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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

Wisconsin’s Wild Birds

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Hunting for food, one of the most primitive of human activities, is a way of life that is largely disappearing from America’s modern fast-food society. Everything we need to nourish ourselves can be found in a grocery store, no killing or cleaning necessary. But that doesn’t stop the hunting enthusiasts still out there from seeking a unique experience and finding sustenance in the American wilds.

The great state of Wisconsin abounds with wild fish and game, and it maintains a strong hunting heritage. To preserve, protect, manage and maintain Wisconsin’s beautiful outdoors, the Department of Natural Resources is responsible for implementing the state’s laws, which include regulations related to hunting, trapping and fishing.

This Saturday marks open season in most areas of the state on upland game birds such as sharp-tailed and ruffed grouse, Hungarian partridge, bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasant—wild birds that, when prepared well, can be absolutely delectable.

Upland bird hunters typically target the species of bird they want, and hunt in an area known as its habitat. Northern Wisconsin is prime real estate for grouse—so much so that Park Falls has deemed itself “The Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World.” Ruffed grouse are built for short bursts of flight and spend most of the day on the forest floor, occasionally flying with a telltale whir to the lowest limbs of aspen, pine and oak trees to nibble on their buds.

When it comes to white or dark meat, coloration depends on muscle use. An animal’s meat becomes dark because the more a muscle is used the more the muscle maintains a reliable, heavy blood supply to keep it oxygenated. Because of this, ruffed grouse legs consist of dark meat (since they run more than fly) and their breast meat is pale, tender and mild.

Diet also affects a bird’s taste. The ruffed grouse’s kin from the prairie, the sharp-tailed grouse, is stronger tasting because it eats wild sage, which contains pitch oil called creosote.

Bobwhite quail make their territory along shrubby fence lines and borders where woods adjoin grasslands and pastures. Quail is made up of mostly light meat, but because they have to fly to find food and escape predators, their breast meat tends to be darker than their legs. Hungarian partridges, too, live in open farm country. They not only fly from field to field, but they also migrate in the winter, so their meat tends to run on the dark side.

The ring-necked pheasant, a Eurasian native introduced to Wisconsin in the late-19th century, can be found in open farmland in the southeast one-third of the state and in a few west-central counties. Because there are so few wild pheasants, and because they won’t fly until forced, most hunters use bird dogs to help them flush the birds into the open. Similar to grouse but larger, pheasants have mostly lean white breast meat with dark meat on the legs.

Whichever of these upland creatures you choose to hunt, their steady diet of fruit and grain means you’ll be eating a tasty, flavorful bird. Wisconsin Wildfoods author John Motoviloff suggests removing the entrails from the bird as soon as possible if the weather is warm (in cold weather it can wait until you get back to camp). Once plucked or skinned (and possibly aged), these birds can be stuffed, roasted and grilled to perfection.

And the hunters, their skin scratched by berry bushes and bitten by bugs after waiting quietly for their prey, will have a unique perspective on what it means to know their food.