It's no secret that giving your hunting dog lots of experience with live birds in the off-season will make him a better hunter when fall comes around. But what types of birds are best? The short answer is, "Any you can get!" But if you have a choice, you'll want to give some thought to your budget and what type of training you're doing.
We use all types of birds in our upland training program, both for our own dogs and clients' dogs. Let me share with you my thoughts on the pros and cons of various birds. Remember, before you acquire any birds, be sure to check your local laws regarding possession, transportation and training with live birds. These laws vary widely from state to state, so make sure you know them before you start.
Perhaps the most common and economical training birds are pigeons. Strong flyers that are easy to keep and care for over extended periods, pigeons are the staple of most training programs. They also give off lots of scent, a nice advantage when introducing a young dog to birds.
The downside to pigeons is that they are hard to plant with predictability. Many training exercises fall apart when a pigeon takes wing while the dog is still 50 yards away. Experiment with different methods of dizzying birds so they stay put most of the time and, unless you’re using release traps, just accept the fact that you’re going to lose a bird now and then. Also, if you start your dog on pigeons, it can be a bit of a challenge to transfer him over to gamebirds, which give off less scent. Still, most dog owners find pigeons to be a great value.
Quail tend to cost more than pigeons, but they are still fairly economical for most trainers. Healthy, pen-raised quail closely simulate wild birds. However, unlike pigeons, quail can be difficult to keep healthy and maintain. Unless you have a large chunk of land where you can set up a recall pen and tend to the birds regularly, you might be better off purchasing quail as needed.
Insist on quality when you purchase quail. There's nothing worse than flushing a quail in front of a young dog's point, then having the bird flutter several feet and land again while your dog rushes in and tries to catch it. This may be great fun for your young dog, but if that happens too many times you'll find yourself doing a lot of retroactive training to keep him from breaking point.
Chukars and pheasants have it all. They give off plenty of scent, and they’re hard to beat for training dogs to handle runners. Yes, they’re expensive. But if you plan on hunting pheasants, you’ll be way ahead by purchasing these larger birds in the off-season and letting him get used to the boisterous flush and extra size and weight during retrieves.
Finally, my favorite training bird is the Hungarian partridge when I can find some. These birds simply aren’t as available as the others. They’re bigger and heartier than quail, but smaller than pheasants. They give off good scent, won’t run out of the county on you and have a strong flush. Huns also recall like quail do. If you have enough room to work with them, you might consider setting up a training program around these excellent birds.
Always check your local and state regulations related to dog training and the use of game birds on private and public property.