African Hunter Magazine

Buck Fever

Page Updated: June 2020

Buck Fever And The Dicky Bird Syndrome
by Ganyana

Buck Fever Image
Who's that? A bull swings to face a party of hunters. This isn't the time or place for 'buck fever'

A Briefing

"What do you tell your trackers and most importantly your client(s) about danger in the bush? Professional guides are often fairly good at this but hunters far too often assume that their clients know what they are doing. After all, they have come hunting, and in an area that has dangerous game! Most briefings go something like this. "Right let's go - if anything goes wrong, never run and do what I tell you". 'Never' is a strong word - and not true either. There are plenty of situations when running is the best course of action. You don't want to have to shoot a black rhino, and running behind (or up) the nearest tree is often the best policy. A group of elephant cows get stroppy and you have to run around them to get the wind in your favour before you end up shooting the odd one. The truth of the matter is, one should never run until you have assessed the situation and come up with a plan. "Run Away" is no plan at all. Run behind that big tree - run along that river bed - or whatever can be the right decision. If there are rhino around, you have a good chance of being 'treed'. But when there are no trees? I've heard all sorts of advice on this one - run in a zig-zag, stand still and leap aside at the last moment, get behind a bush or whatever and sit still. I have my own theories... but I would invite input from readers, both professionals and clients as to what they believe needs to be said and also what the 'right' advice is in any given situation!"
Don Heath, Editor.

The most annoying complaint ever encountered by a hunter is buck fever, which is possibly also one of the most mis-understood syndromes. As an insidious affliction as ever affected mortal man, it is something every hunter needs to be aware of, and have a vague plan with coping with when it occurs. The 'dicky bird' syndrome is related and only applicable to hunting dangerous game, but let's start at the beginning.

I never believed in 'buck fever' and simply ascribed it to over excitement or possibly fear until it actually happened to me, which was recently and caused me to delve deep into the topic.

Fear in the normal sense is not 'buck fever'. Fear, as most people think about it, is to be afraid of physical harm. An angry elephant approaching at 40mph through the jess is a legitimate cause for fear, as is a wounded lion in the dark, or a buff in thick reeds. In any dangerous situation, a little anxiety caused by the body releasing moderate amounts of the hormone adrenaline, causes the mouth to go dry, the hands to get sweaty, the pulse rate to increase significantly, whilst hearing and vision seem to improve dramatically. If anxiety gives way to fear, you still have the sweaty palms and high pulse but also auditory exclusion (cannot hear sounds), tunnel vision (you lose all peripheral vision as the brain concentrates on what is ahead) and tachypsychia (time disjunction - everything seems to slow down). If you have a narrow escape and shock sets in, cognitive dissonance (the inability to put every event into the right sequence) is invariably the result. Fear is a hunter's friend. Too many brave pills causes carelessness or overconfidence which inevitably leads to a dead hunter. A man who is a little afraid, still has all his wits about him, plus the huge advantage of heightened senses and has not underestimated the foe. Too much fear - terror, if you like - leads to inaction or panic, and such a person shouldn't be hunting. They are not only dangerous to themselves but their companions as well.

Over excitement isn't really 'buck fever' either. The human body reacts to excitement with a reaction both from the brain and the autonomic nervous system. The liver dumps glucose into the blood stream, ready to be used for energy by the muscles, and an increase in the salts (sodium and potassium) and neurotransmitters in the nerves raises their response and recovery rates. All this combines to make a person slightly 'jumpy' as the response to stimuli is much more of an 'all or nothing' affair than usual and this is invariably combined with much faster reaction times. But a bit 'edgy' and 'raring to go' doesn't begin to explain the shakes and loss of focus that 'buck fever' causes, and since good shot placement - whether with a rifle or bow - requires good hand/eye co-ordination, 'buck fever' is a total disaster for the hunter.

I have asked around the medical school and nobody seems to know the real answer. Your self defence experts have all the 'gen' on fight and flight effects of adrenaline - the auditory exclusion, the tachypsychia, the tunnel vision, etc. These studies make money but buck fever'? If it only occurred when viewing an elephant, buff or lion, you could ascribe the physical effects to adrenaline - and therefore part of the continuum of anxiety, fear, terror and shock, but I have only ever experienced it when shooting a blesbok! The same with many hunters. I believe the real answer is acute stress - a mild panic attack if you will. It is a hunters case of 'exam nerves', for when you shoot at a live animal you are facing a stiff exam. A real test to kill cleanly, and often, in front of someone you would like to impress - tutor, hunting buddy or even your PH when on safari. You are taking a life and there is no room for failure, so you gear up into a fever pitch of internal excitement and mental stress. You see it with competition shooters as well, that inability to pull off that final award winning shot due to 'nerves' (or 'stress' as it is more commonly called now) so often costs the better shot the prize.

