I grew up fortunate enough to spend my summers out in the sticks. Up in the interior of British Columbia, it’s not hard to find rural areas where neighbours are kilometers apart. And somewhere around the age of 11, my father had myself and a friend sit down on a picnic bench and shoot past our outhouse up into the mountainside. I remember having him teach us the basics of gun safety and the rules one abides by while holding a firearm. More vividly though, I remember making a pop can dance on the dirt.
The year following that first target practice, my father passed away, but I continued taking the rifle out back in the same manner I would have if he were alive. That first summer without him, I remember setting up targets and shooting them alone on a clear, sunny afternoon. The only thing that took my attention off of the target happened to be a small bird, which stopped on a branch to my left to check me out and see what was making all the noise.
As it sat there on the branch, and I on the picnic bench; both of our necks craned, I got it in my mind that I was going to shoot it.
I had never shot a bird before, or anything other than paper and cans, in fact. I loaded a single .22 Long Rifle cartridge into the Cooey and was about to dismiss a rule that my father had laid down; I was about to point a firearm at something I was not prepared to destroy.
I understood that it wasn’t a target. It was a bird. But perhaps the fact that it was equidistant from the cans, to me, to the bird, it was easier to consider it a target. It was possible; I could shoot the cans within that distance, therefore I could shoot the bird within that distance. And it was dismissible; father may have laid down a rule, but he wasn’t around to enforce it. There’s no doubt I understood the value of a bird’s life at this time. We grew up with a number of pet birds in the house, one of which ended up being a part of the family for 15 years. They had names, we fed them, took care of them; loved them. But for some reason, none of that meaning transferred onto this wild, nameless bird in the forest, near my self holding a firearm.
I clasped the bolt forward and down, cocked the hammer back, took aim and fired. The bird, having no idea what was going on, startled at the report of the .22, jumped up from the branch, flashed its white belly toward me, found purchase in the air and darted away, up into the trees.
I ejected the empty brass, rested the Cooey on the picnic bench and felt my body flush with adrenaline. I ran up the hill until I was standing under the branch the bird was perched on. I fell to my knees, frantically running my shaking hands across the dirt, looking for feathers or blood or any sign that I shot the bird. There were no feathers, there was no blood, and no dead bird in sight. I was hoping to find relief in discovering it was not dead, but fear and shame overwhelmed me. I knew I did something wrong; something I should not have done.
My eyes welled with tears and I found myself back in the cabin sobbing with my mother asking, “What’s wrong? What happened? Are you okay?” I couldn’t stomach to share what happened and instead hid behind what could only be seen as grief during that time. If I said anything, I probably told my mom how I missed my dad in that moment when I should have been telling her the truth: I broke a rule, mindlessly, with no good reason, and almost took a life in the process. I now understand that if I did in fact take that curious bird’s life, there would likely be a young bird out there much like me, trying to figure out how to navigate its world without guidance.
This is me writing these unspoken words, now two decades after the fact, so of course I’m arranging this in both a way that makes sense to me now and no doubt in the form of a story… but I’ve come to realize how important this experience is to me, especially as I work toward my first hunt.
Shooting at this bird is something I did without intention, and certainly wasn’t hunting – it would have been poaching. I didn’t consider the consequence of my action due to my lack of experience; this was a poor decision and a close call for me. I had the benefit of walking away from the experience, understanding what I did wrong and how to correct my decision-making so that my actions align with my intentions in the future. It may not seem like it was such high stakes at the time, but it certainly was for the bird. And what matters more are the real risks if I were to take this action now as an outdoorsman… Poor decisions made in the forest lead to squandering of our precious natural resources and likely restricted privileges for the community.
I truly know how easy it is to make a poor decision, and I understand the difference between a hunter and someone who takes a life for some absent or confused reason. While my first answer to why I am choosing to hunt would be to provide food for me and those around me, I know a part of me also needs to relive that moment in nature where I may make the right decisions for the right reasons.