Upland Game Birds Of North America: An Overview
The North American grouses are the continent’s pre-eminent native game birds. They fall under the subfamily Tetraoninae, and are collected into several distinct species. These species include the Spruce Grouse, Blue (Dusky/Sooty) Grouse, Willow, Rock, and White-tailed Ptarmigan, Ruffed Grouse, Sage Grouse, Gunnison (Sage) Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater and Lesser Prairie Chicken. These birds have a wide dispersal across North America, and frequent a range of habitats. The Grouses are wild in the purest sense, and have universally resisted domestication. They are distinguished from their cousins the partridges by small feathers in the nostrils, and legs feathered to the toes. Differing species inhabit woodlands and grasslands from the sub-arctic to the high plains desert. The North American Grouses are wild game birds emblematic of the unrestrained and undeveloped country still extant in parts of the continent.
The Grouses vary in behavior in response to habitat, and cover type often dictates how they are best hunted. That said, the majority are pursued equally well with either a flushing or pointing dog. As table fare, grouse vary from species to species. Spruce and Sage Grouse are known for meat flavored heavily by their namesake food sources, whereas Ruffed Grouse have a sweet white meat not dissimilar to lean chicken. Sharptail and Ptarmigan meat is richer and darker in color, retaining a ‘gamier’ flavor nearly reminiscent of duck. All grouse, prepared properly, are prized on the plate.
Forest grouse can be successfully taken with a twenty or even twenty-eight gauge shotgun, but prairie and tundra birds require something bigger; many a Sharptail has fallen to the sixteen or twelve gauge gun. Shot size for Ruffed grouse in the New England woods can be as small as #8, but open land grouse require #6 shot and moderate chokes for clean shooting. One famed New England shooter always loads his second barrel with #4 shot, thinking that the second shot will require deep penetration at a distant bird. His sage opinion is that a hard-hitting single pellet is far better than a smattering of small shot that lacks killing power.
Common or Ring-Necked pheasants are perhaps the most widely-recognized upland game birds in the world. They are highly sought after for the sport they present, as well as their quality as table fare. A cock pheasant is a large, beautiful, vibrant bird whose wild populations are universally supplemented by pen-raised or farmed specimens.
Ironically, though pheasants may be the iconic game bird of North America, they are a non-native species. With origins in China and East Asia, pheasants have been introduced around the world, with initial North American stocking taking place in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1881. This initial stocking was accomplished by then US Consul (to China) Owen Nickerson Denny, who could only have guessed at the future of pheasants in North America. Wild reproduction of pheasants took off successfully throughout agricultural regions, and state stockings of these birds have maintained them as a game species throughout that range. Hybrids and melanistic mutations of the Common Pheasant are sometimes seen, but by and large these birds appear in typical form throughout farmlands, wetland edges, and grain-rich regions of North America. They are the most commonly used game bird for preserve-style and driven hunts.
Wild or assimilated pheasants have a tendency to run in thin cover. They often sneak ahead of advancing hunters, and can prove challenging for a pointing dog to pin. In most areas, gaudily-colored cock birds are legally taken while hens are protected. If the ornamentation of the cock pheasant were not enough to set it apart in flight, males often cackle loudly when flushing; their long tail feathers create a large silhouette, a feature which, along with the boisterous flush, can make for a challenging target, in that there is an awful lot of a pheasant to make sense of. In many areas, flushing dogs such as Labs and Springer spaniels are preferred for hard-running pheasants, though pen-raised cock birds and hens can hold well for a pointing dog.
Owing to their predilection for grain, pheasants make a beloved game meat for the home kitchen. Their flavor varies a bit based on diet, but the substantial breast is white meat resembling lean chicken. Legs are edible but sinewy, and must be prepared accordingly; stewing or braising is the preferred method.
Pheasants are best taken with a moderately-choked twelve or sixteen gauge gun, filled with #6 shot.
