For the Birds Radio Program: Betsy the Wonder Puppy

Original Air Date: June 12, 1995

What does it take to be a bird dog? (3:55) Date verified.

Audio missing


Now that our springer spaniel puppy is almost one year old, she’s learning about birds. When Betsy was little, she killed one of my nighthawks. She didn’t actually hurt it, just picked it up in her mouth and shook it a little, but it died of a heart attack. No one was at home at the time, and when I discovered her crime, it was too late to get really mad at her, but she felt my sadness and figured out that holding nighthawks in her teeth is a no-no. She’s been great around them ever since. Right now we have a baby Pine Siskin named Zippy, and Betsy tries her darnedest to be calm and sedate as it hops right under her nose, but occasionally her quivering and salivating suggest that she’d like to get a bit closer to the little guy.

If Betsy’s accepting that she’s not allowed to chase or pick up birds in the house, she still figures outdoor birds are fair game. Every time we let her out, she streaks to the back of the yard where birds and gray squirrels eat seeds I scatter beneath my big spruce tree. She’s both determined and fast, so the squirrels take her seriously. The moment we open the door now, they make a run for the nearest tree.

When we visit my mother-in-law in Port Wing, Wisconsin, Betsy chases red squirrels, which are quicker and thus even more alluring. Betsy finds squirrels mysterious, magic, and magnetic. She’s been drawn to them like a moth to a porch light ever since she was 6 weeks old and met our family’s adopted squirrel Chuckie. Chuckie comes right into the house occasionally, and Betsy’s eyes have never been able to follow Chuckie’s quick movements as she jumps from the chair to the drapes to the top of the door. Betsy has wanted to grab Chuckie in her teeth and give her a good shaking since the moment she first saw her, and all the civilizing influences we’ve brought to bear on her have not made a bit of difference. She also charges after birds in the yard, but not with the passion and gusto that she brings to her squirrel chases, so I think the birds here are probably safe. Nowadays there’s a bazillion bird feeders designed specifically to deter squirrels, and books have been published about how to keep squirrels at bay when the matter is really quite simple. All people need to do is get a puppy like Betsy and their squirrel problems will disappear.

If Betsy spends much of her outdoor life chasing backyard critters, when we get away from home, she becomes much more civilized. We took a 12-mile hike through Port Wing last week, and although she started chasing one poor deer, she ran right back the moment I called her. She’s great fun on a walk. She zips ahead, checking out every smell and sight, chasing butterflies, and bounding through the underbrush, but she never leaves my sight and frequently runs back to lick my hand, as if thanking me for bringing her. She’s great at jumping into Lake Superior to fetch sticks, too. She was first inspired to jump into a lake when she saw her first Canada Goose, and now any time she even hears a goose in the distance, she charges after it. Her dream in life is to swim up to a goose and catch it. I’m not sure what she plans to do once she gets ahold of one. A Giant Canada Goose can wield as much as 24 pounds of angry, thrashing muscle, and I don’t know if a little springer spaniel could stay afloat under such an onslaught. But Betsy’s ever sunny and optimistic, and feels the magnetic enticement of geese in her bones even more intensely, and in an entirely different way, than I do. She’s a bird dog, and I’m a birder. Louie, it looks like the start of a beautiful friendship.