Ask Sam Cook or hundreds of outdoorsmen what a bird dog is and they'll tell you stories about a Chesapeake Bay retriever leaping into frigid water to retrieve a duck, or a faithful spaniel back-flushing a pheasant right to them, or a pointer frozen in position a few feet from a partridge. A good hunting dog is indispensable on a bird hunt, both in helping to find upland birds in the first place, and then in retrieving them so they aren't wasted.
I'm not a hunter, but I have my own little bird dog. Long after my hunting friends' bird dogs have gone off duty for another year, my dog is hot on the trail serving me like the most faithful golden retriever, regardless of season. Of course, my bird dog is smaller than a golden, weighing only 13 pounds. And to some she looks more like a marshmallow than a dog, being a bichon frise. But Photon, named for the tiny sparkle of light energy that she is, is plenty big enough for the quarry I stalk--tiny songbirds. I don't shoot them, and Photon doesn't retrieve them. She simply goes bounding happily through the northwoods while little birds that stayed out of sight when I birded with larger dogs come right out into the open to chatter at and scold her. I'm not sure why Photon has this effect on songbirds. Maybe it's because they've never seen such a creature before, or maybe it's because she appears to be a smaller, more manageable threat than a larger, faster dog would be. But whatever the reason, I've watched scores of warblers, including blackburnians, magnolias, redstarts, and black-and-whites, at close range thanks to her. One winter wren, a species that is extremely secretive and wary around humans, came inches from me to chatter at my little dog for a full ten minutes last September. I'm not sure Photon even noticed--she was busy sniffing out a chipmunk--but it sure made my birding experience memorable.
To tell the truth, Photon isn't much interested in birds. She pays more attention to critters on the ground. I never once noticed a salamander in the woods until Photon came along. Oddly, she never picks them up in her mouth--she simply sniffs from a polite distance, waiting for me to notice and praise her. During the warm days of autumn she sometimes follows a wooly bear caterpillar or carpenter ant, watching its every move, for many long minutes. In winter, when she isn't swimming in Lake Superior like the finest retriever, she's bounding across the snow chasing a blown leaf. But again, she never seems to pick up the things she stalks--like me, she's a watcher, not a hunter.
If little birds find Photon impressive, many humans find her laughable. Over the two years I've had her, dozens of people have scoffed at her, making sarcastic comments such as "Is that a dog?" or "How nice of you to take your cat for a walk." At first I was offended. Now that I know my bird dog can lure in a hummingbird better than their prize-winning pointer, I just smile.
If Photon seems tiny compared with a normal hunting dog, she looks enormous in a chickadee's eyes. Indeed, she is larger and more formidable to her quarry than the biggest hunting dogs are to theirs. A hundred-pound retriever weighs the same as forty mallards or almost a hundred grouse. But my little Photon weighs the same as 416 warblers, 624 chickadees, or 1040 winter wrens.
Of course, a dog that appears fearsome to a warbler may still look like lunch to an eagle. A large female bald eagle weighs fully as much as Photon, and even though males weigh only eight or nine pounds, their talons and sharp beak could make short work of her. Even the largest eagle might have trouble lifting her off the ground, but creatures that can rip apart road-killed deer wouldn't have much trouble chomping into a bichon. Once when Photon and I were birding at Crex Meadows, near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, an adult eagle dropped low, scrutinizing her. I was close enough to warn away the eagle if it had posed a real threat, but I was fascinated with its curiosity about this fluffy white dog. The eagle never did lower its talons--bichons originated in Italy, and all-American eagles aren't much interested in Italian cuisine. As usual, Photon didn't even notice, and eventually the eagle soared off. I resumed my dogged quest for little birds as Photon sniffed the ground for salamanders and bugs, happy to be a little dog in the big outdoors on a lovely day.