By Oliver Hartner
Wingshooters forget about mourning doves after the first cool breaths of fall. Their attention turns to the Northwoods and pit blinds and flooded timber. But if there’s food in the field, doves will light well into November, and about three years ago, the place we hunt held the interest of a migratory flock.
The size and speed of these doves surpassed those taken during the season’s first few weeks, and only five of my shots met their mark from a box of cartridges. My Boykin Spaniel, Fowler, didn’t understand that a shotgun report cannot reliably suspend the flight of a bird, expressing her dissatisfaction through whines and whimpers. But she retrieved them with enthusiasm when my shots connected, and we lingered at the barn after the hunt before heading home. The top guns among the club affirmed the vigor of these doves, and many of them left the field without their limits, offering some salve for my ego.
Fowler and I watched through the windshield as the last sliver of sun dipped below the horizon. I parked and unloaded our kit as a crisp gust of wind rained another layer of leaves onto the lawn, then crunched a path through them to the garage. I cleared a wooden table in the corner and emptied my gamebag atop it before flipping on the light.
The fluorescents flickered to life, illuminating the space in contrast with the veil of night now descended. I took a dove in one hand and my game shears in the other, preparing to dress it customarily by clipping its wings and removing its breasts. As I took up the shears and worked the blades, I remembered an old timer telling me he quit bird hunting because after shooting them, they wouldn’t get back up and fly again. His poignant statement reminded me of a difficult truth often lost when the act of killing becomes rote; being successful at hunting means a life must end, and any life we take should not be counted as lesser than our own.
I felt obliged to give these birds my best and placed the shears on the table, then pulled the primary feathers from their wings. Their delicate skin released the quills with the slightest tug of my forefinger and thumb. Yet when fused collectively to this paper-thin layer of tissue, the strength and structure of each piece of plumage kept these creatures suspended above the earth and shielded from the elements; their dime-sized hearts circulated blood through their bodies while their pebble-sized brains calculated distance, direction, and windspeed without the aid of instrumentation. Perched among the upper tree boughs, their beady black eyes perceived food from these heights with astonishing acuity, and they abandoned the safety of the branches, diving into the field to satiate their hunger moments before my shotgun delivered its deadly payload. I wondered, could man or machine ever create…not clone…such magnificence on so minute a scale?
After each dove lay naked and drawn open, I considered what compelled me to shoot peace symbols—or any other bird—from the sky. Something inherent, or implanted, drew me nearer to wingshooting as opposed to other outdoor activities. Time and age may turn my heart from the hunt, but for now, wingshooting offers me joy and accomplishment. I believe consuming the broken bodies of the birds I kill connects me to creation, like a kind of Eucharist without the pomp of consecration—yet a sacred meal regardless. Calling it fun cheapens the sacrifice. Calling it sport seems palatable, acknowledging that rules and decorum govern the pursuit. But it ought never be called entertainment.
About the Author
Oliver spent his formative years in the Feliciana parishes of Louisiana and piney-timber counties of southwest Mississippi. He is an alumnus of the University of Mississippi, the University of South Carolina, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the United States Army. He now lives in Columbia, South Carolina with his loving wife Rebecca and their daughter Virginia, and often escapes the urban environs accompanied by their Boykin Spaniel, "Fowler,” to immerse himself in the richness of his beloved Palmetto State and beyond. His work appears regularly in Covey Rise Magazine, and he has contributed to Shooting Sportsman, USA Today, Quail Forever Journal, and Covers Magazine for the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society (RGS/AWS). Follow him on Instagram @oliverhartner and read recently published work at www.oliverhartner.com.