How to Mark Dead Birds in the Field

This skill requires some self-control, but it’s the most effective way to recover hard-to-find pheasants

Phil Bourjaily kneeling next to hunting dog while holding a pheasant
The author and Jed pose with a rooster that flew 200 yards before it fell. Phil's hat is still hanging in the grass nearby.Natalie Krebs

When Jed pointed a rooster in a big field of prairie grass last week, the bird flushed a little wild, and F&S senior editor Natalie Krebs and I emptied our guns at it. Hit hard, the pheasant flew 200 yards with a leg hanging, then fell dead in the sea of grass behind a slight rise—a needle in haystack if ever there was one.

I marked the bird’s fall by locking my eyes on a tall clump of grass on the line of flight but short of the spot, because the rise blocked my vision. Natalie picked a line, too, so we had the bird somewhat triangulated. I walked straight to my mark without taking my eyes off of it, and hung my orange hat on the grass. The three of us looked. Birds that fall stone dead often don’t give off much scent, so I found the bird before Jed did. It was piled up not far from the intersection of my mark and Natalie’s.

male and female hunters in orange taking a selfie with hunting dog
Bourjaily, Jed, and Krebs—also known as, “The Dream Team.”Natalie Krebs

It doesn’t matter how good your dog is at finding downed birds; you can make him better and lose fewer birds by carefully marking the fall of anything you shoot. The trick is to keep your eyes on your mark, whatever it may be, and go straight to the mark without taking your eyes off of it, because as soon you look away, you’ll lose it. Marking takes some self-control in, say, the dove field, to focus on the mark and not even look up at doves that fly by in range, but that’s what you have to teach yourself. When you get to the spot, use your hat as a marker to start the search.

Pheasants, which run when hurt, sometimes wind up a long way from a mark, but it’s still good to have a starting place. Other birds are usually near where they fell—although they can bury themselves in the cover and be very hard for dogs to find. A couple of times this year, I marked spots where crippled bobwhites went down, and had to bring Jed back to my mark two or three times before he caught the scent and burrowed into the grass and found the bird.