February 26, 2021
By Rick Wright
Elliott Coues, the maddest of all American birding geniuses, was right on the money when he described a dog as “one of the most faithful, respectful, affectionate, and sensible of brutes.” But, Coues reminds us, even the best-trained pup’s “capering about” can be a problem for the birder in the field, especially, though not exclusively, when that pup isn’t yours.
I was introduced to birding with dogs more than thirty years ago, when the company of a mean-tempered cur named Wieselchen, “little stoat,” was the cost of a ride to birding spots in northwest Germany and the Netherlands. Far from faithful, respectful, affectionate, or sensible, the creature was given to yipping deafeningly at all the wrong moments and to consistently charging ahead whenever a potential bird of the day was spotted (her owners did not “believe” in leashes). She never bit me—but her getting us thrown off a field trip for bad behavior was shameful and unforgivable: just after we left in disgrace, I learned, the rest of the group ran across what would then have been my “lifer” Smews.
My own dogs, naturally, have been much better birders. True to his joyously violent breed, my Jack Russell, Randy, would as soon have torn birds to pieces as watch them, but he was good company nonetheless on a short leash, with the added advantage of being small enough to tuck under my arm when the especially rambunctious spirit descended upon him. Our favorite daily stroll was the scrubby edge of a golf course in east-central Illinois, where Upland Sandpipers, American Golden-Plover, Lapland Longspurs, and Broad-winged Hawks enlivened the seasons. The best of our finds—of Randy’s finds—was the fresh carcass of a Least Weasel, a cosmic bit of poetic justice that may never be equaled.
Jonah was next. Floppy, sloppy, and sweet, he smelled when we got him as if he had spent three days in the belly of a whale. Once cleaned up, Jonah proved a friendly fellow, easygoing and cheerful, with an appetite notably catholic even by canine standards. He wasn’t, however, much of a birder. I blame an experience from early in our time together, when he and I went camping in a southern Illinois national forest. I had a good time. Poor Jonah, though, was startled halfway out the trail by an ill-coordinated Gray Squirrel’s plopping out of a tree onto the ground right next to him. As if that weren’t disconcerting enough, the tent site I chose was beneath a particularly talented Barred Owl’s favorite song post. And to top it all off, at one point in a night seeming longer and longer, a Skunk wandered past, not—happily—spraying us, but near enough that the memory lingered. A normally plodding Jonah broke into an eager trot the next morning when the car came into sight.
In utter contrast, Gellert was an almost preternaturally gifted birding dog, if not quite in the sense most Labrador breeders might have in mind. The slightly misspelled namesake of the most famous dog in Welsh history, Gellert is now invested with the odor of sanctity, but even taking into account the rosiness of memory, he was an amazingly tolerant, patient birding companion, never complaining about a long drive, always happy to be in the field at our feet. Once the playful days of early puppyhood were behind him, he was content to sit and watch for as long as we cared to, never rushing a flock on the ground, never so much as twitching at the sound of wingbeats overhead. Dead birds, though, were another matter: anything feathered and immobile was fair game, so to speak, and we lived in constant suspense for the next gift he would gently lay at our feet.
When it came to living creatures, though, Gellert expressed only a slightly haughty indifference. One bitter winter evening at a deserted campground in southern Utah, he looked up at me on the day’s last walk and then turned his head to a group of nearby boulders: Chukars. Of all birds, I thought, those tasty phasianids should have brought out the killer instinct, but all Gellert wanted—I’m sure—was to know that I had seen them before we retired for the night.
Gellert spent much of his first couple of formative years in Vancouver, with a dog beach just steps from our front door. On the way to and from his daily swims, we would often stop to admire the local Bald Eagle pair or to enjoy the antics of the neighborhood flock of what we then called Northwestern Crows; Gellert always waited patiently. In the winter, he accompanied us on leisurely gulling excursions to parking lots, swimming pools, and sewage plants, nodding his greetings to his dog friends while we sorted through the Mew and Glaucous-winged Gulls in search of anything else.
Nearby Jericho Beach was our second-most frequent destination. There was no swimming there, but the birding was reliably better on the lawns and ponds. A great spot for the regular wintering birds and migrants, Jericho was also good for surprises; inevitably, Gellert was with me the morning I found a Black Phoebe in the cattails, a decent rarity by local standards that all the same left him apparently unmoved. He spent patient hours sorting the wigeon flocks with me, too, and waited calmly beneath the bench where I sat studying Sooty Fox Sparrows and Spotted Towhees; not even the feral European rabbits could tempt him.
Only once in the more than eleven years we had together did Gellert lose his composure on a birding trip. We were driving home to Tucson from Vancouver, and stopped in Montana for a few hours’ birding with a friend. It was hot, and Gellert would normally have stayed in the shade of the car with his water bowl and a sleepy expression. This time, though, we stopped within sight of an insufficiently distant slough, and before I knew it, as soon as I opened the car, he was off through the prairie grasses and into the water, flushing ducks and herons and pushing grebes and coots to the center of the lake. He chased none of them: he just wanted to be in his beloved water, and after a few minutes’ exuberant splashing, he ran back to rejoin us, lying down as if he had been there the whole time.
When Gellert died last October, unexpectedly-expectedly, surrounded by loving friends in a place he loved, we knew it would be a while before we could invite another dog into our little family. But not a long while. Quetzal was born at Thanksgiving, and came to us the end of January, rotund, affectionate, and demonic when her puppitude takes the upper hand. She is jet-black, whence her ironic name, and shows every sign of becoming a good birding dog. Her frequent visits to the yard still have one purpose and one purpose only, but she is already pausing to study the birds at the feeder from a respectful distance, and the honking of Canada Geese overhead or the fussing of Tufted Titmice in the apple tree catches her attention just as it draws ours.
Yes, Coues was right. A good dog “knows almost everything except how to talk…converses with his eyes and ears and tail, [and] shares comforts and discomforts with equal alacrity.” I’ve been lucky to share my birding time with some very good ones indeed.
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