How do you beat it? Practice, and preferably practice on a realistic animal target, so that when you are viewing an animal through the sights you know what you are looking at and know, for certain, that you can do it. But that is beforehand. When you peer through the scope, sight the animal and start to shake and your vision loses its edge - it's a bit late to rush off and practice! Provided it is not something dangerous and approaching fast, close your eyes and visualise the target - not the animal for viewing a living animal just adds to the nerves. When you open your eyes, look for the vital target that you are going to shoot and concentrate on that. Focusing attention on an inanimate target I have found instantly helps a client (and me) settle down quickly to where we can pull off what is usually a very easy shot! At the same time though, as you close your eyes, hold your breath - for at least ten seconds. The blurry vision and shakes are caused by too much oxygen in the blood - you have been breathing too deeply and/or too fast in the build up to the attack of 'buck fever' and holding your breath for a few seconds will burn off the excess oxygen bringing things back to normal.

Linked to 'buck fever' though, is the hunter of dangerous games' poison, the 'dicky bird' syndrome. Something ahead moves, particularly if it is towards you and someone runs. Suddenly every one is running. Even if you, the hunter don't run, the sight of tracker and comrades fleeing is enough to make you at least start to move, costing precious moments in dealing with the charge. If you are closing on a dangerous animal, you know there is a likelihood of a charge, so why the foolish tendency to run?

Elephant Bull

A buff exploding unexpectedly from thick bush, or a group of cows rushing towards the hunting party are prime causes of 'dicky bird' syndrome.

Watch a flock of birds on a feeding tray, one takes fright - often for little apparent reason - and suddenly all fly off - it's the dicky bird syndrome. Man is just like the birds, the sight of one fleeing automatically stimulates a 'flight' reaction amongst others. Military history is full of examples when unseasoned troops broke, leading to a complete rout of the theoretically superior force. The dicky bird syndrome on a battlefield scale! Us hunters are no different and the human body is conditioned to flee danger whenever possible. Man intrinsically only fights when cornered or has pre-planned it. When confronted by sudden danger our inner being says 'run away'! And the sight of others doing exactly that is enough to wreck many a pre laid plan.

The main thing is to be aware of the syndrome and know, for certain, that a sudden charge will provoke panic amongst any in the group who are mentally unprepared or inexperienced. As a hunter in Africa you are almost always accompanied by a tracker and often a few other 'hangers on'” such as a tribal scout or national parks representative, and maybe somebody to carry spare water for the party etc. If any unarmed member of the party does not know the Professional Hunter (or Guide) well, it is perfectly reasonable for him to run in the face of on rushing danger and leave the PH to sort it out.

I have had two experiences of this. The first one was at night, with a snared buffalo. The light went on, it charged, and the game scout holding the spotlight's courage failed when the buff reached about 10 paces - and he threw the light at the buffalo. Words like 'bother' and 'Oh, my golly gosh' amongst others sprang to mind, as I learned how fast I could walk backwards and how well I could shoot at a dim outline in the moonlight. In the second instance whilst hunting buffalo, we bumped into a herd of elephant and a grouchy cow charged. The tracker turned and ran straight at me. If I had been a pace closer he would have knocked me over. As it was, I half managed to get out of his way but he still brushed against me spoiling my aim. He did knock the client off his feet though. Fortunately the ele stopped and simply threw dust in our faces, but it could have been a real problem.

Since then I have learned to brief any 'contract' tracker to dive left in the case of trouble and for me to walk at least four paces behind him - not always easy or practical in thick jesse and not always comforting for him. A PH's own tracker hopefully knows that he can deal with the problem and will stand by him, but surprise can upset even the most stout-hearted. He is looking at the ground for spoor and when something goes wrong he automatically runs, even if it is only for a few paces, until the danger is identified and his subconscious relaxes knowing that the hunter can deal with it. When following a wounded animal, it is much easier to brief everybody in the party and everyone's half expecting a charge anyway. On one occasion, I resorted to putting the tracker behind me knowing for certain that he would either flee or, more probably, freeze at the first hint of danger. He had to look past me for spoor and whisper directions, whilst I kept my eyes on the bush. Not someone I would ever hire as a tracker!! Still, even with good trackers there is the possibility of panic, particularly when a charge occurs unexpectedly. The moral - have a plan - and be aware that you are not a 'dicky bird'.

The main thing is, you need to be aware that, although others may run, you must never. You need to have pre-programmed the possible scenario into your brain to prevent instinct taking over at the moment of crisis. It takes some conditioning - but mainly just a pre-worked out and thought through plan but, most importantly you must have complete faith in your rifle and your own ability to solve the problem, otherwise your sub-conscious will 'rule' that 'flight' is the best survival option and you will behave like a 'dicky bird'.


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