Living in the city hardly gives one a real understanding of how nature works. Even the highest budget television specials seen in high definition can only provide the tiniest glimpse of life in the wild. Anyone willing to hike the forest or camp near the swamp can begin to understand the smells and sounds of the wild. But only hunters become a part of the natural process.
Only hunters see nature as it really exists. A hunter can use superior technology and deadly weapons to his advantage, but must become part of the environment himself to truly achieve success. He must learn to think like an animal. He must not only predict the movement and habits of the animal but understand what motivates them.
By using guile, patience, instinct, and experience, the hunter becomes like one with the hunted. He has glimpsed the intricate patterns and beauty of the natural world. When he kills his prey, the hunter completes his education on that animal. He sees the side of nature that is brutally graphic. He understands that death is the ultimate reality in the wild. In many ways, the kill is actually the easiest part of the hunt. First, the hunter must learn everything possible about his prey. He must study surroundings, mating habits, food requirements, natural predators, and a dozen more details.
He must scout the other animals that interact with his prey. When you become a hunter, you must expand the concept of scouting to include a working understanding of the world all wild animals, and even man’s place within that world. It’s a common mistake to think that hunting is bad for animals in the wild.
This is an understandable misconception if one only sees hunting as the slaying of one animal by another. How is killing an animal a good thing, these individuals might ask. The answer can only be evident when the big picture is considered. To understand the valuable role of the hunter in nature, you must understand how animal populations in the wild are naturally controlled.
The human race is unique in its habit of protecting the weaker members of its society. This is done largely for sentimental reasons and is certainly a valuable quality. We are able to produce more than enough resources as a society to ensure that everyone will be fed and protected. In the wild, however, the weak do not survive. For this reason, most wild animals are capable of producing more offspring that can be supported by their native habitat.
These species survive by reproducing in volume so that many of the offspring can die without decreasing the overall population. High mortality rates among those species prevent overpopulation, which prevent natural resources from being used up. A common example of this phenomenon is seen among upland birds, waterfowl, and small game. It is very common for only 20-40% of the total population of these animals to survive each year. The majority of birds or hares seen in the wild by hunters are actually less than one year old.
They generally lack guile or creativity and are easy to outsmart and kill. Regulations are set-up to encourage hunters to kill as many members of these high reproduction rates species as possible. Bag limits are generous and hunting seasons are very long. Bigger game animal species generally have far lower reproductive rates. Regulations are set up to protect most of the offspring for these animals.
They have more restrictions placed on their hunting and shorter hunting seasons.
However, it can be difficult to control populations in the wild through regulations alone. Not every variable effecting population can be anticipated. Despite lower reproductive rates, large animal populations can grow to high levels. Other predators generally only take the occasional young members of a herd. As a result, these large mammals can reach overpopulation status and seriously strain the natural resources of their environment.
When this begins to happen, regulations are loosened to allow hunters to thin the herd and protect the overall well-being of the animals. Hunting regulations are always designed to prevent overpopulation, while not decreasing the overall size of an animal population.
Hunters are allowed to eliminate just enough animals that sufficient breeding stock remains to reproduce for the following year. Unless a species is endangered or overpopulated, the goal of regulations will always be to maintain a stable number from year to year. These regulations require frequent manipulation to ensure a balance between over and under population.
When agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service set the limits correctly, and hunters do their part by following those rules, the system works to protect the ecosystems of the wild. For example, this system has protected popular game species like wild turkey and whitetailed deer so effectively that they are more numerous now than ever before. Of course, limits set on hunters also must take the challenge of hunting into account. It’s simple on paper to say that every hunter is allowed to bag X number of elk. It’s optimistic, however, for every hunter to think that he will reach that number. In reality, hunting is hard. As hunters, we have some advantages over the animals.
