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Section 799.2 – Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock

My woodcock appeared on a gilded plate, alongside a sprig of watercress and a shock of straw-colored french fries. He sat with his head tucked under his wing on top of a square of toasted white bread over which was spooned a dark purée. The French waiter ceremoniously swept away my empty soup bowl and neatly replaced it with “une bécasse pour monsieur.” I was ten years old.

It looked okay, a little like squab, except that for some ungodly reason someone had forgotten to dispatch its head. Not knowing what to do, I looked to my father for guidance. He had selected a species of perch, a prisoner of the deep waters of Lac d'Anecy, and had already deboned it. He laughed and advised, “Pretend you're Robespierre and cut it off. Then if you feel ambitious, pinch its bill and bite off the top of its head. The brain is what you want.” It was an ambition I did not share, but the bird was delicious. I finished it with my fingers, much to the disapproval of the waiter. Visible through the nuisance of a few bones was a hunting scene baked into the plate, depicting a Gordon setter on point and a farm girl reclining on a haystack with her thumb in her mouth. I discovered the woodcock, nestled beneath her petticoats in the swale of a thigh. Facing me at the bottom of the plate, the inscription read “Quelle bécasse!” In France addled young girls are sometimes called bécasses.

My father congratulated me. “Didn't think you'd eat the toast and trail.”

“Trail?”

“Insides. You know — the intestines.”

“You mean the ‘caca?’”

He laughed. He loved to laugh, and he loved good food, but he didn't like to hunt. He'd done that in airplanes for three years in one war and twentyfive years later as a member of the Free French. He wouldn't shoot things that didn't shoot back. He's dead now. I've never been to war, and I bird-hunt.

I wrote this book for two reasons: First, I was interested in finding out more about a bird I hunt every fall, and secondly, I hoped that I would resolve my reasons for hunting in the first place. I accomplished the first and failed the second.

My research took a year, and I used it as an excuse to follow a migration and see the country. During those months I met and corresponded with some very dedicated men and women. I also ran headlong into the cogwheels of government.

I began hunting at the age of seven. Thirty years later I regret the finality of it but know that whatever the ancestral urge is, it is very much with me. The morality behind hunting is buried beneath a dozen reasons, all of which are valid, but none of which ultimately satisfy me. It wouldn't occur to me to harm an animal unless I were actively hunting it. I condemn cruelty of any kind, and yet I have crippled more birds than most. The contradictions are hypocritical, but, even though I cannot explain them, I do not feel like a hypocrite. What I am is a bird-hunter, and for sanity's sake I will leave it at that.

The main thrust of the state and federal wildlife agencies is directed towards game of major interest to the public, i.e., ducks, pheasants and geese. Other game species are referred to as “secondary species.”

This book tells the story of a secondary species, an odd, reclusive bird who delights those who see him and fascinates those who study him. Scientists key his progression from the class of Aves to the genus and species of Scolopax minor. We know him as the American woodcock.

The woodcock’s masterful camouflage is but one of its qualities that endears it to upland bird hunters.

The woodcock’s plumage deserves special attention. Overall, it is not unlike the color of freshly killed brown trout or the skin of certain reptiles, but a glance at medieval North Africa or the presence of a seventeenth-century Flemish canvas also reminds one of the subtle beauty that exudes from this relic of another age whose survival depends on camouflage. Both male and female have identical coloration, and, except when young or during the molt, it remains constant during the seasons. The feathers, woven like braclets on an artichoke, are at times suffused and at other times notched, barred, edged and tipped in kaleidoscopic patterns, incredibly specific and purposeful.

Spring probes the imagination by tacking from gloom to color, from apathy to the naiveté of revery, and by insinuating an inkling of clarity into the dull haze of hibernation. Her promise of life, of revelry, of natural beauty is deliberate, sometimes palpable, other times so faint as to be mistaken for a passing fancy. Her curtain may loiter in midstream, only to reopen momentarily on the breast of a goldfinch ordescend under the weight of a grey rain, all the time uprooting and tempting, taunting and promising theinevitable, until one morning, for no apparent reason, dawn sighs and a flushed breath of air warms the earth. Spring is the breakfast of the year. …

Lake Leelanau was my first stop on a drive that would take me north to Sault Ste. Marie, across Canada to Rivière du Loup, south through New Brunswick to Calais, Maine, and down the Eastern Seaboard back to Florida. The purpose of the trip was to observe the woodcock’s courtship, band as many broods as possible, and generally learn to think and view the bird in a light other than fall’s. Jim Harrison, poet and bon vivant, lives with his family in Lake Leelanau, and I have been their guest every Octoberfor twelve years. It was only natural that I should return to an area I knew and to a house that felt kinto mine. My travelling companion was my Labrador bitch. It was unthinkable to leave her behind, particularly as I was returning to the first place we had hunted together a decade ago. …

Jim Harrison’s house is full of books, paintings, cats and dogs. Its belly is the cellar, and its heart the kitchen. We have been friends for a long time, a friendship Balzacian by nature that prompts us out of bed with food on our minds, attracts us to European novels, wines and the ever-intriguing variances in women. We look forward to autumn, to our seasonal dependence on dogs, fine guns, and the making of game.

