Archive for Sunday, December 2, 2007

Annual hunt a reminder of tradition, change

December 2, 2007


For more than 30 years, a group of us has been celebrating the opening of pheasant season in north central Kansas. The drive west on a Friday in early November presents a succession of indelible images: the afternoon sun washing tall grasses with gold and copper light, mountains of milo and corn overflowing the grain elevators in small town co-ops, long-shadowed hay bales strewn across fields like the monoliths of Easter Island, colossal grain elevators rising up like temples on the level horizon, pickup trucks on Interstate 70 bearing kennels with pointers and retrievers who've lived through the tedium of summer in eager anticipation of this annual adventure.

The familiarity of these scenes makes individual weekends blend into one long, seamless hunt, creating a sense of timelessness that seems to become more important as we age. Over the years we've honed our routine to a ritual. We stop at the same filling station in Manhattan for gas. We let the dogs out to stretch at the same rest stop. We make the once-a-year purchase of a package of barbecued corn nuts, which we consume for good luck. We pass the sign that boasts about how many people a Kansas farmer feeds. Every year the numbers change, but the sign remains.

Of course, the impression of constancy is illusory. Since we began, the number of hunters has dwindled. Young men are more inclined to spend their weekends on the Internet. Fathers are less inspired to, "Take your boy hunting instead of hunting your boy." Out-of-state hunters have leased up farm lands that were once open to hunters who'd stop and ask permission. The diner that used to be crowded at 5:30 in the morning with representatives of three generations has closed.

With a swiftness that seems not only unreal but unfair, we who started out as eager youths have been transformed to grizzled Senior Citizens. At the breakfast provided by the Lutheran Church, we exchanged tales about our various infirmities. One emptied his pouch of variegated pills on the table like a kid showing off his precious collection of marbles.

The most disturbing change has been the decline of quail and pheasant. Opening day marked a record low for us since we started hunting. I doubt if we sighted more than a dozen birds. We consoled ourselves with half-hearted expressions of the rewards of camaraderie, the joys being outdoors. But futility hung in the air. Even our dogs seemed discouraged. And there was some grumbling among us about hanging up the enterprise for good.

Theories abound to explain the decline of game birds. The extraordinary comeback of wild turkeys, which some say out-compete quail. Loss of habitat because of aggressive farming practices. Increase in predators because of a falling off of trapping. No-till farming, good from the viewpoint of soil conservation, bad from the viewpoint of nesting cover. A farmer who stopped on the road offered a new hypothesis. The area was a "pool" of West Nile Virus, he said. Several people had caught it. Song birds had disappeared. Perhaps it had spread to the pheasant.

But nature is inscrutable and offers compensations. Along with turkeys, the deer population has soared. Never have I seen so many trophy bucks. Once, in the woods, I heard the approach of heavy breathing and turned to encounter a magnificent specimen the size of a horse. The success of the deer ought to be a cause for cheer. But on returning home, I discovered that rutting bucks had scraped the bark off my recently planted maples, destroying them perhaps. Suddenly, these emblems of grandeur became varmints in my sight. Such are the conflicts between nature and culture.

Kansas itself seemed a state of paradoxes as we drove west. Crop prices are up, but so is the price of land, making prospects of a return on investment dim. The farmer we visit foresees the day when the entire county is owned by three or four huge farming operations. The price of oil has provoked a frenzy of drilling. Derricks pump wealth into dying Kansas communities - even as their source of water is drying up. For every blessing, a curse.

A farmer's wife who'd come to Kansas from the West coast confessed that she lives through the growing season in a state of perpetual anxiety. Will it rain too much or not enough? Will a bumper crop knock the bottom out of the market, or must there be a crop failure to drive prices up? Her native Kansas neighbors, inured to disappointment and disaster, counsel her that everything will work out in the end. Kansas is teaching her to persist. Last winter, her family went without electricity for 13 days.

Ad astra per aspera, without a doubt. Bitter harvests, glorious hardships, constant flux. To the stars - or some other place - it remains to be seen.

George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


marcdeveraux 10 years, 3 months ago

gee, maybe george should quit whining and take up deer and turkey hunting

Kathy Theis-Getto 10 years, 3 months ago

I have many wonderful memories of the Pheasant/Quail seasons of my youth. My sons were taught to hunt at an early age, and now only hunt deer and turkey.

Nothing tastes like deep fried quail.

claireredfield 10 years, 3 months ago

Hunters are cowards. Especially cowardly are the kind that shoot tiny litle birds. For shame!

Myths and facts:

Myth: Hunting fees are a major source of revenue for wildlife management and habitat restoration.

Facts: The relatively small fee each hunter pays does not cover the cost of hunting programs or game warden salaries. Hunting fees pay for hunter programs that benefit only hunters, like manipulating animal populations to increase the number of animals available to kill. The public lands that many hunters use are supported by taxpayers, and funds benefiting "nongame" species are scarce.


Myth: Hunting is much less cruel than factory farming.

Facts: Yes, and Jack the Ripper was less cruel than Hitler-that didn't make him a nice guy. It is true that killing an animal in the wild is less cruel than the months of torture animals endure on factory farms. However, hunting, like farming, disrupts families and causes pain, trauma, and grief to both the victims and the survivors. Why cause any suffering when we can avoid it?


Myth: Without hunting, deer and other animals would overpopulate and die of starvation.

Facts: Starvation and disease are unfortunate, but they are nature's way of ensuring that the strong survive. Natural predators help keep prey species strong by killing the only ones they can catch-the sick and weak. Hunters, however, kill any animal they come across or any animal whose head they think would look good mounted above the fireplace-often the large, healthy animals needed to keep the population strong. And hunting creates the ideal conditions for overpopulation. After hunting season, the abrupt drop in population leads to less competition among survivors, resulting in a higher birth rate. If we were really concerned about keeping animals from starving, we would not hunt but instead take steps to reduce the animals' fertility. We would also preserve wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and other natural predators. Ironically, many deer herds and duck populations are purposely manipulated to produce more and more animals for hunters to kill.

claireredfield 10 years, 3 months ago

Headin' you off at the pass: Go ahead and focus on my typo rather than the facts. Hunters that shoot TINY LITTLE BIRDS are especially cowardly.

Kathy Theis-Getto 10 years, 3 months ago

What a tired, old argument claire. When was the last time you ate a yard bird?

Kathy Theis-Getto 10 years, 3 months ago

I have to agree with you r_t on the pay to bag your bird hunters. Our family has always had plenty of prime hunting land, but the birds aren't there anymore like they used to be. The hunting members of our family were taught to kill for food, not pleasure.

Godot 10 years, 3 months ago

My son and a friend went hunting in western Kansas last week; each bagged a deer. Son took his deer to the butcher in Tongie; it was thrown in the freezer and is number 138 on the waiting list.

Flap Doodle 10 years, 3 months ago

So far, Claire has rant of the day locked up.

Joe Hyde 10 years, 3 months ago

I was very fortunate to have been introduced to upland bird and migratory waterfowl hunting when I was seven years old. After many hundreds of bird hunts since then -- most of them successful, some not -- I have feelings that border on outright sympathy for people who've never hunted quail or pheasants. Or, if they don't themselves choose to hunt, then sympathy for people who've never tasted quail and pheasant that have been cooked by someone who really knows what they're doing.

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