We have advanced technology, access to collective knowledge, and the luxury of carrying our own resources. The animals hold pretty much all the rest of the cards. Wild game is constantly on the watch for danger. A hunter may spend his spare time working at an auto parts store, watching television, or walking on the beach. During these regular human activities, he’s not hunting. Game animals, however, are always being hunted.
They instinctively know that they are being hunted, and behave in ways which help ensure their very survival every moment of every day. Game animals, especially the larger ones, are genetically built to not be easily found, tracked, or killed. Over time, they have developed far keener senses than us. Specifically, the ability to smell, see, and hear danger well in advance allow game animals to avoid and escape wouldbe dangers. However, not every animal is created equally. A white-tailed deer has excellent senses of smell and hearing, but her vision is actually weaker than ours. Wild turkeys sense of smell is almost nonexistent, but it will probably see you before you see it. Its sense of hearing is excellent, but its ears are located internally and are not well-suited for tracking the source of a noise. Mammals with exposed ears are able to pinpoint, not just the direction a sound comes from but also the distance. Deer are able to determine distance by the difference in the time it takes a noise to reach one ear than the other.
Mammals with movable ears are able to locate sounds with accuracy coming from different directions. Some animals’ senses are not stronger than ours but are just different. Raccoon’s eyes possess a layer of reflective pigment below the surface of their retinas. This gives the nocturnal game animal excellent night vision. Several animals produce smells to communicate with each other. The mule deer produces a specific scent when facing a threat. Glands on his hind legs produce the odor to alert other members of the herd. Others change their appearance to warn of impending danger.
The pronghorn will greatly increase the size and visibility of its white rump patch through the act of flaring its hairs. This is done as a warning to other herd members. To better conceal themselves, many birds will freeze in position and press their bodies to the ground. Not only does this decrease their visible profile, but it reduces the amount of scent given off. Animals possess adaptations which can barely be understood by humans. These special adaptations help protect these amazing creatures.
One such example can be found in the mallard. By reducing the beats per minute of its heart by half, the waterfowl can remain submerged for up to 16 minutes. Imagine shooting a duck and seeing it fall from the sky. It sinks into the pond and does not resurface. The injured mallard will eventually resurface in the same spot it went down. But it is the truly patient hunter who actually waits the bird out. Perhaps nature’s most effective adaptation is the use of camouflage. Everyone knows what it is, but it still works more often than not.
The woodcock is so well suited for camouflage; it can hide in open terrain without the benefit of overhead cover. A hunter needs to combine patience, knowledge, and excellent vision to overcome this ancient skill. In addition to blending into their environment, wild animals know their way around. You could say that wild game have the home field advantage, where hunters are only uncomfortable visitors. Animals are located where they are for a reason.
They are always looking for the ideal habitat for survival and procreation. Luckily for us, it’s usually easier to recognize and identify habitats than the animals within them. If you recognize a woodcock’s habitat, you will have a chance to find one even if it is well hidden. If, that is, you have also figured-in other variables like the time of year, time of day, and feeding habits.
Every animal’s habitat should provide food and water, shelter, and cover. There are four main types of cover in the wild. Bedding cover, as the name implies, is used by game to rest or sleep. However, it is more than just a bed. Bedding cover must be capable of concealing game from their predators and should if possible actually alert the game to intruders.
Bedding cover can be found in dense vegetation, rocks, or even man-made structures. This is a semipermanent type of cover is chosen carefully. Game animals may dig burrows or build dens. Birds often build roosts in trees or on branches. Another important element of bedding cover is protection from the elements. Heat, rain, snow, or cold can be a constant danger to an animal in the wild. In warmer habitats, animals need shade to keep cool. In colder climates, game animals may spend more time in their bedding cover and to use body heat to keep each other warm. If possible, the cover should also possess an available route away from potential danger.
