We walked a narrow trail through a stand of 30-some pines and saw a lone pigeon streak across the sky. It was right above two hunters in orange vests. Muzzles scribed arcs and strings of shot stabbed skyward. The bird, unscathed, dipped, zigged and zagged and hooked away.
After a late night at Novak's Hungarian restaurant and a comfortable night at the Comfort Suites in Albany, our party of eight joined the hunt a little late. Mack Jenks, our host, heard us drive in and walked down to guide us around the mineral springs.
Everywhere we looked, we saw glimpses of hunter orange. The more experienced in the group wore camouflage and muted tones. Some were tucked under the trees, others sat on overturned buckets or camp chairs.
As we found our places on the 40-acre property, we heard snatches of conversation about past hunts, football games and other important topics like breakfast and how many shells each guy had left. I had 22 rounds of 20 gauge in my pockets.
The limit was two band-tailed pigeons; I expected I'd use most of my ammo. Unless I missed my guess, these other guys were going to shoot at all but the highest fliers.
We were gathered on 40 acres a mile out of Crawfordsville, a small town between Sweet Home and Brownsville.
Jenks gestured toward a tangle of blackberry vines and a towering elm with widespread branches. “That's where the mineral springs are. That's why these birds are going to be coming in all morning.”
Mike Faw, a transplant from North Carolina now working for Crimson Trace in Wilsonville, drove down from Woodburn. Brian Smith flew in from Alabama.
Josh Willis, a transplant from Georgia now living in Central Oregon, was there as well, with Scott Mary and RC Mench.
There is no other hunt like a pigeon shoot. It is not properly called bird hunting, Smith said. True enough. There is little walking around or flushing of birds; a dog is of no use until the hunter has downed a pigeon. But then the dog is important with that nose that is 10,000 times as good as ours.
Willis, Smith, Jenks and I found spots at a corner of the tree line. As the day began to warm, the moisture evaporated from the grass and from the pine needles. Now the birds would get thirsty.
Pigeons appeared in openings behind us and over the treetops before us. It might be one bird, it could be two dozen. They flashed through the trees and flared over patches of hunter orange. It was the first bird hunt of the new season and we all were a little rusty.
Let's get one thing straight. Band-tailed pigeons are not anything like their distant cousins that walk around in city parks and foul statues and build their nests under bridges.
These are birds of conifer forest habitats. They make their home on the West Coast from British Columbia all the way down to Mexico. Highly mobile, they have been known to fly up to 32 miles daily for feed and water.
Their flight plans are based on the abundance and availability of their food sources, which are the buds, flowers and fruits of oak, madrone, elder, dogwood, cherry cascara and huckleberry. Grain fields and orchards in proximity are also favorite targets of bandtails.
It was apparent that if I just waited for the best shot, I might get no shots. A bird streaked out high above the treetops behind me and I swung with it and fired even though my brain told me it was a pigeon too far. The bird kept going. They were all pigeons too far. But some birds fell to our guns and a few guys walked out to the parking area with their limits. More walked away without any birds. We stayed.
Smith was first in my group to shoot a pigeon. RC fired about six rounds then limited with two shots. Mack and John Jenks walked among the hunters, smiling encouragingly, happy to share their land and opening-day family tradition with a few friends.
Eventually, I could claim one pigeon as my own, and then, about noon, when I went down to see the mineral springs among the cattails and blackberries, a bird circled high, but not too far for my No. 6s. Brian Smith picked up my second pigeon beneath the branches of the elm. Two birds might not seem like much of a limit, but if the number allowed us was any higher, I would have had to go back to the store for another box.