Though genetically similar to our native grouses, our North American partridges are Eurasian transplants that include the Grey or Hungarian Partridge, the Chukar Partridge, and the Himalayan Snowcock. The Grey Partridge or Hun is a cherished ‘wild’ game bird of the North American uplands, with largest populations occurring through the grain belt of the upper Midwest and Mountain west. Huns prefer cool and dry grasslands and cultivated grain fields, and they have a noted predilection for wheat as a food source. Despite the name, Huns are decidedly more rusty brown than gray, and females are slightly paler in coloration than males, and lack their distinctive mahogany chest patch. They tend to be found in groups or ‘coveys’, and once dispersed will re-call the covey with a series of scratchy ‘kut-kut-kut’ vocalizations.
Slightly larger than the Hun, and far more identifiable, is the Chukar partridge. Chukars in North America were transplanted from their native Eurasian range, with initial US stocks arriving from Afghanistan and Nepal. The Chukar has been widely introduced to rocky, semi-arid regions across the globe, and is a common game bird of preserves and stocked hunting grounds. In the wild, these birds exist primarily in the rocky hill country of the American Wwest, where they form coveys of ten or more individuals. They are brownish varying to distinct gray across back and breast, with characteristic black barring on the flanks, and a striking black mask or ‘gorget’ over the eyes. Chukars, like their nearest cousins the Rock Partridge and Red-legged Partridge, have featherless red legs. In typical cover, they prefer to flush downhill and run up. Hunters in Chukar country should be prepared to wear out some boot leather.
The Himalayan Snowcock is also a transplant from the Eurasian high country, and isolated populations of US birds occur in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. Few North American hunters pursue Snowcock, and those who do rarely take them on the wing. That said, they can be hunted over dogs, and powerful, hard-going Labs are likely the best choice.
Partridge are hunted well over pointers or flushers, though in the case of Chukars, a steady retrieving dog can be essential. Steep terrain obligates a dog that will return shot birds to hand, as the environs that Chukar frequent are steep and deep. Flushes occur downhill and into canyons, so retrieves can be both tiresome and treacherous. That said, most partridge hold well for a pointing dog.
Partridge meat is delicious and copious, depending upon diet. As foragers, partridge tend to exist on grains, seeds, and insects, and their meat is light in color and moderately rich. Breast meat is white, legs and thighs slightly darker.
Partridges can be taken with guns twenty gauge and larger, but in open country, a twelve gauge can be a godsend. That said, partridge require some walking, so choose your gun wisely with regard to weight. #7.5 and #6 shot should suffice, though Snowcock necessitate something larger. Moderate to open chokes should work well on these fast-flushing birds.
Among North America’s most recognizable native game birds are the quails, with the Northern Bobwhite quail being the most familiar. Beloved for its namesake call, Bobwhites were once widely distributed through the grasslands and pine forests of the east. They are the only small Galliforme native to this region, and have seen a rapid decline in recent years due to changing agricultural and land-use practices, and the growing dispersal of non-native fire ants. Bobwhites are, like all quail, a ground-dwelling, coveying bird with a strong communal instinct. When properly conditioned, their flush is explosive and startling; they are commonly pen-raised and released for the purpose of preserve-style upland hunting.
The other quails are similarly small-ish game birds primarily found in the mountains and deserts of the American West. These include the California (Valley), Mountain, Gambel’s, Scaled (Blue), and Mearns (Montezuma) Quails. All of these birds form ground-dwelling groups or coveys. Each has a particular range and habitat, with some overlap occurring between species. Gambel’s, Valley, and Mountain quail each show a distinctive plume or top-knot that makes them readily identifiable.
Quails are hunted most frequently over pointing dogs, though their tendency to hold tight in thick cover makes an accompanying flushing dog a benefit. English Cockers have become a beloved companion of dedicated quail hunters, as they will put coveys of pointed birds into rapid flight, once a duo or more of pointers has the covey pinned. Increasingly, Cockers are finding favor on the storied quail plantations of the southeastern US.
