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Beagles and Birds

 

One of my first and most memorable hunting experiences with a Beagle was in 1963, with a Beagle named Smokey. That winter, we had record breaking snowfalls in northeastern Iowa, and coincidentally, some of the best pheasant and rabbit hunting I have ever experienced.
The author's nephew Joe shows his pride when the Beagle locates a downed bird after a long chase.
A kid that lived down the block named Gaty was renowned throughout the county for his ability to bring in rabbits. Gaty was two years older than I, and when you're 14, he might as well have been an adult. My passion for hunting rabbits, squirrels, and pheasants made me want to hunt with Gaty and his legendary Beagle, Smokey, in the worst way, but neighborhood protocol made me bide my time. Finally, one day I was walking back from a day in the field with half a bag full of rabbits when I ran into Gaty in his back yard feeding Smokey. I was able to strike up a conversation about hunting. One thing led to another and he invited me to go out with him the next day.
It was like Christmas Eve. I hardly slept that night and was up way before dawn to make sure all my gear was ready when Gaty picked me up in his jalopy. We drove out to one of his 'secret' hot spots which just happened to be one of my 'secret' hot spots, but for pheasants, not rabbits. I had seen a few rabbits in this area, but wouldn't have picked it as a good rabbit covert. So what did Gaty know that I didn't? I kept my mouth shut and my eyes open.
We began working a stretch of brushy railroad track ditches. It wasn't long when Gaty yelled to me to get ready because Smokey was on to something. The big beagle was working out in front of me when he suddenly jumped into a bush at the base of snow drift. Suddenly, a big, gaudy ring-neck pheasant jumped out of the bush, cackling and trying to put distance between himself and that hound. I was so surprised to see a pheasant instead of a rabbit that I didn't even get a shot off at the bird. My would-be mentor gave me one of those 'I knew this was gon'na be a mistake' look. Later, after my embarrassment and his indignation wore off, Gaty explained that he had trained his beagle to work both rabbits and pheasants. I suddenly gained a whole new appreciation for the capabilities of this breed. Years later, when I finally owned my own Beagle I found out that this was not as mysterious or rare as Gaty made me believe.
Like any dog training, your only challenge is figuring out how to make your dog do what you want him to do only on his terms. As far as scenting is concerned, the difference between a nearly odorless rabbit and any of the upland game birds is like the difference between cottage cheese and limburger to humans. Beagles have more than enough ability to hunt pheasants, grouse, and even quail. They just have to be shown how much fun it can be for them. Here are a few tips that I have learned that can help you convert a rabbit hunter into at least a passable bird dog.
I know this sounds a little elementary, but you have to hunt your Beagle where there are birds. Keeping him in bird covens will help give him the impression that you are looking for something there. He really wants to please you so praise him and reward him when a bird flushes even if he didn't flush it.

  • Never try to pull him off of a rabbit scent. He will get the idea that you don't want him to hunt. Be patient. If he jumps a rabbit let it play out, then try to keep him away from rabbit covers steering him instead toward bird covens. In time, he will learn to cover all the likely bird cover on his own.
  • Fresh snow can provide one of the quickest teaching sessions. You can instantly tell if your hound is onto a bird by watching the tracks. I like to follow along closely, tracking the bird with the dog. Use verbal encouragement and help him keep on the trail until the bird is flushed. Once the bird is flushed, even if you are not shooting, high praise and reward will tell the Beagle that it done good.
  • Let your Beagle get the taste of birds in his nose. After downing a bird, let him sniff it and even chew on it a bit. You never want a dog to learn to eat game or tear it apart, but a few good bites won't hurt and it is his reward and lets the hound see the rewards of the hunt.
  • I like to keep sandwich bags of feathers from the game birds that I hunt. If my Beagle hasn't hunted, say, grouse for a while, I will give her a few small feathers before going into the field. Usually, she will eat them, but this will get the taste of the game into her and she will be looking for that scent when we hit the field.
  • Hunting birds with a Beagle is different than with a pointer or setter. Don't expect a Beagle to range way out like bird dogs do. Let him do his own hunting and just keep and eye on him for changes in his body language. Many times this is the only clue you will get that he is on a bird before it flushes. Most Beagles that I have hunted birds with do not bay on scent like they do when on a rabbit. Some will only make short yaps while others do not vocalize at all. This doesn't mean that he is not excited. I think a Beagle actually draws a different mental picture of the different things that he smells. Changes in vocalizing and body language reflect that picture.
  • When hunting in a party with other dogs, particularly bird dogs, you hunting partners will have to understand that the Beagle hunts differently and everyone should keep his eye open for what the Beagle is doing. I have had many good shots, especially when hunting pheasants, following up behind experienced bird dogs. Beagles, however, will usually hunt slower than bird dogs and so your Beagle must be trained to at least keep up upon command. It's just not safe to hunt behind others in your party. If the Beagle gets on something and doubles back, make sure your hunting partners know what you are doing.

After over 20 years of hunting birds with Beagles, I am a firm believer in their value as a bird dog. One of my strongest arguing points is that I have never lost a downed bird when in the field with a Beagle. Not many bird dog hunters can make this claim.
So just when you thought that your Beagle was for rabbit hunting only, take him out after your local upland game birds and you might be pleasantly surprised. Beagles are not just for rabbits any more!!!

 

Hunting Beagles with other breeds can work. Above, the author with his Beagle Daisy and his hunting partners' golden retriever, Alexis, share a moment with the results of a morning pheasant hunt.

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Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).