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I wasn’t sure this day would ever come, the first day my identical twin boys could hunt in Montana, and it wasn’t turning out badly.

After a long, desolate, entirely birdless hike for sage grouse, we were now hunched on overturned buckets, waiting for doves to fly past our little outpost on the edge of a harvested wheat field. This is what I love about dove hunting, the relative leisure as we wait for the birds to come to us.

The spaces between doves are made for conversation, and our talk had ranged from sixth-grade classmates to the relative merits of cola versus clear soda pop to the differences between full and improved shotgun chokes.

The boys had just emptied their shotguns on a single, flitting dove when Merlin asked a fundamental question: “Are doves smart?” I think the question was motivated by the aerial calisthenics that the dove had performed to escape the hail of shotshell pellets, but it was a good one.

“Well,” I tried to explain, “what’s the difference between instinct and intelligence?”

The question occupied us for the next hour. Merlin suggested that instinct is reaction, while intelligence is choice, and that a dove under fire reacts without thinking. Ellis wasn’t so sure. He had inspected the complicated eyes and the aerobatically capable wings of one of our bagged doves, and concluded that doves are built to spot and evade danger. That’s choice, he said, not reaction.

I was frankly astounded at the level of this discussion. My boys are smart and insightful, but they’re also 11 years old, and this conversation was edging into the existential, asking questions about the very nature of life and survival. I wasn’t sure any of us were ready for the depth of dialogue.

But that’s the beauty of hunting together. It brings together fundamental questions of life and death, even if it doesn’t always answer them.

By the time we left the field, a heavy limit of doves in our bucket, we were no closer to a conclusion, but I think it was Ellis who volunteered that doves are prone more to reaction than to deep thought.

“There was a lot of shooting out here tonight. If I were a smart dove, I don’t think I would have flown,” he ventured, before resorting to an instinct every 11-year-old can recognize. “Can I have another pop?”

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