The Eared Doves of Cordoba

by Laurie Bogart Wiles. Copyright © 2015 by Laurie Bogart Wiles, Pinehurst, North Carolina

Andrew Stenniger, Marguerite Harris, Mark Harris

Andrew Stenniger, Marguerite Harris, Mark Harris

“LISTEN,” BIG JOHN WHISPERED, cocking his head toward the loudening sound. A soft, low rumble like an oncoming freight train was closing in from the distance. His gaze swept the cornfield, lately reaped of its golden harvest, the barren cornstalks bent over like a regiment of withered old war veterans.

Coo-coo. Coo-coo-a.
“The wind?”
“No. The doves.”

Coo-coo. Coo-coo-a. The cooing roar came from the roost area where millions of birds were awaiting the dawn. As the morning broke, streams of doves thundered overhead, coursing the steel-grey sky.

“Where else but in Argentina do you see this kind of spectacle? Where else but in Argentina can you practice shooting with this kind of repetition?” Big John grinned, and the points of his salt-and-pepper moustache curled up over his snow-white beard.

It was the third week of May, autumn in Argentina, when mornings are brisk. A band of six bird-boys, all local men in their twenties, were huddled together in conversation, the collars of their woolen jackets turned up and their knitted ski caps pulled down over their ears. But the three warm-blooded Jamaicans, two men and a woman, standing with Big John further along the hedgerow, did not feel the cold; they were burning with excitement. They had traveled far, leaving the gentle clime of their native Caribbean island to shoot, for the very first time, fast-flying eared doves in Argentina. Big John, their American booking agent, had left his home in North Carolina to ensure they’d have the dove hunt of a lifetime.

“The first wave of doves coursed the breaking dawn sky.”

“The first wave of doves coursed the breaking dawn sky.”

“Las palomas, que siempre anuncian la llegada del sol,” the bird-boy named Luis called out, but the Jamaicans knew no Spanish, and Big John did not know enough of the language to understand him to say, “The doves announce the rising of the sun.”

“The doves are flying high!” the man named Mark Harris observed. For three decades a world-renowned polo player, shooting and bird-hunting now consumed much of his considerable energy.

“When it is cold and windy like this, they will fly high,” Big John explained.

“How should we shoot them?” asked Andrew, a bronzed, rippling-muscled Jamaican of fifty, clad only in a tee-shirt as a small concession to the cold.

“Aren’t you cold, Andrew?”

“Cold?” Mark, his friend of twenty-five years, cried out. “Back home, he goes shirtless most of the time!”

And Andrew added, “Even to work!”

“When do you pull the trigger?” Big John repeated Andrew’s question as a preface to his answer. “When you can see the head clearly, a dove probably is in range. By the time you see the center of its body, it will be too late.”

“Do we have enough gun?” Mark asked.

“Yes,” John replied. “You and Andrew are shooting 20-gauge Beretta 391 semi-automatic shotguns with 7/8th ounce number 8s. Marguerite, you will be shooting a Beretta Silver Pigeon over/under with the same load.”

“How far out should we shoot?” Andrew asked.

“If you’re a practiced shot and have skill, you can shoot 45- or even 50-yards. Your guns are choked modified or improved cylinder and Marguerite’s is choked modified and improved,” Big John replied.

“How do you retrieve all the birds?” Marguerite wondered.

ohn Wiles instructs Marguerite Harris on how to pick her shots

John Wiles instructs Marguerite Harris on how to pick her shots.

“They fall within about a 55-yard semicircle in front of each shooter. The bird-boys go out that far and sweep the field back and forth and that way, they pick up ninety-five and often one hundred-percent of the birds.”

Now, a thick-set, hatless man with a round, shiny, jovial face came jogging breathlessly toward them like a trotting bull. He was Diego, Frontera’s most expert head guide; a gentle giant of a man a few years older than the bird-boys, maybe thirty. He had driven the shooting party from La Zenaida, Tomas Frontera’s beautiful dove lodge, where the guests were staying for their five-day sporting holiday. The distance was not far, they could have walked; but after dropping them off in the field, Diego parked the Mercedes bus out-of-range of the shotfall. He already had given out the day’s assignments before sunrise, when the bird-boys reported for work. Big John walked over to confer with Diego and after a brief exchange, Diego gestured to his crew to escort their padrones to their pegs.

“I will stay with Marguerite, to begin with,” Big John called out. He had not seen her shoot yet. Though her husband, Mark, said she was a natural shot, he allowed how she was relatively new to shooting clay targets and today, actually, was her first bird-hunt. Big John escorted her to her peg, showed her where to stand, and told her how to anticipate the birds. Already the first wave of doves coursed the breaking dawn sky. Daniel, Marguerite’s bird-boy, was assembling the Beretta that had been fitted to her. It had a 13-1/2-inch length-of-pull, which fit the slender woman well enough.

