Running on wild birds in the spring when the snow is melting and the timberdoodles are making their return back to Minnesota can be a rewarding experience after a long winter of inactivity for us and our dogs.
Respecting the birds should be at the forefront of our minds when planning to run during the off season on wild birds. To stay legal, in Minnesota, one can run their dogs off-leash prior to April 16 on most state and county lands. Federally owned lands (except National Forest) are generally off limits outside of the hunting season. Now just because you can, does it mean you should?? Depends… personally I feel there are a few general rules of thumb to dictate whether to go or not.
Keep in mind that whenever a bird is disturbed, it wastes energy it could have otherwise conserved. Flushing, running, vacating the area it felt safe all take a negative energetic toll on birds who have already endured a long, cold and snowy winter. Disturbing birds while they were feeding could leave them cold and hungry Weather is the first factor to consider when deciding whether to go run. If the temps are below freezing the energy demands of all birds are already increased, but keep in mind woodcock feed by probing their bill into the ground, so it must be thawed for them to feed on their primary source of food (earthworms). I do not recommend running dogs on wild birds when it’s below freezing or during inclement weather.
The second rule of thumb is to leave a bird (or birds) alone after one flush. Sometimes this means leaving the area altogether and checking out a new area. Forcing birds further away from their comfort zone increases unnecessary stress. It’s tempting to re-flush birds to get a second attempt at training success but not only is it not ethically a good idea, you’re also less likely to be successful in your endeavor as re-flushed birds carry little tracking scent.
Lastly, if you ever see signs of nesting or courtship (mating) behavior, do not target those birds and better yet; work on heeling and head back to your car. Not only is it unethical, it can be illegal depending on the species, and any disturbance of brood production could reduce a whole lot of birds that you and others could hunt the next season. The quiet season start date of April 16th was set statutorily many decades ago, birds can’t read the regulations book and during a warm and early spring like last year, many game birds began nesting prior to the April 16th closure.
Oh, and don’t forget while you’re in the woods that there are other dangers of spring – bears are waking up, feeding, and raising young. Wolves and coyotes are also raising pups during this time. Beaver trapping is still open so there could be water sets near outlets, culverts or other near shore areas.