Today, I generally don't mention rabbit hunting where I live. When I say ''rabbit,'' they hear ''bunny.'' If fact, I don't hunt with a weapon anymore. I've substituted a camera for a rifle or a shotgun, but it is a personal choice. It is my own choice, with my own reason.
Nevertheless, I clearly remember the pleasure of walking through a fresh snow on a cold winter's morning. The beagle out in the lead, nose to the snow, running a circular route, trying to pick up the scent or to stir a hard-sitting rabbit. The snow was noisy, crunching under the foot. Sound was not a problem, however, as you wanted to spook the rabbit out of its nest in the brush pile, clump of tall grass, or pile of residue that had once been a stalk of corn or two.
We often come across other trails, perhaps a fox doing his own rabbit hunting, birds, including quail, and what I will collectively call ''mice.'' Mice represent the myriad small creatures making their way over, under or through the snow cover. The fox wasn't above adding one of them to his diet, if opportunity provided.
We hunted on warm, winter days with the sun blinding you with its reflection off the snow. We'd hunt in bitter cold. In the bitter cold, the rabbits were always reluctant to jump out of their hiding places. Sometimes they would wait, almost until your foot was about to settle on them. The rabbit would dart out in a blur of speed. Thick, heavy coats, gloves and numb fingers, and the startle of the rabbit at your feet, gave the rabbit an extra chance to escape.
Being the youngest son, I was usually the one sent through the briars into the brush pile, to climb on the top of the pile. My purpose was to make noise, jump up and down. The feeble hope was that a rabbit would be silly enough to leave his secure place under the pile and make a run for it. Not all rabbits were smart. We had many meals of dumb rabbits, while the smart ones lived to breed and pass on the successful trait.
I enjoyed rabbit hunting over squirrel hunting. Rabbit hunting was active- walking, jumping up and down on brush piles, and fighting your way through briars. Squirrel hunting was quiet, calm, and stealthy.
However, squirrel hunting was enjoyable, in its own way. The leaves would be loud under foot, no matter how quiet you tried to be. You could never slip by the ever watchful, and blabbermouth bluejay. This aerial scout would announce your presence loudly through the woods. The bluejay would fly from tree to tree, high up and calling out his warning cry, time and time again. I think the bluejay must have been a paid informer.
Squirrels were as sneaky as rabbits were fast. Squirrels could disappear in the smallest clump of leaves or squeeze into the smallest hollow in a tree. Squirrels also could keep the trunk of a tree between you and them. Instinctively, squirrels knew geometry. Squirrels just know that they can traverse the smaller perimeter of a tree trunk faster than a hunter can make a similar traverse from his more distant location. Whoever thought that squirrels were helpless prey, has never hunted for them. Perhaps the most conclusive evidence of the keen ability of squirrels, is their abundance. As the saying goes, you can't argue with success.
Squirrel hunting often consisted of walking into the woods and finding a good collection of oak trees. The bluejay would, of course, announce your arrival. As such, you settled down, leaning with your back against a tree, with the sun behind you, and wait. With time, the bluejay would go elsewhere and end his warning call. In time, a squirrel or two would likely show up, ready for an easy meal, or for the fall task of storing acorns for winter. While you waited for the squirrel to arrive, it was time for natural history observation. Chipmunks, crows, bluejays, woodpeckers, and other assorted creatures would go about their business, providing a glimpse of their daily lives, if you cared enough to observe.
We hunted squirrels with a .22 caliber rifle. It made for a harder shot, but it allowed for a shot at a longer range. If you were successful, it also eliminated the risk of biting into a shotgun pellet at the dinner table.
Hunting was one of the few recreational things my father did- hunting rabbits and squirrels, and fishing in Minnesota. These, he did with his three sons. We had a number of locations where we could hunt, with the permission of the landowners. Some of the landowners were relatives, friends, or farmers that I had worked for, baling hay or ''walking beans.''
We owned a miniature beagle who enjoyed rabbit hunting. A rabbit dog helped a lot. Rabbits tend to have a limited range, so when chased, they would either hold up or circle back around. One could stand at a location with a good view, and listen to the bark of the dog to track the movement of the rabbit. The beagle's job was not to catch the rabbit, but to merely detect it, track or run it, and keep it moving. Our dog had no instinctive behavior toward killing a rabbit. She once caught up with a wounded rabbit. Not knowing what to do with this rabbit, she literally flattened the rabbit with her own body and waited for us to catch up. She did not bite the rabbit, nor offer any resistance when we removed the live rabbit from beneath her. She was a hunter, not a killer.
My hunting days ended when I lived in Massachusetts in the early '70s. We lived in the northwest corner of the state, by the Connecticut River valley, in a rural location, among dairy farmers. I went rabbit and partridge hunting with a neighbor. The day ended early, when I was accidentally shot by a 12-gauge shotgun. The shooting was not that serious, although, given a choice, I'd opt to pass on a second opportunity. I really can't recommend it. For that reason and I suppose, with a new empathy for the hunted, I gave up hunting with a weapon. There is a certain irony. I spent two years active duty in the Army during the Vietnam War. I never saw war, and I was never shot at. That was reserved for the peaceful Connecticut River valley of Northwestern Massachusetts.
But I enjoyed hunting as a young man. It was like gainful employment. We ate the successes of our hunt. It put food on the table. It was a ''guy-thing.'' It also probably helped instill an interest in nature and natural history that drove me to major in biology and zoology. This choice, in turn, has directed my professional life for the last 30 years, working in the environmental field.
I still enjoy walking in the woods, looking for squirrels and rabbits. Hunting with a 35mm camera is even harder than with a rifle or shotgun. Lighting, focus, composition, blur, are all added features of concern. With my camera, I've expanded the list of prey and include plants, birds, deer, and a variety of wildlife in Africa, South America, and New Zealand that I never imagined that I'd see outside a zoo.
When I look at my photographic efforts, it makes me think that perhaps I should have stayed with a gun. National Geographic sets a pretty high standard for us. It is easy to become discouraged. But, it is, at least in part, a hunt for the perfect picture as much as it is a hunt for the perfect subject. Life is a lot like that, too. If it came too easy, it would not be valued.
I guess hunting can teach you a lot, if you take time to read the signs and contemplate the significance. It's a lot like genealogy, probably accounting for the name of this column.