Here at the Farm, spring begins with our annual 'Woodcock Walks' where we sneak through forest and field in search of the male Woodcock who has returned from the south to do his dramatic mating display. I always wish him luck in his endeavors, because I love Woodcock for many reasons. One of these is for a warm autumn meal.
The Woodcocks life begins as soon as it hatches. It is fully feathered and ready to stumble around looking for food, which is 90% earthworms. They hang out with mom and their bros and sis's until they fledge and take off on their own. Usually they don't go far, but some spend the summer traveling about the eastern United States. I suppose its the same wanderlust that strikes so many youths fresh out from under their parent's wing. In the fall they migrate from the upper part of the Eastern U.S. and southern Canada to the Southeast. I like to imagine them this time of year, traveling under the cover of darkness, navigating by the stars and forever weary of the eyes of owls and stealthy cats.
Mystery has always surrounded this nocturnal and well-camouflaged denizen of the forest. Woodcocks have been called the "least understood and seen" of our game birds. When it is spotted, it is often just a fleeting glance as it escapes back into solitude.
It has been said that the first Woodcock was once a tiny partridge who was out-competed by her siblings due to her short beak and was slowly starving to death. The Virgin Mary took pity on this lonely bird and, bringing her to heaven, placed three fingers on her feathered forehead and blessed her to be a solitary keeper of the forest. Her beak lengthened and three patches formed on the brow of the bird and are known now as "the Virgin's Fingers." She flew back to the Earth and watches over her forest haunts where she is known by many names: Woodcock, timberdoodle or meme (Anishinaabemowin) in my area. To the ornithologist she is Scolopax minor. The Germans call her Schepfe, meaning 'beak.' To the Spanish she is la ciega, the blind hen. In France she is known as La Becasse, Lady of Velvet Eyes, Queen of the Woods, Enigmatic Gypsy, the Divine One, and Sorceress.
|A brace of timberdoodles|
Most Woodcock are hunted with the aid of dogs. I've read that if you don't have well trained bird dogs, you'd better hunt something else. But I don't have bird dogs, money to keep them nor patience to train them. So I hunt solo, trudging through likely habitat waiting for the distinctive trill of their flushing wingbeats. I have about a 1 to 3 second window in which I must train my 20 gauge New England Pardner onto the bird and calmly pull the trigger. It takes some practice, and I definitely miss a lot. But when the shot is right on and a bird is in hand (or pocket) there is no greater feeling. It erases all those perfect flushes and horrible shots that made you look a-fool out of your mind.
During the off-season when I hear that trill, without thought or hesitation I draw my imaginary shotgun. I wish I could just look at the flushing bird and smile, but I've trained myself and have to be much faster on the draw than those with dogs, who locate the bird for their masters who then have the dogs flush it. They know right where the bird is at before they fly. They can down a dozen or more birds in one hunt. I'm lucky to even flush five.
I wouldn't have it any other way. My best hunting grounds are right out my back door, literally a stones throw. The poplar leaves tremble and fall all around me, chickadees hang from nannyberry clusters. Cotton tufts bounce hurriedly away, attached to another of my prey whom I hunt only after a hard frost. Just when I'm giving up, an excited singing flutter erupts from beneath a feral apple tree, a shot is fired and the bird dies in mid air and falls into the brittle and brown goldenrod. After the bird is found, apologies are made and its beauty is appreciated as it is turned over in hand. This is when I start to think about supper. But not for several days, they say it is best to age a Woodcock under cool conditions.
"...not eyes to dwell on if one intends to keep hunting."
-Guy de la Valdene, Making Game: an Essay on Woodcock
They are basted in butter or lard and roasted at high heat, 475 F for 13 minutes. Once removed I spooned out the trail where I found the gizzard and removed it then. I then added the trail to a small skillet with leeks, a dollop of butter and splash of red wine. Simmered for about 10 minutes it turned mostly into a paste. The only thing that was left recognizable were the hearts.
The flesh of Woodcock is divine. This one was shot in late October making it buttery-fat. The breast meat is deep red, like duck. I've heard many say it tastes like liver and read that if it does, you are cooking it wrong. The legs are white meat and were creamy and oily from the fat reserves it was building for its great migration to the south.
Trail-on-toast. The results were good. It very rich and earthy. A bit of an iron flavor that was expected. A little mealy like the texture of liver, but I like liver.
The finale. Spreading the beak apart, the skull is broken, revealing the brain which is then scooped out with the lower mandible, and eaten. With relish, mind you.
The brain proved excellent. Very creamy and buttery, rich and hearty.
Well, there you have it. Waste not, want not. La becasse complete.