Improve your hunting prospects with this environmental insight from Sam Garro
Understanding and appreciating animal traits and behaviours can improve a hunter’s chances of bagging game or scoring a long-pursued trophy beast. Sometimes it’s more a matter of accumulating knowledge and applying logic and reasoning, rather than trying to overthink or unsuccessfully outsmart game.
Simplistically, what’s essential for any living creature is feed, water, shelter plus the right terrain and climatic conditions. As long as these settings prevail game tends to remain in the general area unless disturbed by excessive shooting, eradication measures or similar disturbances. Evidence of their presence will be apparent by their browsing, scat or droppings, tracks and used trails. Property owners’ observations are always invaluable as they are out most days driving around and note animals’ movements, times and likely places to cross them, especially around established crops and water storage places.
Aside from wild dogs that can indiscriminately predate on livestock like sheep and cattle, there are no real threats to medium and large game animals in Australia such as large predatory cats or wolves found in other countries. While they are unlikely to conflict with one another, especially when feed is plentiful, opportunist pigs won’t hesitate to make a meal of a dead carcass.
Livestock and feral game interaction
There are times when feral animals like goats, pigs and deer are seen feeding among livestock. That shouldn’t be surprising when we consider they were once domesticated animals that escaped or were let loose. While it may take a few generations to fully achieve wild status, they still carry the same DNA except now their defensive senses are more acutely developed to better survive in the wild.
When hunting Outback areas or generally undisturbed places, I’ve found livestock, feral animals and native fauna seem to cohabitate in unison or tolerate each other and share like warning systems. If one animal or bird in the area emits a certain sound or reacts in a way associated with a threat or danger, then all the animals rapidly depart.
In the forests of India, the distress call of a peacock, rhesus macaque monkey or the stomping sound or belling of a sambar deer alerts the whole forest of a leopard’s or tiger’s presence, as described in Jungle Lore by Jim Corbett, the big game hunter. Red-billed oxpeckers that are seen on rhinos and rid the animal of parasites also warn of approaching danger. Similarly, egrets work on cattle in the Top End where ticks tend to hover over the beasts ‑ the examples are many and varied.
Understanding animal and bird sounds and behaviours can also assist in better locating game. The repetitive lazy caw of a crow or the monotonous shrieking of a cockatoo can be the norm but a heightened and quickened screech when stalking can signal a disturbance that will draw the attention of other animals in the vicinity.
Kangaroos usually depart way before approaching them, but should a mob be suddenly disturbed in close while stalking, stop for a few minutes before proceeding to allow any other possible game in the area to settle and resume feeding or whatever they are passively doing. You might be surprised to find other game that weren’t immediately detectable.
Shared animal behaviours
Livestock in varying terrain from hilly and mountainous to dry barren flats instinctively strike a path that is the easiest route to feed or water. Feral animals will often share the same tracks. In Brisbane Valley red deer and dingo prints were observed on a frequently used cattle track and on a cattle station in the Northern Territory a cattle track was also used by feral pigs and donkeys.
Persistence in following such trails can be hugely rewarding. On a particular wild boar hunt in NT, an early morning stalk on a bait station proved unproductive. Discussing our next option with Kurt McGhie, temporary guide with Muckadilla Safaris at the time, we spotted a medium pig trotting down a well-worn trail in our direction, obviously following the scent of the carrion. At 30m, suddenly aware of our presence, it quickly turned around and trotted back from where it came.
The prospect of potentially locating other pigs saw us following the trail for a couple of kilometres before dropping down into a large spring-fed basin. Through an opening in the trees, a couple of boars were spotted wallowing in a pool of muddy water. The biggest succumbed to my 6mm Schultz & Larsen without knowing what hit it. On alternative days in the same area a buffalo bull, scrub bull and a couple of howling dingoes were also observed.
At another time while hunting feral pigs on the plains of northwestern NSW, a flock of crows were sighted in the distance randomly fluttering off the ground a couple of metres and landing again in a repeating nature. A closer look through the binos revealed the bird activity was around a partly obscured bore in a small depression, ploughing up the ground for grubs and roots. He was collected by my mate at 150m using his Wilkinson custom-built .30-06 Springfield. It just goes to show how unusual or unrecognised animal behaviour can lead to game.
