Antelope with Wings

It goes by the unglamourous name of prarie chicken, and indeed, it was once no more than food on the wing. Now we can appreciate it for what it really is--the spirit of the prarie.

Field & Stream Online Editors

This is a story about the prairie, and about the grouse that live there and the dogs that run around after the grouse. There are no people to clutter the landscape, not unless you notice one skinny figure sticking up like a soapweed stalk. The grassland in autumn never feels lonely, though. It sighs and curves and smells good, dips and bends and rises under my boots, lifting me to the ridges where a very old American gamebird lives.

Last September, I drove my version of the prairie schooner to South Dakota's grasslands, where the prairie chicken still lives as it always has, not confused in the least. I, however, needed advice. One experienced hunter told me to look for "antelope with wings." Most of the crowd leave prairie chickens alone after opening weekend, he said, not because they are scarce but because they fly for miles and hide in the middle of nowhere. You have to like distance to love prairie grouse.

Meadowlark matins came from all directions, on that first morning, cascading like church bells. From the volume, you would have expected musicians as big as ostriches. A solitary cottonwood seemed like the place to stop because there was no other place in sight, only grass. And besides, I hoped that my spoiled puppy would be soothed by the shade. She was ululating, WOE-woe-woe-wooooooo, much like the maidens they tied to railroad tracks in homesteader movies. For sustained anguish, tiny Tess beat them all.

The pup's sire, on the other hand, was relieved that she would not be coming along to spoil his bird work. Huckleberry and Tess are German shorthaired pointers -- the kind that would rather eat miles than breakfast.

Huck and I skirted the snowberry brush in a long draw. Half a mile uphill, he crept into a near-point, nosed around, then followed scent over the side of the draw and out of sight. He was trailing uphill but downwind, which is tricky. By the time I came over the top, he had run a loop and was pointing back toward me, upwind, game between us. The hard part was over and I could only let the team down. It was the kind of pass I hated to drop, back when I thought I could play football.

My elbow saved me this time, clamping the stock while grouse flushed in eleven directions, more or less. When the birds were far enough out and saying tut-tut-tut all at same time, the gun came up and a grouse came down. Huck found it in a patch of rose hips big as marbles and red as blood.

My first Dakota bird was, however, not a prairie chicken but a sharptail grouse. I should have known from all the tutting. Pinnates are less vocal than sharptails and do not hang out in brushy draws. I had been hunting the species I already knew instead of the one I wanted to meet.

As the shadows grew sharper, Huckleberry made quarter-mile casts, running arcs for scent that was not there, drawing curlicues around possibilities invisible to me. He sliced the infinite grass into pieces I could discern. By comparison to close-up work on skittish birds, the long search stretched legs and lungs but was easy on the brain for both of us. It was as beautiful as hunting gets.

In time, Huckleberry's arcs turned into tangents, trying to lead me anywhere except back to the truck. When we got there, however, he was content, having demonstrated that there are good smells left in the world to provide work for an honest bird dog.

We drove deeper into the prairie, then, as far as the dirt road would take us, far from trees and the red-tailed hawks that perched in them. We parked where a harrier circled and prairie chickens just might be hiding, and there I released the pup. Her sire turned his head away, refusing to watch us leave without him.

Tess was a year old and built like one of those dress-up dolls that make little girls aspire to anorexia -- the kind with inflated chest, depressedaist, and legs much longer than necessary to reach the ground. She floated, for the first half-hour, skimming the grass instead of weaving through it. During occasional returns to earth, the pup could have collided with anything, grouse or porcupine or snake. When I called her in, she rolled onto her back and wriggled, which is her method of appeasing cranks of all persuasions, human and canine. I sat to cool my dizzy damsel and the breeze pushed a shadow over us.

We were right in the middle of America, where eastern heat cooks up clouds and western clarity gives them sharp edges. The bottoms started just out of reach, flat and earth-colored. The tops were whiter than popcorn, billowing, monstrous, exultant, and voluptuous, anything a lonely speck of a man could want. If you have not dreamed on a cloud lately, it is because only the prairies have room for a show like that.

