I’m back home at the family farm, walking past barns while toting a 12-gauge shotgun. My pants pockets are filled with shotgun shells.
It’s a scene not all that different from half my lifetime ago. I am different, but the buildings and the hunt are the same. The barns are empty now; they once held hogs and the silo grain for feeding cattle and hogs. I’m checking rooftops, hoping to see birds loafing or flocks on the move.
I’m on the prowl for pigeons.
I first started hunting the birds out of convenience. They were plentiful and gave me a great practice target and a meal for the barnyard cats. Plus, all I needed do was stroll out the front door.
Today, pigeons are the survivors of rural outposts and modern farm economies. Animal feedlots and surrounding barns and silos sit empty in many places. Animals are now raised by fewer farms with larger head sizes. Rural America has aged — both the infrastructure and the people. Drive out to the countryside and you are likely to see these farmyard reminders of the past.
Nature abhors a vacuum; the empty barns, pastures, and silos have become homes for plants and wildlife. Where weeds and groves grow thick, pheasants and rabbits push in. The empty barnlofts become homes for swallows and pigeons.
In time, scrub trees and bushes push up through feedlot concrete floors, and the wave of ecological succession begins in earnest. Nature will eventually take back her land.
Barnyard pigeon hunts are the antithesis of modern hunting. An average Joe in blue jeans can still stuff his pockets with shells, knock on a door and likely get permission, and have the fastest shooting he’ll see all year. Most farmers don’t care for the pigeons, given their history as disease vectors.
Needing a few birds myself for training Hazel, my 6-month-old puppy, I made arrangements with good friend Nick Breuers — with son Luke and daughter Emma — to see if we could do a little preseason tune-up with a pigeon hunt on my parent’s farmyard. Nick agreed it would be a good excuse to swing the gun and he could get a little work in for his dog, June.
Anticipating some fast action, we staked out a couple spinning wing dove decoys and a bag of plastic pigeons in the old pasture. You don’t have to put out a spread to shoot pigeons, but if your buddy offers to do it, you certainly won’t say no.
We completed our set up with a stubbled panel blind that we staked behind an open-roofed barn, a favorite roosting and loafing spot for the birds.
We had some action early as the birds were stirring just 30 minutes past sunrise. The report of the shotguns got the whole barn agitated. Birds were bailing out of nests hidden behind old sheeted insulation and plywood sides. We waited for some easy shots that didn’t come, but not before dropping a couple birds.
The pigeons worked in circles like flocks of ducks making passes. And like flocks of ducks, if you wait too long, they get skittish and head elsewhere.
Some days the birds come bombing in for a close look at the spinning wing decoys; other days they hang up just out of range.
This hunt was one of those cautious days.
Nick and I dropped a mix of singles in an hour before the birds were largely pushed over to the neighbor’s farm. A small home range helps the pigeons establish a few comfortable places to loaf or feed. With nothing to push the birds back, we waited patiently knowing it could be two minutes or two hours.
Good pigeon hunts can be 100-bird days, especially in those places with really good hides, lots of unpressured birds, and no neighboring places for which the birds to fly. In our case, the birds seemed wise to something and didn’t hang out too long. Occasionally, singles came back and we had a few kamikazes headed straight for the decoys.
Emma enjoyed the show while June brought birds to hand. Luke, outfitted in rubber boots, jumped in puddles formed in the preceding night’s rains; the temptation of getting wet too much for any preschooler to bear. After a while, the boredom overtook him and he stated his desire to leave. Nick and I too had seen enough.
Good pigeon hunts can burn through a few boxes of shells. This day’s hunt was but a handful of shots for each of us. Still, we walked out with just short of a dozen birds that will be the feathered training dummy of choice to get my lab pup Hazel to the fall finish line.
The pigeons will return and so will I. A poor waterfowl hunt this fall may give way to a good pigeon hunt. Or it may be time to get some retriever work for June or Hazel.
It’s nice to know you can come back home to familiar faces and places.
Scott Mackenthun is an outdoors enthusiast who has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. He resides in New Prague and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.