I mentioned earlier (“Are you a good shot“) that I have participated in a FWS survey about my dove season. It asked how many doves I shot this year and how many hit the ground unrecovered. The final tally was 119 in the bag and 4 that hit the ground that I didn’t find. Add to that five or six that were hit hard that never landed, or that reflushed. Assuming every one of those birds didn’t survive, my crippling losses were lower than 10 percent. Most estimates I have seen are much higher which suggests hunters need to work harder on their cripple finding skills.

Losing birds used to upset me so much it ruined a hunt and a whole day for me. I could never shrug and say “Foxes have to eat” the way some people can when a crippled bird gets away. I still hate losing birds but finally after 30-some years of doing this I have come to the realization that it’s going to happen sometimes. All I can do is make my best effort to recover the bird–realizing that my best effort is pretty good but sometimes not enough–and move on.

Hunting with a trained retriever is the best way to cut cripple losses, but it’s not the only way. Here are five tips:

1. Take good shots at birds in range. Also, think before you shoot about where the bird will fall. Especially when I’m dove hunting I will pass up shots that would drop birds in heavy cover.

2. Shoot doubles rarely. If I shoot a bird I usually watch it hit the ground–or watch it fly away to be sure it isn’t hit–rather than go on to the next one. I’ve seen lots of birds fly off as if unhit, only to fall out of the sky one or two hundred yards away.

3. Get a good mark. When a bird falls get a good mark on the spot. Pick out a single tree or weed. Walk straight to it and never take your eye off the spot. If you’re hunting with someone, triangulate your marks.

4. Keep looking. Persistence pays. Sometimes if your dog can’t pick up the scent of a cripple the best thing to do is hunt somewhere else and come back and try again. I’ve even come back the next day and found birds.

5. Go right to the bird. A few years ago I was hunting a pothole in North Dakota when someone sailed a mallard that flew off into a huge picked field, then fell dead a quarter of a mile away. I picked a powerline on the horizon as a mark and got ready to go pick it up. “We’ll get it after the hunt,” said our host. When we went to get it all we found was a pile of feathers. Foxes do have to eat, but they should catch their own birds.