When we moved off again, Tess stayed in the grass but most of me was in the sky. It was not an out-of-body experience -- rather an awareness of head and feet in different realms. For this feeling, you have to walk west to the edge of fatigue. The east never had sky, even before the smog. Thoreau did not write about sky, nor Emerson. Sky hid in the trees for them and merged with the sea. On the prairie, sky is a place to live.

I came down to earth when Tess asked for water and, having refreshed herself, discovered grouse. The first scent must have been like a wall because she almost turned a somersault when she hit it. Only puppies make that kind of point, inspirational but stupid. I put my hand under her tail and pushed her forward, steadying her. She felt like a bee's buzz, vibrating clear down her spine. The birds, however, had moved on. Tess found them within 100 yards but must have heard them running away from her point, because she charged in and flushed the whole pack.

They were real prairie chickens this time, sharp-edged by sun, big birds in neat brown tweed. They swung past to look me over, curious as antelope, then flew up over the ridge and merged with the bottom of a cloud. No wonder falconers consider this grouse their most difficult quarry. The pinnate co-evolved with the swiftest of raptors -- in danger whether hiding in the grass or during long daily flights to food.

I brought Tess back to the site of the flush and made her stand while scent ran into her nose. I could not detect the grouse, but a whiff of vanilla came from drying bluestem grass and my jeans pressed the scent from a herb-garden of sagewort. To my surprise, the air was calm at my waist, though wind tugged at my hair. Tess had found -- by mistake -- a grouse oasis. We kept on in the lee of the ridge, looking for wind-sheltered patches of tall grass with a mixture of broad-leaved plants for shelter. When you learned to see it, that prairie was more diverse than some forests closer to home.

Back at the truck, I waited for the pup to jump in. Then I told her to kennel, and still she did not move. Finally, I noticed that she had brought me a present. I knelt as chivalrously as I could, with knees stiff from the distance, and accepted a yellow, dried-out foot of prairie chicken left over from some predator's meal. Thus released, Tess whirled into her act of contrition. She groomed the folds of my shirt, swallowed two beggar's-lice burrs from a cuff, and nibbled my ear in case any fleas might be hiding out in there. I told her that she was a fetching lass.

Huckleberry is a dog not of moods but agendas, and all he wanted from me that evening was a general direction. I set it and saw him disappear over the ridge. When next I saw him, he was on point in the hollow where a spur joined our geometry. He was not flustered. I was.

I moved down the ridge till I was well in front of Huck and caught the grouse between us again. This one gained speed downhill and tumbled 30 yards after it died in the air. At the shot, four more pinnates flushed and swooped down the same line. They reminded me of something in their headlong flight, rocking slightly from side to side.

Like many a Yank, I had hunted red grouse while working overseas -- Ireland, in my case -- before meeting their counterparts closer to home. The native American bird was bigger than its prestigious relative, wore much the same tailored suit-with-waistcoat, and was at least as fast over the contours, racing the stoop of countless peregrines through all the centuries. This bird did not deserve to be called chicken.

Cool air crept uphill even before a fringe of grass covered the red rim of sun. Huckleberry wanted to hunt one more grouse, and another after that, another forever. I held him in.

When we neared our truck, the next generation saw us and yipped, eager as her sire but not half as useful. Old Huckleberry could teach me anything, I thought, except how to be a puppy.ill and tumbled 30 yards after it died in the air. At the shot, four more pinnates flushed and swooped down the same line. They reminded me of something in their headlong flight, rocking slightly from side to side.

Like many a Yank, I had hunted red grouse while working overseas -- Ireland, in my case -- before meeting their counterparts closer to home. The native American bird was bigger than its prestigious relative, wore much the same tailored suit-with-waistcoat, and was at least as fast over the contours, racing the stoop of countless peregrines through all the centuries. This bird did not deserve to be called chicken.

Cool air crept uphill even before a fringe of grass covered the red rim of sun. Huckleberry wanted to hunt one more grouse, and another after that, another forever. I held him in.

When we neared our truck, the next generation saw us and yipped, eager as her sire but not half as useful. Old Huckleberry could teach me anything, I thought, except how to be a puppy.