable, but when pursuing those species, it's not uncommon for each member of the party to go his own way and hunt independently for hours at a time. But when hunting small game with one or more partners, everyone works in concert, more or less, to work the cover and flush game. Most of the time, everyone is within sight of one another and will at least be able to watch other members of the hunting party when they have shooting opportunities.
Unfortunately, small game hunting appears to have lost much of its special appeal to a great many hunters currently. Most statistics I've seen reveal the overall percentages of hunters for most species of small game has declined substantially over the past couple of decades. Part of that decline might be attributed to the fact that small game hunting can often be hard work that requires a lot of walking around or through all sorts of cover. And while this might rankle a few folks, it seems to me that quite a few hunters nowadays are unwilling to make that kind of effort and are much more inclined to favor the more sedentary hunting style for deer or turkeys.
Of course, I can understand that mindset to some extent because there also doesn't seem to be the amount of small game out there as there was when I started hunting. Ruffed grouse populations have always been cyclical to some extent, and the heavy cover they thrive in makes them a challenge for even a seasoned wing-shooter. Wild pheasants are now all but a memory in Pennsylvania and have been for at least the last twenty years or so. I really feel sorry for the younger folks who never had the chance to experience what it was like to hunt wild birds in the southeastern part of the state. That was truly incredible.
And rabbits. What the heck happened to all the rabbits? When I started hunting, I could go out almost any afternoon in the fall, without a dog, and kick out a bunny or two, even in the woods while hunting grouse. I can't remember the last time I jumped a rabbit during small game season. During the past two weeks, I've hunted pheasants five days in some wonderful cover and didn't see a single rabbit.
Last and certainly least are squirrels. The party line from the Game Commission is that squirrels are our most prolific game animal. Yes, squirrels are good to eat and can be fun to hunt. I even have a customized .22 and a heavy barreled .17 HMR exclusively to knock squirrels out of trees, but to call those darn tree rats game animals is an insult to one's intelligence. Most important, no one is going to buy a hunting license to shoot squirrels. Call me old school, but back in the day, rabbits and pheasants sure did sell a lot of hunting licenses.