Cowboy Bird Dogs: One Man’s Alternative

Story | Photos by Garhart Stephenson

I don’t really know how, but early in life I veered down the path of “nonconformist.” It’s not that I ever looked for controversy, I just grew into the guy who’s always looking for a better way to do anything…an idea that’s actually served me well. However, hunting birds with a Border collie didn’t occur this way.

In my late teens, my friends abandoned me during hunting season. Eventually they swayed me to try hunting. I’m glad I shot my first deer and had some fun with rabbits and squirrels, but these activities didn’t exactly pry me away from trout streams and BMX. Then one fateful day I went sage grouse hunting and bird fever struck, hard. This was different, dynamic, and I wanted more. Look out birds.

Rusty retrieving a long tail.

More like “look out legs.” Through sheer stubbornness, I found a few, but I needed a “bird” dog. Surely this was an easy sell. Dad raised bird dogs prior to my entering his life. As usual, I was wrong. We had recently acquired a Border Collie/ Blue Healer mix Dad chose for helping move the neighbor’s cattle. Dad told me to teach her to hunt. My response amounted to “She’s not a bird dog.” However, I was in no position to bargain. I followed his instructions, and much to my shock Shasa found birds for me. I ceased returning home with a deflated game bag, realizing that sometimes “old folks” actually know something, and cow dogs can do more than chase cows.


For some time, I considered Shasa a lucky fluke, until random people shared similar stories. When the fighting men came home from World War II, it was common to hunt pheasants over “farm collies.” Scientists have shown Border Collies as the smartest breed and they are motivated to please, making them rather easy to train. Not a bad bargain. I recently read a statement that 90% of a canine’s brain is devoted to olfactory duties, the part that lets them show us where birds are. I am inclined to believe it, for when I eventually moved out on my own and Shasa grew old and tired, I decided to get another Border Collie.

Ever aware of my intentions, my parents actually found me a puppy for Christmas. I know, cliché, but that’s what happened. Katie picked up where Shasa left off, basically amazing me with her capabilities. Shasa was average, but Katie would get on scent and never give up. Katie is long gone now, but she hunted an average of 80-100 days per season, alone, for 15 years. Border collies live long healthy lives.

Two snowcocks retrieved by Rusty.

After hunting over and admiring a rather extensive list of common and rare sporting breeds belonging to friends and acquaintances (one of whom is a NAVHDA judge), I find I’m still happiest with what I have.

It’s a lot to ask of a dog to hunt daily all season, but a smart dog is an efficient dog. My current Border Collie star, Rusty, doesn’t expend much energy until he encounters scent. He might look lazy, but he finds birds like nobody’s business. He knows when to go hard and when to coast. Rusty earned quite a reputation for finding everything from Mearns quail to Himalayan snowcock. I’ll admit being a tad proud of his resume.

By now, some folks are wondering if these dogs point or flush. I work mine as flushers. I like being a part of the chase, up close and personal. I did split the difference with Rusty, ordering him to “sit” when he started to crouch low and move in on birds. This system was dynamite for chukars…until he grew deaf.

Tucker brings in a Sharptail Grouse.

Rusty is eleven now, so I picked up a small white Border Collie at a shelter this past April (Rusty was obtained in the same fashion). Tucker seems like he’s turning into my best dog so far (no small feat). I feel blessed that each dog proved better than the previous one. Nine days into Tucker’s hunting career, he stunned me. We traveled to North Dakota for the Sharptail grouse opener. Opening morning, no more than a hundred yards from the pickup, he turned into the wind and beelined a covey of seven grouse some 200 yards distant. Two days before my writing this, he put me on Himalayan snowcock in Nevada. The dog just keeps locating birds. He’s a keeper.

Call me the odd duck, but I’ve experienced more joy with Border Collies during my 35-year bird hunting career than I ever thought possible. Setters tempt me, and I’m quite fond of my friend’s Small Munsterlander, but Border Collies have captured my heart for good. A Border collie doesn’t care if it chases cows or corners birds, it just wants to make the boss happy. What more could I ask? 

Garhart Stephenson is an avid outdoorsman residing in west central Wyoming. Throughout the year he is typically outdoors with rod or gun in the company of his faithful Border Collie, Rusty.



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