“Once upon a time,” the story is told, a covey of grey partridge roamed the plains of Zair. Among them a small, pitiful individual feebly vegetated while her powerful brothers and sisters ridiculed her, keeping the best grain and insects for themselves. To survive, the little partridge was reduced to seeking minute morsels of food in the fissures of rocks and hard-toget- at places. Unfortunately, her short beak did not always allow her to reach her food, and she grew weaker.

The Virgin Mary, witnessing her misery from paradise, was saddened and called her to heaven. The partridge curled up in her hand and listened as the Virgin said, “Little bird, I am going to transform you, so that you may know the joys of life. Thrown out by your kind, you will now live alone in serenity of the forests, where along with silence you will also find an abundance of food. You will be the elegant hostess of the underbrush and will generate the admiration of those who love nature. Your capricious flight and your intelligent defenses will allow you to escape your pursuers. I will protect you.”

The virgin laid three fingers on the little bird’s head, leaving three brown transversal imprints now called the “Virgin’s fingers.” Her beak lengthened, her plumage took on a golden hue, and she flew back to earth as guardian of the forests.

So was born the woodcock, also called “Our Lady of the Woods.”

A woodcock sketch by Russell Chatham, one of several to be found in the Clark City Press edition of Making Game... (Photo/Bob DeMott)

Juvenal named her Rara avis, rare bird, and reading through the cynegetic literature of Europe I found that since the beginning of time woodcock have been praised by writers, poets and artists. Figures of the birds are stamped on Gallic coins dating back to the seventh century after Christ, and at least five European families feature woodcock on their coat of arms. Seventeenth century still lifes by Jean Deportes and the Flemish painter Jean Feydt depict the bird, as do stamps, money and porcelain since the fifteen hundreds. Finally, at least two French wines, a Chateau la Bécasse from the Medoc and a Tavel, Domaine de la Mordorée, render the bird homage.

Fall belongs to the hunter, if for no other reason than that winter demands it. Energy being a matter of survival, one of the agenda items for birds preparing to migrate or already in the process of migration is an intense accumulation of fat. Small birds on cold nights apply most of their strength to keeping warm and must feed energy back into their systems the next day or die...

Light in weight after the August molt, the birds are compelled to fortify their systems before heading south. What is puzzling, however, is that they don’t achieve travelling weight until sometime in October. One might expect that by the third week in September resident birds with little to do but rest and feed would be in prime condition, but such is not the case.

For some reason, it isn’t until the flights start that the thick fingers of fat that run down either side of the bird’s breast and under its wings turn into fuel tanks. In fact, even though the bird is for all intents and purposes migrating, the later he remains North, the fatter he becomes. One might argue that the late summer months are usually dry and not congenial to worms, but I have shot woodcock in Michigan on the first of October following an unseasonably wet September and never plucked a plump one. Two weeks later, having cleaned dozens, including individuals with worms in their throats, the pinfeathers have flourished and the bird has become all but self-basting...

It is a pleasure to cook at Jim’s house because, other than the fact that his knives are always in need of sharpening, everything else is available and within easy reach. Nothing that might be used in a stock is ever thrown away. Night after night the wild and tame aroma of fowl and rabbit, veal knuckles and meat bones, vegetables and spices overpowers the house. Stocks are reheated two and three times before being strained, and after they are reduced they are dark and bracing.

The texture of woodcock hunting is lost without a dog. Through the nose of a good one, the chase and the kill are classically dramatized. The flow of action follows an inevitable course, premeditated and acted upon in collaboration. Charley Waterman loosely classifies sportsmen into three categories: The shooters, the hunters and the dog men. I have been all three but will no longer hunt or shoot alone. My love of the sport demands companionship other than human. I have always owned a dog and would feel naked and ashamed of killing birds without one. The nagging aura of indulgence that more and more shadows my hunting prompts the need for a scapegoat. As an active partner in the paradox, my dog fills the requirements.

A bottle of Domaine de la Mordorée, one of two French wines that pay tribute to the woodcock. (Photo/Bob DeMott)

She’s an old yellow Labrador bitch who has outlived three cars and who in ten seasons has travelled one hundred and eighty thousand miles to and from cover. She is not particularly good-looking, and other than when hunting she is awkward. Elevators and slippery floors worry her, and she walks on or in them stiffly, with her tail tucked between her legs. She is easily confused and when so hangs her head like an ostrich and implores help by raising her eyes. She stares lugubriously and for too long into full-length mirrors, snores when stroked, sleeps unless hunting, and enjoys turning over garbage cans. Her coat is velvety soft. She is inordinately deepchestedand used to be strong. She now is very wise...

My dog is best at flushing and retrieving grouse and woodcock. Her range is short, her nose long, and she works to cover. When she’s working game, her demeanor reveals the quarry. She favors grouse because they smell good, and she works them in a tight, jerky fashion until they flush. Woodcock scent is more localized, and the sudden aroma bends her into comical contortions. Rabbits shame her every time by running away.

A man can grouse-hunt without a dog and expect to do very well. In fact, unless he is using a good dog, he is better off without one. Grouse get nervous; woodcock don’t, and without some prompting they simply let a man walk by.

In the fall of the year, woodcock can be followed and hunted along their migration routes. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)
Section 799.2 is the area in a library that houses hunting literature. Please join us here each issue for more of the same.

Guy de la Valdène