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Recently upland bird hunters and shotgun shooters found themselves scrutinizing the few details that emerged describing the shooting of Harry Whittington by his quail hunting partner Dick Cheney. The incident took place on February 11, 2006, at around 5:30 p.m. on the Armstrong Ranch in South Texas.

The first report came from Katharine Armstrong, an owner of the ranch, who watched the incident from a vehicle parked nearby. She stated that Mr. Whittington had left the shooting line to find a bird he had just brought down and failed to alert his partners on his return.

I have hunted upland birds for almost four decades, often as one in a group - not for quail, but for grouse, woodcock and pheasants. The protocol is the same: when a bird is shot, the party does not hunt onward until someone - a human or a dog - recovers the bird and all members are present and accounted for. In the Texas incident, Cheney and fellow gunning partner, Pamela Willeford, should have remained stationary while Whittington searched for his quail, rather than forging ahead and trying to bag other birds.

Ms. Armstrong suggested that Mr. Whittington was at fault for not calling out to his friends and letting them know he was back. That a serious accident occurred certainly indicates he should have done that. But it remains the responsibility of every shooter to know the whereabouts of all members of the group. If you donít know where your companions are, you donít shoot. Itís as simple as that. Itís what every 12-year-old learns in hunter safety class.

"If you donít know where your companions are, you donít shoot. Itís as simple as that. Itís what every 12-year-old learns in hunter safety class."

Dick Cheney broke another important safety rule on the Armstrong Ranch. He failed to make sure that no one was behind his intended target. We have been told that the sun was in Mr. Cheneyís eyes and that Mr. Whittington was standing in a gully or perhaps a dried-up pond. Neither is an excuse for being careless.

Last week we heard experts posit that it is unsafe to shoot a shotgun on the level or downwards when hunting. Actually, it is acceptable to shoot at those angles. When flushed, quail often fly at head height and sometimes even lower. If you are certain of your companions whereabouts - if you know beyond a doubt that they are nowhere near the target - you can safely shoot at a low bird.

Things get stickier when a bird flies behind the line. Itís natural for hunters to watch the ground ahead of them intently and not pay as much attention to terrain through which they have already passed. The proper procedure for shooting at a bird that flies back is to turn carefully, keeping the muzzle of your gun pointed straight up, and confirm the safety of your shot before lowering the firearm and pulling the trigger.

Others have raised questions concerning the ethics of getting out of a truck to shoot birds. There exists in the South a tradition of riding to quail coveys that have been found and pinned by pointing dogs: you ride up on horseback, in a wagon - more recently in a jeep or pickup truck. While a traditionalist might not choose to motor to the coveys, it is not considered unethical to do so.

I have an idea of what Mr. Cheney may be feeling, since I once had a similar experience.

I was in my twenties, out trying to walk up a grouse when I came upon a patch of snowy ground marked with wild turkey tracks. I heard a turkey calling from behind some brush. Turkeys were in season and I had visions of securing our Thanksgiving dinner. Sneaking toward the brush, I saw a turkey flying upward. But as I raised my gun, I realized there was something strange about it: it didnít make any sound.

One dark flapping wing became a hunterís waving arm. The arm belonged to a man wearing camouflage. He held a turkey call in one hand. His face was blackened like a commando. Surprise registered on his face when I sank to my knees in the snow. I knelt there for a long time, feeling as if Iíd been kicked in the stomach.

If I had gone ahead and shot - if I had pulled the trigger without being completely sure of my target - I would have been as culpable as Mr. Cheney is today. I doubt I would ever have taken up a shotgun again.

Mr. Cheney has speculated that he may well give up hunting. If he does decide to venture afield in the future, he should first take a hunter safety course. Hunter safety is important for everyone - even for someone with access to a 50,000-acre Texas quail ranch.


Charles Fergus is the book review editor for Shooting Sportsman: The Magazine of Wingshooting and Fine Guns. He is the author of four books on bird hunting. The most recent is A Hunterís Book of Days, published in 2005 by Countrysport Press and available from the Spaniel Journal Bookstore.


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