“If you focus on the head the gun will go where it is supposed to. Your mind has the ability to calculate speed, distance, and angle,” Big John counseled. As if on cue, a flock of doves emerged.

“Focus on just one bird!”

“Focus on just one bird!”

“Focus on just one bird!” Big John called out. Caught off-guard, Marguerite missed with the first barrel, and with the second.

“I saw the body, but you’re going to yell at me if I don’t look at the head!” Marguerite cried over her shoulder. Another dove whisked by. “Is it too far?” Again she fired and again she missed.

“Yes—or else you wouldn’t have asked me!” Big John chuckled. “When you’re not seeing the head clearly, the bird is probably out-of-range. You can’t ride the bird. You have to shoot ahead of the bird and predict its flight path before it turns.”

A wily dove came out of nowhere, zig-zagging across the sky, but Marguerite rushed her swing—and again, a miss!

“Whew! He played a game!” Big John chuckled, as the bird surfed the wind like a surfer rides a cresting wave. “There’s a good one!” he called out as another came into range, and this time Marguerite put all her concentration on the bird and pulled the trigger. A clean shot!

“Thata girl! You don’t want to think too much. Very well done!” Big John praised.

But the overwhelming sight of so many birds made the lovely Jamaican tense. “Missed!” she moaned and shook her head in frustration. A strand of luxuriant auburn hair broke loose from under her shooting cap and cascaded to her waist.

“The gun will go where it is supposed to.” (Marguerite Harris with John Wiles)

“The gun will go where it is supposed to.” (Marguerite Harris with John Wiles)

“You’re trying to see the barrel and the bird at the same time,” Big John admonished. “Don’t worry about the gun. It will go where it is supposed to.” He watched Marguerite pick her next shot but stopped her short. “No, no! You can barely see the head. That bird’s out thirty-five yards—killable but too far for someone who needs practice.” She lowered the barrels and took a deep breath.

“Here,” he said, and asked her to hand him the Beretta. She opened the breech to check there were no cartridges in the barrels. “Stand right behind me, look over my shoulder, watch the bird, and see the gun move in with the bird. Don’t look at the gun, look at the bird, you’ll see the gun come into the right relationship with the bird and if you’re focused on the bird, the gun will be in your peripheral vision.” He demonstrated, and a bird fell cleanly to the ground, practically at their feet. “That’s just one bird out of 5,000 that are in the air!” He handed the Beretta back to Marguerite. “Focus on one bird. Trust that the gun will be where it’s supposed to be.”

Encouraged by Big John and now armed with a better visual understanding, Marguerite focused on an incoming bird, pulled the trigger, and connected.

“Beautiful swing, nice and smooth!” John lavished praise. “Well done, Marguerite! You’re in your groove!”

And the clouds gave way to an azure sky as streams of doves sailed under the heavens.

Clarita and Tomas Frontera, proprietors of Frontera Wingshooting, offering five all aspects of sporting, from doves, to fishing, to big game, at five of the finest lodges in al Argentina

Clarita and Tomas Frontera, proprietors of Frontera Wingshooting, offering five all aspects of sporting, from doves, to fishing, to big game, at five of the finest lodges in al Argentina.

FROM NINE O’CLOCK ON, the shooting never ceased. Now nothing held back the Jamaicans—not the glaring sun nor the gusty wind—as the birds continued to streak across the sky in droves.

By ten-thirty, however, the flocks began to thin and a short while later, only a few singles flew in—low, like kamikaze pilots. With more time between shots, the misses outweighed the hits. Exhaustion now had a little time to set in, and the Jamaicans welcomed Big John’s announcement that the morning shoot had come to an end.

The bag their first morning outnumbered all the birds they’d ever shot in all their lives in their native land. Jamaica’s six-week wild bird season stretches into September from August, but shooting is only permitted on weekends, and a bird-hunter’s season limit is twenty birds. It would take thirty years without a miss to bag six-hundred. Andrew and Mark each had taken as many that first morning.

And in that morning, they had come to understand, if only subliminally, that here, in the cornfields of Cordoba, the doves reign champion. Vermin to farmers, doves destroy over thirty-percent of their crops and those birds that are taken by wingshooters feed and support the local population. Yet, generations of doves continually propagate and no predator, neither human nor beast, has ever succeeded in diminishing their terrific numbers.

To book your own hunt of a lifetime, contact John Wiles at 443-624-8719 or by Email at john@bestwingshooting.com. Visit his excellent website at www.BestWingshooting.com.