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Al Agnew

The Big River Bird Hunting Club

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I got my first BB gun on Christmas Day, 1959. I was seven years old, and I still remember it. It wasn't a Red Ryder, but it was a Daisy that looked a lot like the Red Ryder, but just a different color. From that point on, it seemed like I seldom walked out of the house to play without that BB gun in my hands.

Dad had told me it was okay to shoot "sparrows and blackbirds". So I did. I quickly learned the limitations of that little rifle, but it was surprisingly accurate, and I got good enough that any bird within 60 feet or so was going to get hit. Not all of them dropped; I learned that if I shot one in the side while it was perched, there was a good chance the big wing feathers would stop or at least slow the BB enough that the bird would fly off. And shooting them from the rear was almost guaranteed to only wound them. Sure, I was a bloodthirsty little kid, but even back then I didn't like wounding and not killing those birds. So I usually waited to get a breast shot. Hit one in the breast or belly and it was going down.

Soon a couple of my friends got BB guns as well, and we roamed the neighborhood slaughtering "blackbirds and sparrows". Actually, there were times when we weren't too choosy about what kind of bird we shot, and robins were almost too easy, being tame and stupid. On the other hand, starlings were exceedingly difficult to hunt. Starlings are smart. We knew where several pairs of starlings nested in holes in trees (one pair was in my yard), and we spent hours trying to kill one. The adults would quickly figure out we were trying to shoot them, and even though they had to feed the young regularly, they learned to fly to about 50 yards away, look until they saw one of us lying in wait for them. Then they would fly in like a bullet, straight into the nest hole. I still don't know how they could do that without crashing into the back wall of the cavity. You could hear them feeding the young, and then they'd shoot back out of that hole like somebody spitting watermelon seeds.

Pretty soon there were five of us with BB guns, and we started the "Big River Bird Hunting Club". The next door neighbor of one of our members had a shed out back, and when we told her we were a club, she said we could use the shed for our clubhouse. We hadn't told her what the name of the club was, or perhaps she wouldn't have been so nice. We got the idea that we would have a "trophy wall". Every bird we killed, we would cut its head off, and let them rot until only the skull would be left, and then hang all the skulls on our wall. We weren't sure how to go about storing them until they rotted, though. We started out by nailing them to a tree outdoors, but things would end up eating them. So we got the idea of just putting them in a bucket under the lean-to on the side of the shed, and hoping for the best.

Well, the bucket had been filling for a good part of the summer, and was pretty smelly, but it looked like the maggots were cleaning the skulls. We figured by winter the plan would come to fruition. What we didn't figure on was the shed lady's 3 year old son. We showed up at our clubhouse one day, and the lady came out of her house with fire in her eyes, and told us in no uncertain terms that we were no longer to use her shed, and to stay away from her yard. It seems that she let the three year old roam the back yard the day before while she was hanging laundry, and the next thing she knew, the tyke was chewing rather happily on one of the maggoty bird heads! Which led to her discovery of our trophy bucket.

It's still somewhat amazing to me that we never had any problems with any of the other adults in the neighborhood, which covered about a ten block area plus a 40 acre woodlot. We knew better than to hunt in some yards, and really tried to ask people for permission to shoot "blackbirds and sparrows" in their yards, and surprisingly, a lot of people let us do so. The yards that had mulberry trees were especially desirable, and it seemed like everybody with a mulberry tree was tired of purple bird droppings on their cars and were happy for us to thin the feathered population with no questions asked about exactly what kind of birds we were popping.

A block from my house, there was a liquor store with a drive-up window. Only in a 1960 small town could there be a liquor store that also had the town's best selection of candy on a huge counter in front, so kids were spending about as much of their "allowance" there as adults were spending on booze. In an even further bit of irony, the owner absolutely hated kids, but was happy to take their candy money. Next to the lane leading to the drive-up window were two big soft maples, and every late summer, the English sparrows would roost in those two trees in huge numbers; from an hour before sundown until full dark, there would be a steady stream of sparrows entering those trees, and the noise they made was almost deafening. The liquor store curmudgeon had had the trees trimmed down to nubs a few years back, and they had come out of it with huge, extremely thick masses of leaves atop big, fat trunks, and when those sparrows were there it was very difficult to see them in the very thick foliage and fading light. But oh, how we tried to kill those things. People would be driving up to the window to buy their scotch for the week while we were roaming around underneath the trees right next to them, BB guns in hand, peering up into the branches and trying to get a shot at those sparrows. Some of the customers would ask us if we'd gotten any yet. Usually, we'd maybe get one or two shots at vague shadows in the leaves, and finally get frustrated and start shooting blindly up into the foliage--and one time I did that and out dropped a sparrow, shot cleanly through the head.

