Judging speed of birds

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It’s only when you drive down a country road and you have a pigeon fly parallel with your moving vehicle that you come to appreciate its true cruising speed — and it’s not, as published, 35mph.

When last I glanced at my speedometer in this situation, it read 48mph and yet the bird looked effortless. Even allowing for the fact that car manufacturers err on the side of caution with the calibration of speedometers, that is still a near 30% margin of error between the pigeon’s accepted speed and my observation. There’s a reason people race them.

Speed of birds

The tendency that we have to ask ‘what is the fastest?’ (in this case ‘what is the fastest bird we pursue?’) is one that children all over the world have in fiercely contested games of Top Trumps and online Pokémon raids (if you are unfamiliar with the second reference, count yourself lucky).

It is a natural enquiry that we make to try to place our quarry in context and therefore become better Shots. While some may dismiss it as frivolous pub chat, you should understand that judging speed of birds is one of the key pieces of information we need for an accurate shot, along with line and, in some specific circumstances, angle of flight.

When we shoot, we acquire this information from the relationship of the muzzle of our gun with the bird. We match the speed and accelerate past the bird to shoot. It is the only consistent source of accurate, relevant information. If in doubt, next time you sit on a train and look out of the window, ask yourself why objects in the distance appear to be moving more slowly than objects in the foreground, despite them not moving and your speed being constant.

When you resort to googling the answer of speed of birds rather than applying grey matter (as I did), you will understand why shooting wildfowl on the foreshore with few landmarks for reference is difficult if you don’t establish a relationship between your muzzle and the bird. The same can be true for high, driven game in valleys with no trees. Competitive clay Shots used to wooded backgrounds often come unstuck for the same reason when competing in unfamiliar prairie-style landscapes.

Stern test

The red grouse is often cited as the fastest of all gamebirds, but when we look closely we discover that it very much depends on the circumstances. On one guide to the speeds of all UK winged quarry, the red grouse is quoted at more than 60mph. At similar speeds are the black grouse and the ptarmigan.

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Anyone who has shot driven grouse coming down-wind, driven on by a stiff October breeze, will understand the stern test of your ability that they represent. Walked-up grouse in the balmy days of August are less demanding, though. That is not to denigrate them — some of the finest sporting days of my life have been spent walking-up late summer grouse — but it serves to illustrate the point that discussion about the speed of birds can vary hugely in a variety of conditions.

On a shoot day, it is not all about speed. It is about the total sum of the experience, not any one aspect. The few black grouse I have seen on the wing (they were not on our menu), I would put at a little slower than red, but ptarmigan in the UK may be a different prospect entirely because of their habitat.

Above the tree line, you are likely to be breathing hard as a covey of ptarmigan burst from the rocks and if you are on the wrong foot with your heavy over-and-under in a strong wind on the mountain tops, you are the one who is likely to be short on speed and they will look like white rockets angling away from you. Even the more common red grouse, when going into the same stiff breeze late in the season, can slow up markedly compared with a wind-assisted one, so true comparisons are difficult. Every shot should be taken on its merit.

The fact that pheasants fly faster than partridges when all things are equal, and yet the pheasant looks slower, is an optical illusion that catches out even experienced Shots during mixed-species days. You will often see very good partridge Shots take a little time to adjust their settings as we move from September and October partridges into November and December pheasants.

This illusion is created by the fact that larger objects often appear to us to be moving slower than smaller objects. A larger object stays on our retina longer and our visual acuity is greater on a larger bird than it is on a smaller bird. With high birds in deeper valleys, pheasants appear to be slower because they take longer to cross our line of vision than a smaller, closer partridge. The faster wingbeat of the smaller bird adds to this illusion.

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Our ability, visually, to pick up the bird is also affected by light conditions. Low-contrast conditions mean that pheasants in the dull, grey skies of October appear to be moving slower than partridges through brilliant blue skies of September. The Bezold-Brücke shift, as it is known, is also the reason that cars appear to travel more slowly in fog, making driving conditions much more dangerous. It is for these reasons that a high, dark pheasant out of the mizzle of the West Country will appear to be far slower than a French partridge out of the azure blue of a late summer sky, even though the opposite is true.

Pheasants often set their wings and plane down from great heights, too, the foreshortened angle making them much harder to read for speed. Given the factors ranged against our accurate judgement of speed, it is a wonder that we hit anything at all.

Optical illusion

Old wildfowlers will often advise newcomers to goose shooting to “treat the head of the goose like a teal” because the same illusion of pheasant and partridge is true for wildfowl, only to a much greater degree.

A large goose appears to be a cumbersome, slow-moving object until you put your muzzle up to the bird and realise how fast they can be going when they are in range. Teal, it might surprise some, are regarded as one of the slower duck, averaging around 30mph to 35mph, but it reinforces the point that size can lead to an optical illusion.

Mallard, according to research, regularly clock more than 50mph and pintail even faster. The fastest duck ever recorded was a red-breasted merganser that was followed by an aeroplane in the US. The bird achieved an airspeed of 100mph.

Waders are also considered to be great speed merchants, though snipe and woodcock are very different animals. The small size of the snipe ensures we have problems picking it up clearly as it first raucously flushes from the sedge and it often appears as a blur in the open landscape.

Its countermeasure to predation is to jink low and often, before rising high to disappear into the expanse of sky. It makes it look incredibly fast and gave rise to the eponymous term for all accurate shooters, especially in the military, but the reason they are difficult to shoot is not necessarily speed alone. In May 2000, biologists tagged 10 snipe and tracked them migrating from Sweden to sub-Saharan Africa. The 4,200-mile journey took them only two days at an average cruising speed of 60mph.

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A right-and-left of a woodcock is considered one of the hardest, but not necessarily for their speed as they are often regarded as comparatively slow-flying birds. Their defence is camouflage, a wide field of vision and the ability to jink through dense woodland. What they lack in speed they make up for in agility, but the action often happens close to the Gun and their rapid change of direction means we may underestimate their true speed and line. When they put real effort into straight-line flight as they clear a block of woodland, their top speed becomes clear and is faster than commonly supposed, but they tend not to rely on it as moving in a straight line makes them predictable for a predator.

Incredible agility

Though some of the best Shots say that down-wind teal on the foreshore are up there with late-season grouse in the teeth of a gale for difficulty, they also consider the second bird of a right-and-left at pigeon to be as difficult a shot in a good wind.

You can see why when roost shooting as your first bird tumbles through the treetops on a windy February night. You go looking for the bird that was in formation with it for the second of a memorable brace, only to find the incredible agility of the woodpigeon means that with a deft flick of the wing and flare of the tail, it has caught the full force of the wind and doubled its speed to escape. Any shot is likely to punch a hole in the evening sky, nothing more.

Speed of birds matters as much as line and angle, but for athleticism and the ease with which they harness the power of the wind, I have to give the humble woodpigeon the laurels for their all-round flying ability. ‘‘“Given the factors ranged against accurate judgement of speed, it is a wonder that we hit anything at all

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>