Gamebirds

by Rex Burress

On the way to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area one fine November day, I saw a sign by the roadside announcing "Gamebirds Processed Here." Although I knew the reference was to cleaning bagged birds like quail, ducks, and pheasants as allowed by game laws, the word struck me as peculiar. I do not think those birds consider being shot at with powerful guns as a game.

That gamebird processing is the end result of the hunt when feathers are stripped and entrails removed. It happens to chickens, too, without the hunt. During the pheasant season at Gray Lodge, when hundreds of campers park in the visitors lot, they place barrels around the yard where hunters can de-feather their birds. Those feathers are beautiful but become discarded. Actually, it is illegal to keep migratory bird feathers, including flicker feathers, and especially birds of prey. Taxidermists need a permit to mount a legally killed game bird - that is, a bird killed by a hunter with a license. The name of the game is money. I wonder when they will license birdwatchers?

This whole thing about hunting certain fast-flying birds as a game that hunters play to the tune of big bucks is rather remarkable. It all centers around the gun, of course, "the implement that won the west," handed down from a time when that long steel barrel was a means of survival. Now it's (mostly) directed at animals that are called game animals in the country's game law codes.

Webster defines game, as in hunting, as "wild birds, fish, or animals hunted for sport or for use as food." To define sportsmanship, as in hunters following rules, the word "sport" also needs to be examined. The dictionary says sport is "any form of play amusement that gives enjoyment." So the duck hunter out there in the cold swamp, shivering as he watches the sky for ducks - hungry, and cold as he clutches that cold steel - is having enjoyment! Or the quail hunter plowing through stickery brambles in wild weather is having enjoyment! Perhaps the hunter will tell you that most of the enjoyment is being in the out-of-doors. Perhaps Cabellas Sporting Goods Store will tell you that there is enjoyment in selling hunting gear to the hunter!

In that same game section in the dictionary, there is "big game," as in deer and elk, and "game cock," as in rooster chicken fighting. Of course, game is the name of a multitude of ball sports - baseball, football, basketball - and the toy stores are full of "chess-like" games. It was a marble-bird game that the Missouri game warden gave me in grade school that inspired me on to nature connections. You can play games at casinos, too!

I was down by the riverside one foggy November morning, and a group of expert bird watchers from Audubon clubs, including birder extraordinaire John T. Lewis, were set-up with $1,500 telescopes aimed at a cluster of salmon-eating gulls on the gravel bar. They had seen and listed Mew Gulls and Barrow's Goldeneye in their mental bag, and I heard one rugged bird-viewing watcher in his camos, who had listed over 200 species in California, remark that it all was a game. Two kinds of game bird hunters - one out for bodies and one for the book. Bullets and ballpoints.

On the Missouri farm it was bobwhite quail as the chief game bird in the rural community. When the waterfowl passed through, there was a certain take of ducks on the back-pasture pond, and one time Dad bagged a lone Canada Goose. Dad was a crack shot in hitting quail but I could never seem to connect with my single shot .16 gauge.

Once we were hunting the buckbrush for quail, and a lone male Mallard rose laboriously from the thick cover right in front of us. I fired my shell and missed. Maybe it was due to "drake fever," the same as Dad had gun-jamming sessions every deer season when the big buck was in the open. Dad fired at that duck, but he, too, missed, and I suspect it was in sympathy to my poor showing.

There was excitement in searching the autumnal Midwest woods and fields in search of game where there was a certain atmosphere of crisp air, tawny leaves, wildlife, and hazy horizons that enveloped the hunter with vistas of beauty. The roar of bobwhite quail taking off, or the experience of stalking a red fox in the ripgut, or even the bawl of the hounds on a coon trail at night were part of that outdoor game.

I was delighted to see nephew relatives start a bobwhite quail ranch - not in Missouri but right at the outskirts of Oroville, California - giving me a chance to see and hear that beautiful bird of my past. Linda and Kevin raise thousands of those pert Northern Bobwhites for distribution to hunting clubs, delivering them all over the west, satisfying customers who want a speedy bird to challenge their guns and dogs, and the managed usage thereby supplements wild stock. Their quail project is good for the environment!

So I see beautiful game birds when I go down to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area - hundreds of thousands of brilliantly white Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and a dozen species of ducks. They flock to the refuge sector, wise to hunter tactics, and band together in mutual survival. The bird watcher can watch and the hunter can shoot his legal limit of the surplus in the hunting sector - something for everyone!

I also see the California Quail go scampering across the road and sailing over the fields in a quail-style common to all quail. The Ring-necked Pheasants strut along the edge of the fields, exploding away from danger. And even the innocent-looking Mourning Dove is a speedy game bird. The challenge of a hunter hitting those fleeting targets has put the fear of man into those wild creatures, and resulted in a deadly game for the birds. If birds could shoot back, it might be a different story! The ultimate game is to go afield and rejoice in the wonders of the wild land. A conquered trophy is an edible bonus for those hunters who pursue the trail of the game bird with guns rather than binoculars.

2002 Rex Burress
November 16, 2002