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Know the West

The difference between hunting and killing

A writer recalls two contrasting experiences with so-called hunters.


Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives and writes in Oregon.

Righteous condemnation of hunting and hunters has become standard fare in America, and as our 21st century citizens separate themselves ever further from the natural world, their arguments and stereotypes become increasingly bizarre.

As an example, I cite Bill Maher’s HBO show, Real Time. I think Maher deserves respect for speaking harsh truth to power, often in the vulgar language that, these days, power so often deserves. But on one recent night he dismissed hunters as mere sadists who enjoy slaughtering chipmunks, and to that I take offense.

The habits and mindsets of hunters vary greatly, and as evidence of this I’ll present portraits of two men who represent the extremes. The first, an educated man named Miller, always hunts mountain quail, the most challenging North American game bird. The birds earn their name by living in the steep, high-elevation habitat of the West Coast, usually in forests of oak, pine and fir, often near creeks where thick brush affords them heavy cover.

I’ve gone with Miller to the isolated area he favors, a vast, grassy valley far from any trace of civilization. It’s a two-hour uphill walk from anywhere you can park to get there. A healthy creek courses through the valley, and quail are often found in willow thickets and stands of buck brush close to the water. Once flushed by a dog, the birds fly up steep mountainsides into old-growth forest. Chasing them is exhausting work. Miller calculates that he covers at least 15 miles of rugged country for every quail he takes home. “Anybody who eats meat should have to kill it once in a while,” he says. “And I believe in working for my food.”

Miller also calculates that by breaking up coveys when he hunts, he has more than doubled the valley’s mountain quail population. There were two large coveys when he discovered this place, and now, years later, there are five.

The second hunter, a lawyer named James, enjoys shooting pheasants. He invited me to accompany him once, to what he told me was his favorite place. It turned out to be a 10-acre stubble field with a 1950s ranch-style house near the middle of it. We parked in a paved lot and walked into a makeshift office reeking of cigarette smoke. A smiling man sitting behind a cluttered desk greeted James and explained that everything would be ready in 10 minutes. 

James and I sat on a couch to wait, making small talk. Behind our host was a window, and I watched a pickup truck roll across the field and stop no more than 100 yards from the house. A young man climbed out and, one by one, lifted pheasants out of a large crate in the truck-bed. He held each bird by the legs and swung it around in fast circles upside down for several seconds, then dropped it into the stubble. I counted 20 dizzy and disoriented pheasants, all of them deposited on less than an acre of ground.

At that point I remembered an appalling account I’d read of former Vice President Dick Cheney bragging to friends about shooting 75 pheasants on a single afternoon. I’d wondered how that could be possible. Now I thought I understood.

Our host told us we could hunt. The fat rooster pheasants, all without tails, having spent their lives crammed into cages, could barely get off the ground. James began shooting them, while I purposely missed my shots. We were watched by the proprietor and the young man from the pickup, and the black Lab that retrieved the dead and struggling birds brought the birds to them. They stuffed the animals into a burlap sack. By then I’d stopped shooting. I’d rather have been in a farmer’s chicken coop with a hatchet.

In less than half an hour, James killed all 20 pheasants provided. All I wanted to do was to leave. 

But first, back inside the house, we had to wait until the birds had been run through a plucking machine. While that was happening, James wrote out a $500 check and handed it to the man in charge, both of them smiling happily now. “Sorry you didn’t care for it much,” James said as we walked to the car. “But that’s my idea of fun.”

Fun? Not so much, and whatever we did that day, please don’t call it hunting.