Understanding game habits
It always helps to learn about the game species hunted to optimise your chances of success. While red deer are best hunted at first light and evenings, they also favour showery conditions exiting the concealment of the forest onto open grassy slopes.
Feral pigs, for instance, don’t have sweat glands so in hot, dry conditions they revert to shady places and waterholes to cool off and wallow in the mud. Following creeks, soaks and waterways with overhanging banks or hollows are perfect places to find them.
In the Northern Territory and Outback places, feral pigs often feed during late evening into the night and early hours of the morning, returning just before first light. Water buffaloes have similar habits, feeding in the early hours before retreating to waterholes or creeks to escape the heat of the day and cake themselves in mud. And where hunting pressure is minimal and temperatures are mild, game from rabbits to pigs and goats can be observed feeding throughout the day.
During spring, it’s not uncommon to encounter feral pigs feeding among sheep. Rabbits don’t like windy or blustery cold conditions, preferring to stay underground. Such knowledge is useful and better prepares a hunter when pursuing game.
Animal shelter and protection
Protective cover to rest and shelter from the elements is an essential habitat requirement. Dense impenetrable cover like patches of tangled lignum, shadowy spaces under tufts of thick, long grass and tree branches are favoured places for feral pigs. They are also adaptive, as found in harsh dry country strewn with ferrous like rocks near Pine Creek, NT where they occupy dugouts or caves at the base of escarpments.
Some animals will choose high scrubbed or wooded ground surrounded by clearings or low growth to maintain clear vision of anything approaching. If you anticipate game in such locations, particularly if there are fresh signs about, it’s important to stop for a while, take your time to glass around and keep your eyes peeled as you go forward. A mob or herd of animals can also be challenging due to their many eyes with group members like sows, nannies and hinds acting as sentinels.
Wildlife, feral game and predatory animals adapt and take advantage of any opportunity. Ospreys, crows, pigs, dingoes and feral dogs will scavenge on carrion. I’ve shot ducks in season over rice late in the evening where birds of prey and crows took advantage of the felled birds before I could reach them or collect them early next morning.
While pigs generally feed on grasses, insects, frogs and other bits and pieces, in times of drought they will feast on carrion as alluded to like dead cattle, donkeys and horses. Hence, this is why in challenging terrain they are sometimes hunted over bait stations. Mature boars will still demonstrate a propensity for meat even if their usual food is plentiful.
Similarly, deer will feed among cattle and sheep as observed at night through thermal monoculars and raid fruit groves, vineyards and other crops. Even brows on lemon trees and flower beds of residences situated close to deer habitat. And sometimes animals demonstrate uncanny cleverness and ability. In South America mature feral pigs, through their sense of smell and taste, have learned to suckle milk from penned cows.
Animals and birds move in search of water and food. In times of drought, extreme heat, fires and floods, some will perish through lack of feed, but if other food sources are available then it’s a natural survival instinct to resort to them.
Game animals, in particular deer, are accustomed to other animal, bird and associated nature sounds including a property owner’s operating equipment like a tractor, water pump and vehicle.
Apart from their acute sense of smell, hearing and sight to warn them against approaching danger, a hunter’s walking steps through the forest or scrub is different to the norm and can be interpreted as an intruder, more so if the animal has been previously stalked. Staggering your steps as you move forward quietly and stopping frequently can assist.
To avoid detection, deer can remain perfectly still and concealed without our knowing it, until they depart crashing through the thicket with a honk. When stopping to glass your surroundings take your time and look for shapes, forms and colours that don’t belong.
Should the hairs on the back of your neck rise because you feel an animal’s presence, trust your instincts, stop and take a good look around and ready yourself just in case game suddenly breaks cover. You have nothing to lose and plenty to gain, and if it eventuates, don’t discount it as a once-off but treat it as a hunter’s internal or innate ability to detect.
Understanding animal behaviours and habits, and how they interact with other birds and animals in a collaborative way enables the hunter to better strategise in locating game, and when successful, greater satisfaction is derived for applying the knowledge and effort.
It doesn’t matter how experienced or knowledgeable you are, it’s a continual process of learning, observing and improving as nature is a great teacher that often surprises.