For the Birds Radio Program: Bunter

Original Air Date: Oct. 31, 1997

Bunter, my birding companion for 14 years, died last week. 4:02 (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


Fourteen years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter Katie, I got a golden retriever puppy named Bunter. She came from a breeder south of the Twin Cities, and I held her on my lap the whole ride back. By the time we got home, she and I were deeply and permanently bonded.

Bunter had a long list of field champions in her pedigree, and every fiber of her body was designed to search out birds. But something in her nature was even more powerfully designed to please her chosen person, and I was the one she honored with that distinction. When she was a puppy, an Evening Grosbeak crashed into my window and died, and she brought it to me. I hadn’t realized what happened, and in my surprise when I saw her holding the dead bird, I said, “Oh, Bunter, what did you do?” That’s the only admonishment I gave her, in a soft voice, but she looked cosmically ashamed of herself for disappointing me. I was already trying to console her when my husband Russ told me how she’d come upon the bird already dead. I felt mean for scolding her and tried to reassure her, but the lesson was already embedded deep into her soul that she must never, ever touch a dead bird again, even a dead one. This lesson came back to haunt me when, a few years later, I wanted to study bird mortality at the antenna tower farm in Duluth and tried to train Bunter to bring me dead birds hidden in the weeds. She simply could not bring herself to pick up a dead bird at all. She had learned that first lesson much too well.

Bunter was a great dog to bird with. She’d run just ahead of me as I walked the dusty roads of Port Wing, Wisconsin, and when I’d stop to scrutinize a warbler flock or search out an elusive Le Conte’s Sparrow, she’d patiently sit at my side until I moved on. The focus of our walks for her was the Quarry Beach, where I threw sticks in the water for her to bring back. She was a graceful swimmer who would have retrieved sticks forever, I think, but eventually I’d poop out and start walking again. As soon as I turned away from the water, she’d shake the water off her fur and catch up as if she didn’t mind leaving her favorite place on the planet just to be with me.

When my Blue Jay Sneakers was a baby, one time I accidentally locked her and her nest mates in a room with Bunter and forgot all about all of them for at least a half hour. Suddenly I realized what I’d done, and opened the door to behold a sad and bloody scene. Two of the Blue Jays were safe and sound, asleep on my sofa. Bunter was standing in the middle of the room with one jay, Jake, sitting on her back, hacking into her flesh like a woodpecker, his beak dripping with blood. Sneakers sat atop Bunter’s snout, leaning over and probing her nostrils. And Bunter just stood there, looking ashamed and guilty, as if a naughty thought about what she might do to those Blue Jays had momentarily flitted across her mind. I shooed the jays off and she looked at me with adoring, grateful eyes as if I were the greatest person on the planet for rescuing her, when it was I who had put her into the awful situation in the first place.

Bunter was in failing health the past several months. Last week when she started bleeding from the lungs, Russ and I finally made the sad decision to put her to sleep. She’d been in pain the last few days, not noticing her surroundings or the people around her, but as I held her head while the vet was preparing the injection, she licked my hand and looked into my eyes with that trusting look she had. She’s buried in the backyard, but I like to think she’s in some cool dog heaven, chasing birds and sinking her teeth into naughty little Blue Jays to her heart’s content.