It is near freezing, but I am warm. It is a beautiful fall day in upstate New York – apples falling, crisp air, blue sky. I can’t focus on that at the moment though, for I must concentrate on my footing, the branches lashing my face, the distant sound of a bell marking the dog’s location.
The bell stops, starts again, stops again. Is this the one? I drop to one knee, attempting to locate a white flash against the darkness of the underbrush. False alarm – the bell tinkles its merry way through the undergrowth. I walk on, when the sudden rustle of wings explodes over my shoulder – safety off, cheek to wood, BOOM!
I missed. I am a terrible shot. Ruffed Grouse are hard to find, and easy to miss – as they say, that’s why it’s called hunting, not killing. I was introduced to bird hunting as a teen, and I have done it every fall since. It means many things to me – a respite from city life, a chance to be outside, work with the dog, and of course the possibility of eating something delicious.
When we are lucky enough to take a bird, I like to brown the breasts quickly in a hot pan, deglaze with white wine, and add sliced shallots. The flavor is unlike anything else – rich, earthy, intense – tasting of every berry and nut picked up from the forest floor. Wild Grouse is every bit as sophisticated in flavor as caviar, foie gras, and lobster – NYC restaurateurs fly them in from Scotland every summer for a reason after all.
While most people understand the desire to eat something delicious, I think fewer understand the desire to hunt. Hunting is associated (by many urban people) with a certain lack of refinement, or provincialism – and while no one would argue that crossing streams, pushing through thickets, and hiking up hillsides in full gear is dignified, I suggest that hunting well requires a different sort of sophistication. You have to know your quarry: what he eats, where he sleeps, the signs of his passing, where he spends his days. You must train a dog to point and track while not flushing the bird too soon. Finally, one must be able to hit a difficult target at a moment’s notice – a skill I have yet to really acquire.
Another objection to hunting is the violence itself – often from people who have no problem buying chicken at the grocery store. However, unlike Deer, Grouse usually have the advantage over their pursuers – they know where you are, and they will not fly unless they must. When they fly, they do so very quickly and rarely in a straight line. To say they are difficult to bag is akin to saying that Google is a moderately successful start-up. So, not much actual shooting happens, much less killing.
Instead of the killing, I think most bird hunters focus on the adventure. There is something exciting about walking deep into the woods in search of elusive prey – seeing what most people will never see, learning about the forest and its rhythms. If you are lucky, you take a bird home. If not, you were still out in the woods, far from work, stress, and email. For me, this is an adventure well worth embarking upon.