It's Not Just You
An Upland Life Review of
Joel Spring's Thursday's Bird

There's learning on your own - through dumb luck, trial and error - and then there's turning to people with experience who can save you ammo, boot leather, and those short, irreplaceable days of the season. One can passively take things in through word and image - reading web sites about, sitting through a lecture upon, or watching the DVD showing the how-tos of the matter. Or, there's actually getting out and doing the thing with someone who's done it before and learned the hard way. But there's no question that living it - learning Italian in Italy (be sure to tour the Beretta factory while you're there), or in the field taking cues from an old hand and his dogs - will teach lessons that no book or video can deliver. If you're going to read a book, make sure it's as close to being there as possible.

Reading Thursday's Bird is, more than anything else, like tagging along with your longtime hunting buddy Joel Spring. Restlessly following him as he scouts and fidgets through the months leading up to the event, and trudging happily, anxiously through the scant weeks of upland game season on his home turf in upstate New York – reading along is an all-too-brief immersion in Spring's world. Spending the upland season with Joel means encountering (or being taunted by) cock pheasants and snipe, putting challenging game in the freezer, and racking up sore muscles, trips to the vet, missed shots, and the slow agony of disappearing hunting grounds. Spring's prose is very approachable, and drifts slightly in and out of a journal in form. His self-deprecating humor and genuine, hard-earned upland hunter's humility are a comfortable departure from both the gung-ho hunting glossies on the magazine rack and the nearly scripture-like experience of reading, say, Gray's.

 -- from Chapter 5 -- 
Greta and I had teamed up with Maggie and Ted for an early morning hunt in my hometown. It was nice to see both dogs back in top form and working as a true team instead of a tag team. Not far into the field, the dogs began bouncing around crazily in some ankle-deep water. Maggie moved out to the right and Ted to the left. A light fluttering of wings caused me to spin around. Caught off-balance, I watched the snipe rocket skyward as I fumbled with the safety. My second shot seemed to knock off some feathers and the bird slanted downward, still under power, into a far hedgerow.
  "Woodcock?" Greta asked.

Upland bird hunters with the means to travel the continent and visit legendary grounds in pursuit of their quarry may not appreciate what Spring is up to, here. His accomplishment – whether it was his goal or not – is to soothe the anxieties and share the frustrations of his fellow semi-suburbanite hunter of modest means. He doesn't directly address these things in a tutorial fashion, he just reports his observations and actions - warts and all - and allows the reader to connect on whatever topics they share. He's got a regular job, a family to care for, makes do with a Stoeger, and counts his vacation days like beads on some sort of Hunter's Rosary. His two dogs (a Lab and a Springer), second perhaps to his wife and kids, are his imperfect treasures. Those two canines inspire much of the material in the book. Not because he set out to write about his dogs, but because he writes about hunting woodcock, cottontails, and pheasants - and without his dogs, there wouldn't be nearly as much to tell.

His story, which covers a single season's preparation and those shimmering weeks of cherished leave from work, is sprinkled with the flashbacks, exposition, and brief asides that any Hunting Buddy would need to know about the guy walking on the other side of that thicket with a shotgun. If you'd met Spring at your local preserve, perhaps fending off his bouncing Lab, Ted, you'd recognize him as a kindred spirit. He's a reserved, private man that clearly knows the anxiety of walking into a new social situation without being sure how things will go. He didn't grow up bird hunting, but came to it later in life. He thus brings to the hunt all of his grown up caution and tendency to over-think things, but can still find within the wonder, giddiness, and validation that a day in the field can inspire.

 -- from Chapter 3 -- 
As we rounded the bend past my shed and headed out into a neighbor's big field, I felt several pangs of doubt. I loved hunting out here, had killed several deer and countless rabbits and even a few woodcock, but sadly, I could remember every pheasant I'd flushed here in the eight years since we'd moved in. There were the two hens I flushed shortly after buying the property. There were three or four hens that had gone up in the big field when we were woodcock hunting. One year a monstrous rooster had come up from behind a log when I assumed Ted was rooting out a rabbit for me. And last year I hadn't seen a one, although occasionally the cackle of a cockbird was carried to me on the breeze at sunset while I was bowhunting deer. They were out there, all right, but not in any numbers.
To recount any more of Spring's musings or the subtle wingshooting tips that are found within this brief, sometimes bittersweet book would rob from the enjoyment of reading it. Suffice it to say, that this reviewer found a thread running through almost every chapter: it's not just me! I'm not the only one with crazy dogs that run too far out, the only one that can break almost every clay on the skeet range but still miss a pheasant the size of a turkey hovering in front of me like a piñata, the only one that drives in frustration past untold thousands of acres of ideal but no-hunting-allowed terrain, or the only one oddly wishing that everyone - and at the same time no one - else would understand hunting upland birds. Joel Spring's primary call to action (other than the encouragement simply to get out there and hunt) is to put one's resources and passion into preserving the grounds that attract and maintain wild bird populations, and to cultivate a culture that understands both the need for access to it, and the obligations of those that would use it. His disgust for pointlessly cut-down hedges, or ditch-to-ditch farming where 5 feet of cover left standing would guarantee a season's worth of fat rooster pheasants... well, he's quietly persuasive on these fronts. We're not nagged about the disappearing bird fields. Rather, we look out of Joel's pickup truck window with him, and feel the erosion.

Every hunter's know-how background is enriched by tales (and tails) from fellow uplanders. Thursday's Bird is an absorbing pleasure you'll pass around to your friends so that, once you've all read it, you can share a laugh over Maggie's tree episode, or take some of the author's days in the hedgerows and weld them onto your own. We're looking forward to the next opportunity for a literary outing with Joel Spring - perhaps he'll get a little more time off and be able to take us all quail hunting down south.



An UplandLife Book Review
Thursday's Bird
Joel Spring

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Our Rating:
 5 Shells Out Of 5
  5 Shells Out Of 5

Hardcover, 267 pages, with occasional black and white photographs (color dustcover).

Our Take:
Having read this book, you'll feel you've shared a couple of weeks bird hunting with a new friend.


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