Quail prove excellent on the plate. They are small, but delicate in flavor, composed of ample white meat. They are thin-skinned as well, and despite their rapid initial flush or ‘covey rise’, they are killed at relatively close range. Twenty and twenty-eight gauge guns perform well on quail, and some shooters even swear by the diminutive .410. Shot sizes #7.5 to #9 are adequate, and open chokes are preferred.
Beloved in their range, the American Woodcock also goes by a host of colloquial pseudonyms, namely Timberdoodle, Mud Bat, Bogsucker, etc. It is a quirky little bird, designated officially as a shorebird, but found in moist uplands across eastern North America. The American Woodcock migrates extensively with the changing season, spending winter months as far south as Louisiana, and summer nesting months deep into the Canadian Maritimes. Migration occurs largely at night, and groups or ‘flights’ of woodcock will descend upon a piece of cover seemingly out of the blue during migration. The Woodcock’s diet consists almost exclusively of invertebrates and earthworms, probed from the soil with a distinctively long, prehensile bill.
The Woodcock is unmistakable in the uplands, though it does resemble the Common Snipe, which prefers marshy wetlands. Diminutive in size, these game birds have a mottled black and brown plumage that makes them almost invisible within their native habitat. The bill is nearly as long as the entire body, and large eyes are positioned high on the head for maximum range of visibility. This remarkable visual capability of the Woodcock enables an awareness of threats while the bird plunges its bill into the soil in search of food. Due to habitat loss, Woodcock numbers have been in steady decline since the 1960’s. In the North, they are often found in conjunction with Ruffed Grouse, whose habitat needs are similar.
From the palatability standpoint, Woodcock meat is like Dr. Pepper: you either love it or hate it. The small breast is dark and livery in flavor, with a rich and earthy undertone. The legs of the Woodcock are, ironically, the only white meat on the bird. Historically, the entrails of the Woodcock are prepared inside the bird, and the head remains intact, with the long bill piercing the thighs. The intestine or ‘trail’ can be served alongside the heart and liver on a toast round, and the brain too can be eaten by the gastronomically adventuresome.
Being a small, thin-skinned bird, Woodcock do not need much killing. If hunted exclusively, a twenty-eight gauge with open chokes is more than ample, loaded with #9 shot. If hunted alongside grouse, beware that a close-quarters encounter with large shot and tight chokes can devastate a woodcock, and turn a beautiful bird into a palm-full of livery burger.
Though not hunted in a traditional ‘upland’ sense, namely over pointing or flushing dogs, the doves are a longstanding favorite of the North American game birds. Doves are typically pass-shot, that is to say, shot as they fly to and from the roost, or as they descend onto agricultural fields. Doves exhibit a remarkable dexterity on the wing, and owing to flight speeds upward of 40 mph, they are highly regarded by wingshooters. The most common and most-hunted of the North American doves is the Mourning Dove, which has distribution throughout the US and much of Canada.
Fast-flying doves require no particular dog work, and can be hunted from a sedentary position. Hidden on field edges, gunners swing through darting doves and miss at an alarming rate. Twelve gauge guns on down to twentys are suitable, as is #7.5 shot. Dove breasts are quite small, but when stuffed with a pickled jalapeno, wrapped in bacon, and grilled till the bacon is crisp, they are a sublime afternoon meal.
The prevalence of any aforementioned North American game bird species depends almost entirely on location. The New England bird hunter will have access to Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock as common native wild birds, with a smattering of introduced Pheasants and Bobwhite quail on public lands. In the Southwest, desert quail will be the predominate species, with doves and potentially some pheasants thrown in. Shooting preserves across the continent tend to focus on an offering that includes pheasants, Chukar partridge, and Bobwhite quail. Himalayan Snowcock are found only among the high peaks of Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. On shooting preserves, the triumvirate of Pheasants, Chukar, and Bobwhite quail is by far the most common. Regardless of region, upland game birds in North America either wild or stocked, provide shooting opportunities for the aspiring hunter.