Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Travels with Pip: Update


In the past few weeks, I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling in Wisconsin with my now 6-month-old puppy Pip. From the start, she’s been perfect in the car—I suspect it’s because we drove 500 miles from her breeder’s home in Chicago when she was just 11 weeks old, and quickly started taking other trips, so she thinks that’s everyday life for a birding dog. 

Pip in her car seat

She’s perfectly content to curl up in her little car/airplane carrying case for the duration. Most of the time I don’t even have to keep it zipped—she likes being able to sit up and to get petted as we go along. 

Pip in her little car seat

When I stop for gas, a bathroom break for me, or a quick errand, she doesn’t seem to mind waiting. Of course, I don’t press my luck or her patience, so I stop as often as I can to give her exercise and play, but we’ve done as much as 3 hours of solid driving without a break a couple of times, with nary a complaint. She particularly enjoys being rewarded after a long drive.

Pip discovers Culver's!
Pip discovers Culver's
So far we’ve traveled 6900 miles in the car together. Pip has been to 6 different states and I’ve seen 198 species with her at my side. She quickly adapted to a retractable leash, which I can hook with a carabineer to my belt so my hands are free to use my binoculars or camera. She’s tiny, so the leash is attached to a harness rather than a neck collar. 

Pip at Picnic Point

She almost immediately figured out that the leash only goes out so far, and she virtually never tugs; she stops right before it would start pulling her and waits for me to catch up. She also magically stays on the trail, so I don’t have to worry about her messing with or accidentally trampling nests or damaging habitat. When other people or animals are about, I pull the leash in to keep her at my side, and she seems cool with that, too. I’ve never before had a self-training dog. 

Pip at Indian Lake County Park

There are some birding situations in which she must be left behind or carried rather than walked. When birding along the Park Point beach this spring after Piping Plovers were spotted there, I popped Pip into a special shoulder bag—it’s so fun for dogs to run on beaches, but the plovers’ needs for a safe nesting spot were far more important.

I kept Pip in her bag on the beach OUTSIDE the roped off area.
We didn't enter the area beyond the rope at all. Photo by Erik Bruhnke
Every dog I’ve ever had before Pip focused on smells more than sight and sound, except when chasing balls or squirrels. But when I let Pip out, she stands on the porch a minute, scanning the skies, trees, and grass with her eyes, turning at any interesting sound, and sniffing—the most observant dog, on every sensory level, that I’ve ever known.

Pip at Picnic Point

She watches and tries to catch butterflies, moths, ants, and all kinds of other insects, but can easily be distracted from entomological pursuits when a bird enters the scene.

Over my life, I’ve had three dogs specifically bred for waterfowl or upland bird hunting: a springer spaniel, a spaniel/black lab cross, and a golden retriever. Not one of those ostensible bird dogs focused on birds in every day life the way Pip does. She searches through trees when she hears a robin or other loud singer, tracks flying birds in the sky, and clearly watches birds in the feeder and on the lawn. 

Gray Squirrel

Pip is more of a general naturalist than I am. She pays close attention to squirrels of course. Our backyard squirrels worked out her speed and motivation levels from the start, and wait until she’s in full pursuit before they saunter away. A couple of times, a squirrel barely made it to the tree—they worked out all the timing when Pip was a tiny puppy. She grows faster and more focused by the week, and sometimes it takes them a while to adapt. But they still have the upper paw—indeed, several weeks ago, one chased her onto our porch, probably when she got too close to one of its babies. She doesn’t have much fire in her belly when it comes to them—my guess is that she’s thinking of them as equals to play with rather than prey.

One night two weeks ago when we were in Illinois, she made a delightful discovery—lightning bugs! One lit up about a foot in front of her nose, and her head jerked back in astonishment. Suddenly she was seeing them lighting up here and there throughout the yard, and started leaping up toward one and then another, hopping every which way, the way I’d envision a bunny in a marijuana patch.

Pip’s reaction to birds hasn’t been quite so exuberant. Her favorite species seems to be the Rock Pigeon—four of them visit our yard a lot, and she watches them closely. She also pays attention to robins, and to Blue Jays if they’re squawking. Geese and ducks seem mysterious and cool, and tinier birds hold her interest, too, though they don’t catch her attention as consistently. I’m sure she’s seen only a fraction of the 198 species I’ve put on her life list. That list is obviously for me, not her, helping me to keep track of all the birding experiences I’ve had with her at my side.

Some of my radio listeners have complained over the years whenever I talked about birding with a dog. But birding with a buddy enhances many birding experiences, as long as it’s the right buddy in the right situation. And it looks like Pip is going to be the right birding buddy for me for a long time to come.