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Gamebirds: Responsible Use and Abuse - Part One by Charles Mackie
Responsible Use
This might fall under the heading of ethics, which covers the philosophy of human behaviour, morals and judgment, but I have avoided this because it applies to a wider range of aspects. This concerns how gamebirds are hunted and how this relates to their breeding biology.
Doublebanded Sandgrouse (male). One of Africa's most challenging gamebirds.
Doublebanded Sandgrouse (male). One of Africa's most challenging gamebirds. (Photo: R. Hartley)

It is considered reasonable and responsible to hunt gamebirds with dogs; pointers, setters or retriever types. Some even go so far as to say that it is ethically incorrect to hunt without dogs, and this is particularly so for rough or walk-up shooting, especially in thick country. Use of pointing dogs primarily adds precision to killing birds and reducing wounded birds. It could be argued that this is unsporting in the sense that the bird has no chance. But the issue is that if the chase has been fair, and wild animals have great propensity and skill for avoiding predators, if it is to be killed, it should be done in the most humane way possible. Pointers will “hold” a bird to its cover until the hunter is in position. To hunt a seemingly empty piece of veld, watching hunting dogs coursing and scenting the air on a cold morning, is a remarkably rewarding experience. By the same token hunting with dogs can also be devastating because dogs can eventually find a high proportion of birds and by judgment fly so weakly that they can very easily be shot or eventually caught on the ground. Retrievers ensure that all dead birds are recovered. This is important because unless all birds are recovered they are usually not accounted for against the quota.

The next key consideration is that gamebirds (indeed any wildlife) should not be shot during the breeding season. With large wildlife species, this period is clearly established seasonally and quite obviously young animals are easily visible. Females, which are the breeding cohort of the population, are easily avoided and the consideration is based on mature males, large enough to justify shooting. However, for gamebirds in the sub-tropics, breeding is often less obvious and variable according to rainfall and other factors. Both sexes are hunted because they are not easily distinguished in flight. Hunters are fortunate in this country to have wildlife laws which do not restrict hunting to season, while the onus of control rests with the landholder as to when and how many birds may be shot. However, in the case of gamebirds this responsibility is usually transferred to the hunter.

Another aspect of hunting ethics relates to shooting method. Aside from shooting birds on the ground, which is universally accepted as unreasonable, if not unethical (except perhaps with a small calibre rifle), the traditional method of shooting sandgrouse at waterholes is being called to question. To understand the significance of this, let us consider some key aspects of sandgrouse biology. Some sandgrouse species fly a return distance of around 150 kilometres, usually once a day in semi-desert regions to drink, although in Zimbabwe distances may be less. When breeding, adults saturate their belly feathers with water which they carry to the nest for the chicks which “drink” by stripping the moisture from the feathers. Chicks do not have any other way of obtaining moisture in the harsh environment in which they live and they are dependent on their parents for about two months.

Survival rates can be low. In a study of Namaqua Sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua) in the northern Cape undertaken by Penn Lloyd of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, only 9% of nests survived over a three year period and post hatching recruitment to maturity was 5%. If mortality from hunting is added to this it can be seen that it is easy to set a population of sandgrouse into decline. Nevertheless there appear to be good populations of several species, which in the arid and semi-desert regions of the northern Cape, Botswana and Namibia, are nomadic, moving in response to food and water.

Article continues below.

In Zimbabwe we have one sandgrouse species which is widespread in middle and lowveld areas - the Doublebanded Sandgrouse (Pterocles bicinctus), occurring singly or in small groups of up to 6, or even flocks of up to 50 when they flight to water in the evenings. They are traditionally shot over pans and small rivers. Because of the proximity of trees and bush to the edge of the pans, shooting normally takes place close to the pan. Shooting is difficult, because, unlike Burchell’s Sandgrouse (Pterocles burchelli) which flights in the morning, Doublebanded Sandgrouse flights in the evening after sunset. This means that once shooting starts, incoming birds are disturbed and many of them are not able to drink at that pan. Unless they are capable of flying and navigating after dark it must be difficult or impossible for them to locate an alternate drinking source. For the survivors that are not breeding, this may not be serious, but for breeding birds this surely may result in failure of the brood. Sandgrouse share incubation duties so that death of one of a pair, probably results in failure of the brood.

Wounding rates are likely to be high, so that for every bird bagged, perhaps half as many are wounded. Doves are shot in a similar style, and using information declared by hunters at dove shoots, about 20% of the bag is lost and wounded. This does not include birds that are undetected wounded birds and undeclared woundings. For comparison, in a formal mortality study on waterfowl in the USA, it was found that up to 42% of the bag was unrecovered.

Go to Page: 1 2 3 Related Articles: Hunting Gamebirds Part 2
African Hunter Vol.5 No.3 June 1999
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