My first BB gun lasted about a year, and probably 10,000 BBs, before wearing out. For Christmas the next year, there was a pump BB gun under the tree. It was an upgrade, shooting a little harder. It lasted a couple of years. My next and final BB gun was a very realistic facsimile of a Winchester 94 30/30. It was absolutely the best of the three. I loved that gun, not least because I'd watched John Wayne and every other western movie star shooting the "real" Winchesters. But it was accurate and the hardest shooting gun yet. It had the exact same sights as the real Winchester Model 94 that I own now, and I got to where I could hit a bird's head at 20 yards with that thing almost every time. And I still love shooting lever action rifles with open sights, and still feel like I can hit just about anything I can see with one, even with old eyes that don't focus so well on both the sights and the target anymore.

At age 12, I graduated to a Benjamin pump up pellet gun, which extended my range out to 40 yards or so. It was an amazingly accurate rifle. After all these years, I still own it, though it needs a lot of repair. I just bought a brand new "Benjamin" that is supposedly as close to that old model as possible, but it's nowhere near as well built.

But by that time, I no longer hunted the neighborhood birds. The pellet rifle was a little too powerful for random back yard shooting, and the only places I hunted with it were in the woodlot and down at the creek a little past it, far from any house, and I spent more time hunting rabbits and trying to get shots at sitting quail than decimating the songbird population. Dad loved that rifle as much as I did, and he often sat on the front porch with it and tried to pop the starlings nesting in the trees; it's a funny picture in my mind now, remembering a grown man with a pellet gun sitting in front of a busy street, waving at neighbors driving by. Mom and I came home late one Saturday from somewhere, and there was a plate on the table with a bunch of bird bones on it. She walked into the living room, where Dad was reading a western novel. "Leroy, what are those bones on the kitchen table?"

Dad looked up. "Well...you weren't home to fix supper, and I was hungry. I looked out the kitchen window and there was a dove sitting on the electric wire. So I grabbed the pellet gun and shot it, cooked it, and ate it."

Mom went back into the kitchen to fix a late supper, but first she took the plate of bones to the sink to clean it. She happened to look out the window, and noticed a neat hole in the screen. Back into the living room she went. "Leroy, did you know there's a hole in the window screen over the sink?"

"Oh...I was afraid that if I went outside the dove would fly off, so I just shot it through the screen."

The hole remained in that screen for several years.

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I got my first BB gun on Christmas Day, 1959. I was seven years old, and I still remember it. It wasn't a Red Ryder, but it was a Daisy that looked a lot like the Red Ryder, but just a different color. From that point on, it seemed like I seldom walked out of the house to play without that BB gun in my hands.

Dad had told me it was okay to shoot "sparrows and blackbirds". So I did. I quickly learned the limitations of that little rifle, but it was surprisingly accurate, and I got good enough that any bird within 60 feet or so was going to get hit. Not all of them dropped; I learned that if I shot one in the side while it was perched, there was a good chance the big wing feathers would stop or at least slow the BB enough that the bird would fly off. And shooting them from the rear was almost guaranteed to only wound them. Sure, I was a bloodthirsty little kid, but even back then I didn't like wounding and not killing those birds. So I usually waited to get a breast shot. Hit one in the breast or belly and it was going down.

Soon a couple of my friends got BB guns as well, and we roamed the neighborhood slaughtering "blackbirds and sparrows". Actually, there were times when we weren't too choosy about what kind of bird we shot, and robins were almost too easy, being tame and stupid. On the other hand, starlings were exceedingly difficult to hunt. Starlings are smart. We knew where several pairs of starlings nested in holes in trees (one pair was in my yard), and we spent hours trying to kill one. The adults would quickly figure out we were trying to shoot them, and even though they had to feed the young regularly, they learned to fly to about 50 yards away, look until they saw one of us lying in wait for them. Then they would fly in like a bullet, straight into the nest hole. I still don't know how they could do that without crashing into the back wall of the cavity. You could hear them feeding the young, and then they'd shoot back out of that hole like somebody spitting watermelon seeds.

Pretty soon there were five of us with BB guns, and we started the "Big River Bird Hunting Club". The next door neighbor of one of our members had a shed out back, and when we told her we were a club, she said we could use the shed for our clubhouse. We hadn't told her what the name of the club was, or perhaps she wouldn't have been so nice. We got the idea that we would have a "trophy wall". Every bird we killed, we would cut its head off, and let them rot until only the skull would be left, and then hang all the skulls on our wall. We weren't sure how to go about storing them until they rotted, though. We started out by nailing them to a tree outdoors, but things would end up eating them. So we got the idea of just putting them in a bucket under the lean-to on the side of the shed, and hoping for the best.

Well, the bucket had been filling for a good part of the summer, and was pretty smelly, but it looked like the maggots were cleaning the skulls. We figured by winter the plan would come to fruition. What we didn't figure on was the shed lady's 3 year old son. We showed up at our clubhouse one day, and the lady came out of her house with fire in her eyes, and told us in no uncertain terms that we were no longer to use her shed, and to stay away from her yard. It seems that she let the three year old roam the back yard the day before while she was hanging laundry, and the next thing she knew, the tyke was chewing rather happily on one of the maggoty bird heads! Which led to her discovery of our trophy bucket.

It's still somewhat amazing to me that we never had any problems with any of the other adults in the neighborhood, which covered about a ten block area plus a 40 acre woodlot. We knew better than to hunt in some yards, and really tried to ask people for permission to shoot "blackbirds and sparrows" in their yards, and surprisingly, a lot of people let us do so. The yards that had mulberry trees were especially desirable, and it seemed like everybody with a mulberry tree was tired of purple bird droppings on their cars and were happy for us to thin the feathered population with no questions asked about exactly what kind of birds we were popping.

A block from my house, there was a liquor store with a drive-up window. Only in a 1960 small town could there be a liquor store that also had the town's best selection of candy on a huge counter in front, so kids were spending about as much of their "allowance" there as adults were spending on booze. In an even further bit of irony, the owner absolutely hated kids, but was happy to take their candy money. Next to the lane leading to the drive-up window were two big soft maples, and every late summer, the English sparrows would roost in those two trees in huge numbers; from an hour before sundown until full dark, there would be a steady stream of sparrows entering those trees, and the noise they made was almost deafening. The liquor store curmudgeon had had the trees trimmed down to nubs a few years back, and they had come out of it with huge, extremely thick masses of leaves atop big, fat trunks, and when those sparrows were there it was very difficult to see them in the very thick foliage and fading light. But oh, how we tried to kill those things. People would be driving up to the window to buy their scotch for the week while we were roaming around underneath the trees right next to them, BB guns in hand, peering up into the branches and trying to get a shot at those sparrows. Some of the customers would ask us if we'd gotten any yet. Usually, we'd maybe get one or two shots at vague shadows in the leaves, and finally get frustrated and start shooting blindly up into the foliage--and one time I did that and out dropped a sparrow, shot cleanly through the head.

My first BB gun lasted about a year, and probably 10,000 BBs, before wearing out. For Christmas the next year, there was a pump BB gun under the tree. It was an upgrade, shooting a little harder. It lasted a couple of years. My next and final BB gun was a very realistic facsimile of a Winchester 94 30/30. It was absolutely the best of the three. I loved that gun, not least because I'd watched John Wayne and every other western movie star shooting the "real" Winchesters. But it was accurate and the hardest shooting gun yet. It had the exact same sights as the real Winchester Model 94 that I own now, and I got to where I could hit a bird's head at 20 yards with that thing almost every time. And I still love shooting lever action rifles with open sights, and still feel like I can hit just about anything I can see with one, even with old eyes that don't focus so well on both the sights and the target anymore.

At age 12, I graduated to a Benjamin pump up pellet gun, which extended my range out to 40 yards or so. It was an amazingly accurate rifle. After all these years, I still own it, though it needs a lot of repair. I just bought a brand new "Benjamin" that is supposedly as close to that old model as possible, but it's nowhere near as well built.

But by that time, I no longer hunted the neighborhood birds. The pellet rifle was a little too powerful for random back yard shooting, and the only places I hunted with it were in the woodlot and down at the creek a little past it, far from any house, and I spent more time hunting rabbits and trying to get shots at sitting quail than decimating the songbird population. Dad loved that rifle as much as I did, and he often sat on the front porch with it and tried to pop the starlings nesting in the trees; it's a funny picture in my mind now, remembering a grown man with a pellet gun sitting in front of a busy street, waving at neighbors driving by. Mom and I came home late one Saturday from somewhere, and there was a plate on the table with a bunch of bird bones on it. She walked into the living room, where Dad was reading a western novel. "Leroy, what are those bones on the kitchen table?"

Dad looked up. "Well...you weren't home to fix supper, and I was hungry. I looked out the kitchen window and there was a dove sitting on the electric wire. So I grabbed the pellet gun and shot it, cooked it, and ate it."

Mom went back into the kitchen to fix a late supper, but first she took the plate of bones to the sink to clean it. She happened to look out the window, and noticed a neat hole in the screen. Back into the living room she went. "Leroy, did you know there's a hole in the window screen over the sink?"

"Oh...I was afraid that if I went outside the dove would fly off, so I just shot it through the screen."

The hole remained in that screen for several years.

Ha ha, Great story! 

My BB gun made a  ricochet noise when you fired it, can't remember the make. But I eventually replaced it with a wrist rocket sling shot.

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Good story Al. I still have a 50+ year old Crosman Arms V-350 bb gun that you pump the barrel. Still fairly accurate and I give the squirrels heck with it. Doesn't shoot hard enough to kill them but keeps them off the bird feeder for a little.

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Brian, to be honest, I don't remember any of them except Wayne Steinmetz. Only reason I remember him is because the shed lady lived a couple houses away from his house. I know the others lived close by, but I'm drawing a blank on their names.

 

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