A Feather Full of Memory

9ec04ec8-57f6-4007-b275-12d4ccfe1500 By Chad Love

It’s funny how physical objects you haven’t touched in a while can bring memories flooding back to you at the most random moments. 

Take this collar, for example. It’s an old SportDOG 1875 I’ve had since 2012 or so. It is, like its owner, well used, but still kicking. 

You may notice there’s a quail feather stuck to it. That feather is not a prop. I didn’t place it there for the benefit of the photo. Scout’s honor, even though I was never a scout. You’ll just have to take my word for it. 

In fact, that feather has been stuck to that filthy old transmitter since the day I took the bird that feather came off of out of my oldest dog’s mouth, and then somehow, in the transfer of bird from mouth to hand to vest, smeared it on the transmitter, where an amalgamation of dog slobber, blood, and sweat (because on the southern plains more often than not you sweat, even in the late season) cemented it in place.

And that is where that feather, a breast feather off a late-season cock bird, stayed until this morning when I pulled it out of my gear closet to order a new antenna for the transmitter. 

Most of my hounds are fairly big-running dogs, which means GPS collars are the norm, so I usually reserved that old 1875 for training. Like its owner, it’s simple, reliable, and easy to understand (well, two out of three ‘aint bad for this owner...) which I found perfect for collar introduction and training. I’d take it on trips as a back-up, but never really had to use it. 

Until that is, my oldest setter started showing her age. Jenny’s never been a particularly big-running dog, and once she hit the age of nine, her range began shrinking in correlation with her fading eyesight and failing hearing. Runs became leisurely walks at something not quite as short as flusher range, but not too far off. I began feeling a little silly strapping a GPS collar on her, but I didn’t want to run her collar-less, either, so out came the old 1875. 

It was just what the doctor ordered. This past year was Jenny’s last official season before yard-dog retirement status, and due to an ACL injury to my young dog, Jenny had to carry the bulk of the late-season hunting duties. You can’t ask too much of an arthritic 10-year-old girl who’s half-blind and mostly deaf, so these late-season rambles weren’t so much hunts as they were glorified walks.

Still, we found a few birds, and a few birds are always enough to keep one old dog and one semi-old man happy. The recognized twilight of anything – life, friendship, love, bird dogs – is always bittersweet, and such were the days afield last season with Jenny.

And here’s where the cliché warning should probably kick in, because things are about to get schmaltzy...   

It was the last hunt of the season (no really, it was. This is not a cheap literary device...) which meant it was Jenny’s last hunt, period. I wanted to make it special, so we slipped across the border into a state that shall remain nameless (who am I kidding? It was Kansas...) and headed to a spot I knew I could always find a bird or two. 

The rest of the story? Well, the rest of the story is pure “Last bird on the last day of the last hunt” trope, so I won’t gin it up, but every damn word of it is true. Jenny – gimpy-legged, cloudy-eyed, stone-deaf Jenny – found me a covey, locked up like the still-stylish old lady she was, and I managed to shoot one cock bird on the rise. 

She found it, brought it back to me, and after admiring it I put it in my vest, not noticing that one slobbery, ragged breast feather that somehow transferred itself from my hand to the transmitter.

And that was it. We loaded up, went home, and I put that collar and transmitter back in my gear closet, where they and one hitchhiking feather stayed for the next six months. 

When I pulled them out of the closet this morning, I immediately noticed the feather, knew exactly where it came from and what it meant, and suddenly there I was back in a Kansas WIHA field; one old dog old dog and one semi-old man and a moment, all bound together by a wispy little feather. 

Life and memory sure do have a way of circling back on you, don’t they? I have a new pup now, and before too long she’ll be wearing that same collar. And that feather? Well, I peeled if off the transmitter, and it now resides on a corkboard in my office, pinned next to a photograph of Jenny. I’m sentimental that way. I figure you are, too.

Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal