Late 2018 provided another one for the books: my very first wild bird harvested during a memorable pre-Christmas weekend.
As I reflect on this momentous event, an assortment of thoughts emerge, together with some feelings. Lucky for me, this is a blog post and not an essay submitted for publication, so here are just a few of the thoughts that spilled out of that thunderclap in the swampy woods which netted my first wild bird: a female “timberdoodle” or American woodcock …
1) My first thought was, “Hey, look at this gorgeous bird I just harvested! It’s my first! Isn’t she gorgeous?” (we knew it was female - the overall size relative to the harvested males and a bill length greater than the height of a dollar bill in landscape are among the more apparent indicators). So, here it is, above (the one closest in the foreground) and below, and along with a few other shots from the day:
2) The second was, “Wow, not only did I just harvest my first wild bird, but it was actually documented by a very talented videographer!” The president of the James River chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, Darrel Feasel, had invited my friends, Chip and Justin, and me out for this hunt along with a few others and his son, John, who is starting as an outdoor pursuit photographer and videographer and was rolling footage just over my shoulder when I took the shot that brought down my first wild bird. John did an absolutely beautiful job filming and editing his video depiction of the day. While the Zepplin-esque accompaniment might not have been my first selection to depict the contemplative awe of nature I would normally like to think characterizes my bird hunting, it’s admittedly a completely honest depiction of the immediate feelings of adrenaline, surprise, and raw excitement that are summoned in finally achieving a goal this many months and miles in the making. There’s a part of me that still cringes in seeing my own celebration of a kill, but I can’t at all deny that celebratory feeling wasn’t there and isn’t an inherent part of the hunt. It just is. I can admit that even if I hope to mature some more as a freshly-minted wild bird hunter, to let the hunter in me sit in sustained tension with other parts of me that feel genuine sorrow, and even some shame, for taking such a beautiful and awe-inspiring expression of life. I’ve already said much of what I’d say about all that in my first blog post, so I’ll not belabor those very same points. Anyway, here’s how it all went down:
3) My next thought was, “Wild bird hunting is HARD!” As I stand back and factor in all that led to this singular event, I count no less than a hundred miles total that I’ve hiked (multiply by the 2.5 bird dog rate for Lincoln’s estimated amount of total ground sniffed) for wild birds this past year in three different states, through a wide variety of terrain that was at turns super-flat and marshy, or steep and mountainous, very cold, icy, snowy, or hot, humid, and tick-infested, gorgeous, or trash-strewn, peaceful and isolated or just off main roads. It’s amazing to me that no more than one successful harvest of the sought-after prey in that full year and in all those miles would make it all seem not just worth it, but a profound privilege. Even more revelatory to me is that I felt much the same way, that all that time and effort was worth it, all along the way before this first successful harvest. That’s the closely-guarded secret to wild bird hunting that I hope I’ll be forgiven for disclosing in the company of seasoned veterans and non-initiates alike: you better like or even love all aspects of the pursuit and the dogs and people with whom you’re doing it, and the land through which you’re traversing for it enough that those most important aspects of the sojourn sustain you through the yawning vacuum of success you’ll no doubt experience in the relatively minor aspect of it all that is actually bringing birds to bag. As my friend Chip likes to say, “They don’t call it killing, they call it hunting. They don’t call it catching, they call it fishing.”
Here are a few other scenes from Lincoln’s and my other wild bird hunts and those 100+ miles hiked in 2018 through the wilds of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. I’d like to think all those miles, as well as the ones we no doubt will traverse in the future, earn us some small portion of this and whatever harvest success is to come. However one might judge their magnitude, they’ll surely fall short in making us worthy, but the rest I know will be bestowed by felicity and grace:
Now, my ratio of miles and time spent to harvested birds presented above would likely be judged extreme when compared with any hypothetically average wild bird hunter’s stats. As much as my personal ratio reflects the difficulty of the pursuit, it should be understood to be but one data point produced by a first-time dog owner and first-time bird dog trainer whose home state isn’t exactly a wild bird hunting Mecca, who is also a first-time bird hunter, with a dog largely limited to the daily training of said first-timer, who is also a cross-eye dominant shotgun shooter who freely cops to enjoying the dog companionship, friends, and the sort of vistas and experiences you can only experience in wild terrain, and the romance of a sport some might argue is in its twilight (though there are signs of hope that it isn’t!) way more than he enjoys actually killing birds, but, still. They aren’t terribly far removed from what any other aspiring beginner might hope to experience during the first year in this noble game hunting wild birds. It’s enough of a universal reality that you might note that grouse and woodcock hunters (and hunters of many other wild species) count flushes without shots nor kills with almost the same devotion and precision as they count harvested birds. My current flush-to-harvest ratio is very lopsided. I don’t want anyone to think that a hundred hiked miles over the course of a year is the minimum required to encounter any sight or sound contact with these magnificent winged creatures. I’ve seen plenty of grouse and woodcock flushes this year and the grouse flushes, in particular, are every bit as magnificent as advertised and are worth the effort price of admission, harvested or not.
4) Related sub-thoughts beg perennial questions for so many of us: a) “Has wild-bird hunting always been this difficult?” and, if not, b) “Why is it so difficult now?” The answer to the first question: certainly it hasn’t been. Game birds are generally far less plentiful today in the United States than they were just a few decades ago. The answer to the second question is far from settled, though there are many theories and suspected culprits. Likely, it’s a combination or perfect storm of many factors. In addition to the likelihood of increased predation from greater numbers of birds of prey and other predators of adult birds and nests/eggs, habitat loss from human development/sprawl, and relatively new avian diseases like West Nile, I have to think the loss of game birds has to also be seen in the context of contemporaneous losses that are just as mysterious and feel eerily similar, as with honey bees in “colony collapse disorder” - and even with recent massive losses in the numbers of a great variety of other insects (see this recent and alarming report on the “Insect Apocalypse”), which may have both fallen victim to similar environmental forces (both human-caused and otherwise) as game birds and/or are a food source whose decline may presage the birds that feed upon them for lesser or greater parts of their diets. Whether the answer turns out to be larger meta-phenomena like climate change or other as-yet to be fully understood environmental factors or processes, clearly something is very wrong with the environment that is creating these deleterious impacts, the reduction of our beloved game birds being only one of the many dire consequences already well-along in their unfolding on the contemporary American landscape.
5) Another thought on woodcock’s distinctiveness: “These birds are magical, mysterious, and just downright bizarre.” The American woodcock (Scolopax minor), as indicated by its affectionate nicknames like “timberdoodle,” or “mudbat,” is a strange and wonderful little bird. If you’re an east coast beach-goer, think of a sandpiper, remove it from the beach, imagine it migrating annually from breeding grounds distributed throughout the northeast and upper midwest to wintering grounds through the southeast coast of the United States and back through creek bottoms and hollows looking for its muddy diet of worms, throw in some evolutionary adaptations befitting those differences with their shorebird cousins, and you’ll start to get an idea about them. Technically, they are not actually upland birds, which are comprised by members of the order Galliformes, and include the variety of chicken-like game birds like pheasant, quail, grouse, etc. Rather, they are migratory game birds and - dare I say - waterfowl? That’s probably not technically correct either. But one does see them referred to as “shorebirds,” even if you don’t find any actually at the beach.
Timberdoodles are associated enough with grouse that the American Woodcock Society was created under the umbrella of the Ruffed Grouse Society and you can often find woodcock in the same areas as grouse (though often at different elevations - there are of course exceptions to the rule, but grouse are generally higher, woodcock generally lower) if you happen to catch the woodcock in their migration in the same areas while hunting grouse. Our friends at Project Upland feature these bizarre little birds in a couple of their outstanding short films which also cover grouse hunting:
6) A related thought: “Dogs think timberdoodles smell funny.” You won’t be able to tell a difference. If they have any detectable and distinct odor to the human nose, they are not likely to be differentiated from anything else with feathers and which spend all their lived days and nights as a part of nature. But, because they are not closely related to true upland birds, it’s important to know that they don’t smell the same as upland birds to dogs and many bird dogs take a little bit of exposure (and often work with experienced dogs) to figure out that they should be hunting for them in the same way they would upland birds. This, in fact, was and is the case with Lincoln. He showed little - if any - interest in them on the ground, and even after I gave him a snootful of scent from the ones taken that day, he still seems unsure. He displayed none of the extreme excitement he shows when smelling living or dead quail, chukar, pheasant, and pigeons. It is theoretically possible that he won’t ever evidence the requisite desire and prey drive for them, even with exposure. I am told some bird dogs never do. But, we’ll keep at it to see if the light comes on - they are, after all, his single best opportunity to regularly make contact with wild birds and progress in all that wild birds can teach him in the great Commonwealth of Virginia, with no real competition from other species other than a rare grouse or, perhaps more rare still (at least in my experience), wild bobwhite quail. In addition to just continuing to take him out for opportunities to encounter woodcock with experienced dogs, I’m also trying another strategy in our weekly non-hunting training sessions. I submit the following video much more as a depiction of my own superstitious hope for a mudbat light bulb moment with Lincoln than a proven training strategy (it most certainly isn’t), but I figure that semi-regularly retrieving a bumper scented with woodcock at least won’t set us back in that goal:
7) A somewhat surprising thought: “Cooked properly, timberdoodles are so much better than some make them out to be.” Woodcock don’t have the greatest reputation as a source of meat. But, I’m here to tell you, cooked carefully from rare to just shy of medium-rare, they can be as tasty and gratifying (with similar flavor, even) as a high-quality beef filet cooked to the same degree. Overcooked, however, I am told they taste like pungent liver or organ meat - hence the reputation they often have as poor table fare. Somewhat counterintuitive for me, their breast meat is dark meat and their leg meat is white, befitting the vascular infrastructure and incredible energy required in their breast and wing muscle to traverse thousands of migratory miles annually.
I’ll save a few more related thoughts on the ethics of hunting and my chosen form of it, bird hunting, for a subsequent post, but do want to stress that It is very important to me that every bird I harvest, wild or otherwise, be utilized, ideally as food and sustenance, but also for other significant and worthwhile purposes, whether that be frozen as a training tool for a bird dog or fly-tying or anything else that would ensure the body of the creature harvested is employed for a dignified purpose befitting the act of an ethical harvest. What parts of the bird’s carcass I don’t use in those ways, I try and always dispose of in a dignified fashion, most ideally returning it to the earth via burial. And so it was with this my first bird. Its wings and heart were used for helping to further introduce Lincoln to this delightful game bird for him to hopefully one day point. The breast and leg meats were then consumed together with the other birds harvested that day in a celebratory holiday meal attended by me, Heather, and Chip and Justin and their spouses, Caren and Tiffany. Chip provided the venue and the recipe (which he had obtained from his epicurean friend, Cort Grubb), Justin and I joined Chip in plucking and cleaning the birds, and we all joined together in celebrating friendship and our collective appreciation for a representative sampling of these mysterious forest denizens. I can think of no better way to celebrate the bird, the friends in whose company I was privileged to take it, and the superstar cast of dogs who joined and aided us in our pursuit than that meal.
Please join with me in appreciating this, my first harvested wild bird, together with Justin’s first woodcock, and Chip’s first Virginia woodcocks, in their incarnation as delectable table fare, presented for your consideration in recipe form (see instructions in captions and on the photos, as documented via story at Justin’s Instagram account):