Night of the Hunter

On dorm duty, I occasionally stop to talk with students while I'm making sure that they've got their books out and open and are using their study hall period for studying. One of the young men I'm responsible for is a talkative young fellow whom I'll call Calvin.

Cal and I have a lot of things in common, including a fondness for Carolina basketball, good Southern cooking, and birds. At the same time, our shared appreciation for birds is a drastic difference between us, as I'm fond of observing them and keeping tabs on what I see, while Cal is interested in shooting them. He's a hunter, an avid one, and there's nothing he likes better than the opportunity to blast away at waterfowl from a blind.

This might make birds seem like an unlikely basis for polite conversation between us, but in fact we don't really run into that much trouble, probably because we're two of the few people on campus who actually care what kind of bird we're looking at. For me it's a matter of intellectual and/or spiritual satisfaction, but for Cal it's entirely practical: if he shoots the wrong kind of bird, he could be arrested.

As a result, he's a very good birder, careful to note field marks and behaviors that most people (e.g., non-hunters, non-birders, the sane) simply wouldn't notice. I simply try not to bring up the events that take place after those field marks and behaviors lead him to his identification.

When I stopped by his room tonight, for example, I asked if he had seen anything interesting on the campus's new lake, which was filled last spring and has been restocked with fish and other edibles over the last few months. Cal immediately announced that he'd recently had a day where he shot eight Canada geese--not a bird I feel terribly protective about, as he well knows--and had seen a lot of other odd waterfowl: Mallards, Buffleheads, Wood Ducks...

"Wood Ducks?" I interrupted. We'll see Woodies on the nearby Rapidan River fairly regularly, but it flows through some very heavily forested land, so they're never more than a few feet from cover when they're swimming. By contrast, the new lake is out in the middle of a former cow pasture, and cover is simply not available anywhere on it. One end of the lake--the end near the blind--does have a creek running down from the nearby forest, but the trees themselves are at least thirty yards from the waterside.

"Oh, yeah," Cal insisted. The creek mouth, he pointed out, is a place where acorns from the forest's pin oaks often get washed, and a few Woodies often congregate there to feed. I was impressed. That's the kind of behavioral/geographical detail you simply won't find out about even from most serious non-hunting birders. He went on to discuss the possibility that some Black Ducks had been out on the lake as well, but they hadn't been close enough for him to nail down. And, he claimed, there had been a raft of at least thirty Ruddy Ducks on the water one morning.

"And I saw a grebe, too," Cal added. He wasn't sure about the I.D. at first, because the light wasn't very good, but the little bird swam up among the decoys to the point where Cal and his friends were getting ready to try taking a shot. Problem is, if it was a Pied-billed Grebe, it wasn't a legal game bird. What to do?

"I told them, 'I'm gonna stand up and clap my hands. If it flies, it's a duck, and if it dives, it's a grebe.'" When he rose and clapped, the bird dove for the bottom at once, and his friends were spared the ignominy of making an illegal kill. Again, I was impressed at the fact that Cal knew the habits of these birds well enough to make the identification, not to mention saving a bunch of our students from a nasty conversation with the local Fish & Wildlife officials.

I know that Cal would be unlikely to enjoy wandering the woods with binocs looking for warblers, and I'm certainly not likely to pick up a shotgun and try to bring down a Pintail. But even with our widely divergent reasons for wanting to see what's on Robertson Lake, and our equally divergent plans for what to do once we see it, I can't help but admire the passion, and the skill, and the craftsmanship with which he approaches his chosen avocation. I'm playing a different song with different words for a different audience, but I hope I'm playing mine as well as Cal is playing his.

Just don't expect an album of duets.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on December 2, 2011 8:24 PM.

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