Strengthen your listening skills with some simple exercises and learn how to reduce your noise in the field to increase your bird hunting success
The gentle “Chi-ca-go-go” in the distance caught my attention as I made my way down the rocky wash. A quick glance upward had me convinced that the birds were on the hillside, more vertical than not; a grade covered summit-to-base in loose rocks and cholla. These dang Gambel’s quail were doing their best chukar impressions here in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.
I crept up the wash with a watchful eye scanning for movement up ahead. While my eyes did their job, my ears added to the tale. Multiple quail were calling up ahead, with the concave shape of the hillside amplifying their quail calls toward my unwanted attention. The quail weren’t the only ones keeping my ears busy, however. All around there were noise makers such as rabbits sneaking away in the undergrowth and lizards careening through the dry grass, sounding much larger than their three-inch bodies should be able to sound. It was enough to keep my head turning to distinguish friend from foe.
Then suddenly, there they were: thirty quail erupting from the undergrowth in a cacophony of whirring wings and soft chuckles. They flew toward a gentle saddle on the ridge and away from the bipedal danger. Up came the twenty gauge, barking once, then twice, before a single bird fell away, coming to a halt under a thorny mesquite tree on the slope of the hill. Making the short climb to the spot of the fall, I collected the bird from the undergrowth and waited. I waited until I heard the assembly call of the covey and the subsequent responses of the separated birds. A single bird was on my right, separated from the main flock which was to my left. After a swig of water and a quick study of my map, I made my way to the right.
The importance of sound in bird hunting
For many of us, we are taught to watch carefully for our prey when learning to hunt, whether that be for a subtle ear flick of a whitetail in the eastern woodlands or for a bit of motion in the distance betraying the location of a sharp-tailed grouse on the prairie. We as humans are adept at using our eyesight to find our quarry; that’s why we’ve adapted to have forward-facing eyes, giving us both binocular vision and depth perception, both hallmarks of a predatory species.
But we also have ears which, though they may not be as strong as other members of the animal kingdom, are still worthy of use in the field. This is especially true for those who hunt quail without a dog.
Using hearing to aid in a hunt is no great feat to learn. It is a skill that anyone can learn and master, but it’s an important skill nonetheless. Sometimes hunting with your ears can be an easy venture, like hearing the crunching of leaves of a grey squirrel or an eruption of a ruffed grouse in the forest. Other times, it can be an ear-straining and mentally-exhausting endeavor, such as can be the case with a doe weaving her way through the underbrush in the distance.
Hunting with your ears is about learning the different sounds that each species makes in the field, in their own home. It’s also about being able to quickly differentiate between sounds that belong to various species or other natural phenomena. For example, is the rustling you hear deep in the dark timber the sounds of a big buck, or merely some turkeys scratching for supper before they head into the treetops to roost? Animal size can be especially deceptive when trying to judge the source of a sound.
Simple tips for improving your listening skills
If there were a singular trick to focus all this into one exercise, it would be to sit and listen. Seriously: that is all it will take. Try and sit without making a sound, while picking apart the different sounds around you. The quieter your chosen area, the more beneficial it will be, but ambient noise isn’t exactly a bad thing, either. Being able to pick out a subtle sound from among the chaos is merely a more advanced form of this exercise.
Now that you’re calm and still, try listening for a songbird calling in the distance and perhaps try to identify the species. Listen for the sounds of a passerby’s footsteps on the sidewalk and the gentle clicking of their dog’s nails on the concrete. Can you separate the sound from the surroundings? This is not merely a skill for those living in more rural areas; learning to find and focus on a single sound within a chorus of ambient noise is valuable no matter the setting. Over time, this skill will transfer to the field, with the known sounds of the city melting away, with a new world of wind, leaves, and game opening to your ears.
In addition to these training sessions, the enterprising bird hunter could consider the use of an electronic hearing aid. These devices are much like a normal hearing aid in aesthetics; they offer instant hearing protection from the blast of a shotgun, while also amplifying ambient noise. This could help you hear an assembly call down the drainage that is just out of earshot of the normal human ear. From both a hunting and a safety standpoint, these tools may be a worthwhile investment, even though they can often carry a hefty price tag.
How to reduce your noise when hunting quail
Of course, in a situation where you can hear your game, it’s quite likely that your game can hear you, too. The primary cause of too much noise while hunting—whether in the desert or anywhere else in the field—is not being mindful of your footfalls. Much like the big-game hunter, you must be aware of the sound of your boots upon the ground, along with the sounds of your clothing on the brush.
When hunting Gambel’s here in Arizona, the vast majority of plant species you will encounter will be dry and brittle, if not stiff and woody. All of this brush will make noise as it rubs on your pant legs. In addition to creating less noise, this mindfulness will save your legs from the thorns that abound here. If it doesn’t bite, stick, or stab you, it doesn’t belong in the desert.
Going back to the ground, our soils here in the desert tend to be stony and noisy unto themselves. Being mindful of your steps, both their speed and their heaviness, will produce more bird-hunting success than tromping through the cacti like an elephant walking on potato chips. While you’re not required to take it slow and easy, choosing to take meaningful steps and perhaps using only the outside edge of your foot to walk will immediately help to reduce your sound profile in the desert. Watching for errant sticks or cholla pods will also keep noise to a minimum and, in return, allow you a few more yards of territory gained before being detected by the birds. These extra yards might make the difference between a shot opportunity and watching another covey jump wild and well out of scattergun range.
My intent isn’t to convince you that you should try to Bird Box your way through the pines and prairies of upland country, but rather to trust more than just your eyes in the field. Your ears can be a powerful tool when hunting and will open up a new realm of excitement and success in your adventures.
Growing up in Partridge and Timberdoodle country of the Northeast, Jess is now a resident of the dry and dusty domain of the Gambel’s quail. A true Bird Nerd at heart, Jess spends the majority of his free hours listening for the whirs and whistle of bird wings, often with his Labrador “Boone” leading the way. Jess can be found on Instagram at @jess_warner_az