Escape cover is the second major type of cover. This is usually found spontaneously by game already being hunted by a predator. The main requirement of escape cover is that it must conceal the game, at least temporarily. Hunted game may find dens, roosts, or burrows of other animals and attempt to hide in them. They may scurry into tall grasses or bushes. If all else fails, animals may simply lay still and flat and hope not to be seen. Loafing cover is used by game animals in the mid-day between feeding sessions. This is the “down time” for the animals. They may nap here if they are tired enough. Good loafing cover must be thick enough to conceal the animal from prey, but thin enough that the animal can see his surroundings. Production cover is the final type. This hides young from predators and the elements. Animal habitats are usually as small as possible, in order to limit the animal’s exposure to predators. Although larger game tends to cover more ground in their daily feeding rounds. It’s no coincidence that these larger animals are higher up on the food chain, have fewer predators to fear and less competitors for their own food sources.
These are all general rules of thumb, of course. A bird hunter knows the specific habitat of his prey. He knows that some quail can go months without stopping at a water hole. A pronghorn hunter knows that his prey needs water daily. All animals need food and water. But, it’s important to note that many animals do not need surface water. Many animals get their water from the moisture found in their food or from dew collecting on grass and plants. Birds need less water than mammals, due to their ability to reuse water as it passes through them. The habitats most hunters should be familiar with include wetlands, grasslands, brushlands, forests, agricultural lands, and semi-arid deserts.
Wetlands are obviously the best habitats to hunt Waterfowl. Open water and low vegetation are the trademarks here. Ducks and geese feed in the open water, and the fringe areas provide cover for a variety of other small game. Grasslands feature grasses and broad leaved green plants. There are no trees here, but the vegetation can reach up to 10 feet in height. Brushlands have some trees, but they are spaced far apart. In between are grasses and thick shrubs, which provide almost impenetrable cover. There are three different forest habitats. Deciduous forests are populated by trees with leaves that drop off in the fall. Animals feeding here find plenty of nuts, shrubs, and green plants. Coniferous forests feature densely packed stands of evergreen trees. The needles produced decompose slowly and produce much less food than the leaves of the hardwood forest. Mixed forests, as the name suggests, contain both deciduous and coniferous trees. The combination of fallen leaves and needles produces more fertile soil than either type of forest alone. Mixed forests also provide hunters with a larger variety of game. Farm lands can actually support a great variety of wildlife due to a combination of fertile soil and several different types of cover.
In order to predict what game can be found on these agricultural lands, it pays to understand all of the different uses the land has undergone. The Semi-arid desert habitat, in many ways, is the most unique of the common hunting habitats. It does not fit the popular perception of a hunting environment. Unlike the shady forest where most people camp, the desert is exposed and inhospitable. However, shrubs, cactuses, grasses, and the occasional trees do support a wide variety of small game.
A good place to hunters to look for game is in edge habitats. These occur where two natural environments overlap. These zones provide a greater variety of natural resources. More plant life for eating and cover can be found in an edge habitat than can be found in either of the neighboring habitats. Edge habitats tend to hold a greater variety of game as well. Some examples of edge habitats can be found between thickets and forests, between different types of forests, or forests and marshes. In the last example, a healthy mixture of young trees, berries, and grasses provide an excellent supply of both food and cover. Edge habitats can be inadvertently created by humans, as well. Examples of these are found when forests are bordered by farmland or dissected by power lines.
Examples of the natural world exist in all habitats. Game animals can be found from the forest to the desert. Nature belongs to the grizzly bear and to the maple leaf alike. Every beast, every rock, and every piece of foliage has a purpose in nature. Man now lives mostly outside of nature and chooses to visit when it suits him. In order to hunt, man must understand nature. In order to understand nature, man must understand all the parts of nature. He should understand not just where the woodcock hides, but what it hides from. It is not enough to know that the pronghorn can warn others in its herd of the presence of danger. The hunter should know what happens after the warning is given. Amazingly, the better hunter one becomes, the more he begins to understand nature. The idea of becoming “one with nature” should not be limited to taking pictures of birds or car camping. Manifesting the traditions of hunting in the wild is the surest way to begin to understand the natural world.