By Chuck Nottingham
"IF IT FLIES, IT DIES," a disgraceful T-shirt motto, doesn't do it for real bird hunters. Which wing shots to take requires cool attention to details.
Should Mother Nature oblige us with a cooler, more moist Hill County climate, one bird to hunt here east of the Continental Divide September 1 through November 1 is native sage grouse. Known by old timers as sage hens, the big birds lumber out of the sagebrush like cargo planes camouflaged grey, brown, tan, and black. In the air, white under-wings are distinct contrasts to black belly-feathers. Shotgunners may harvest three-per-day of either sex, with a possession limit of six.
Another native, sharp-tailed grouse, is fair scatter-gun game September 1 through December 15 east of the Divide. AKA pin-tails and prairie chickens, sharp-tail males are famous for their tom-turkey tail-feather displays and twin neck balloons inflated to attract hens. But both sexes are legal to harvest, as both are similar in flight from slightly crested heads back to short, pin-point tails. Daily limit is four. You can keep a total of 16 in the freezer.
Ring-necked pheasants, imports from Asia, mature later than other upland birds, so their season doesn't open till October 7, and then only colorful, distinctive males are legal to shoot. The cock's crested, iridescent blue-black head with bright red patches and white neck-ring are unmistakable. Three cocks are daily limit, possession total of nine. Season ends December 15.
It's the female pheasant that's the problem. She's dull, mottled brown and tan with no crest or neck-ring. Illegal to harvest anytime, anywhere in Montana, hen pheasants must be carefully differentiated from other birds.
Remember, immature rooster and hen pheasants are crestless, long-necked, dark underneath, and sport long, limber tail feathers. Their legs are bare.
Somewhat similar sharp-tails have light under-plumage and short, spiked tail feathers. Typically, they let out loud, rapid clucks when flushed. Like all grouse, they have feathered legs.
"Identification of Montana's Upland Game Birds," available at Havre FWP office, offers helpful comparison color drawings.
Other native grouse open state-wide September 1 through December 15.
Blue grouse are named for the male's slate-blue feathers and the female's bluish breast, but are also called mountain grouse and fool hens. Unlike larger prairie cousins, smaller blues are fond of higher elevations, often roosting in pines.
Franklin grouse are slightly smaller than blues, but called mountain grouse and fool hens, too. Males have black throats and breasts, and female breasts are barred white-and-black.
A third mountain and timber variety are ruffled grouse, distinctive for head-crests and fanned tails tipped with wide black bands. All mountain grouse species are counted together for daily limits of three and possession limit of an even dozen.
Popular hunting across Montana fields are Hungarian or grey partridges. Open season on little "Huns" are September 1 through December 15. Great for novice hunters, coveys usually land within sight after first-flush and, if followed, will flush again. Limit is eight-per-day and 32 in possession.
A few "mays" and "may-nots":
Twelve- and 13-year-old hunter education grads may hunt birds with only conservation licenses. No $6 bird tag necessary. Same for hunters 62-plus.
Hunters may shoot a half-hour before sunup and a half-hour after sunset. Check official time-tables in "Upland Game Bird & Falconry 2000-2001 Montana Hunting Regulations."
Upland game birders may use shotguns up to 10-gauge, as well as bows and arrows, but mountain grouse may also be taken with rifles or handguns.
Unlike water-fowlers, upland game birders may shoot lead shot except where expressly prohibited, such as Indian reservations.
Upland game bird hunters may use guns with any capacity magazine. No limiting plugs necessary, as for water-fowl.
Hunters may not shoot on, from, or across any public road, including shoulder, berm, or borrow-pit.
Hunters may not hunt on private land without landowner permission.
Hunters may not remove both wings of grouse during transport. One full-feathered wing must remain naturally attached until reaching home. Likewise, one leg and foot must be attached to ring-necks in their season.
Here's hoping for a cool Hill County and cool decisions from upland bird hunters.