I had planned a fun conversation with my Muse, Lorelei, today. I’m skipping over that. She usually shows up during long lonely drives, but I decided something else was more interesting.
I hit the road about 6:30 this morning. It’s always fun getting out early, because of the wildlife. I saw herds of antelope, including a couple of big bucks. There was a flock of Hungarian partridge, one of quail, two coyotes, and one lone sage grouse.
I searched for a free picture of one, but alas, too unusual. This is a big grey grouse. The largest grouse in North America, and I kind of teared up when I saw him. The poor buggers belong on the endangered species list, but special interest keeps getting in the way.
When I was a kid, up to young man stage, I ate hundreds of these creatures. Before anyone goes ballistic, I honestly don’t think hunting had anything to do with their problems.
These guys eat sagebrush and other bird-like foods. Interesting side note, he’s the only bird I know of with a stomach and not a gizzard. Anyway, still a grouse.
Elko County is the forth largest county in the United States. When I was in school, I remember a census that said Elko the city had 6000 people. Therefore, imagine an ocean of sagebrush covering everything from California to Utah, there are several gigantic counties included here. This ocean was filled with what we called sage chickens. There were very few people to hunt them. Consider that 6000 census number, figure that includes children and non-hunters, and we couldn’t have damaged the chicken population if we waged war against them.
Opening day of the season was like Christmas to us. The season was in September and lasted ten days. That meant we got two weekends, but rarely used the last one.
Sage chickens are big, slow, and have a habit of flying one at a time rather than as a whole flock. It’s where everyone first learned to shoot a shotgun. Heaven forbid anyone shoot one on the ground, they’d be shamed out of camp.
Family would determine a place, haul out our campers, and make an event of it. We always had grandparents, their siblings, the second cousins, not to mention aunts, uncles, and first cousins. I can’t remember a camp with less than twenty people.
We usually drove through flocks of these guys on the way to camp, but the season wasn’t open until Saturday. Campers formed a semi-circle, multiple fire pits were built and dug extra deep for cooking.
Before sunup, we’d pile into various pickups and go different directions. Yes, we rode in the back and didn’t have seat belts either. Chickens were everywhere. All you had to do was find water, and there were plenty of small streams and stock ponds. All serious hunting was usually over by noon.
If you were too young, you still got to hike along the stunted willows and meadow grass while your parents did the hunting. Nothing wears the kids out like hiking in the sun with a gigantic grouse in each hand.
Cooking started right around lunchtime. This involved huge fires that we burned down to the embers. Then we shoveled the coals out to make room for the Dutch ovens.
As table fair, the old chicken is mediocre at best. It’s all dark meat and semi gamey. I prefer something like a ruffed grouse, chukar, or pheasant. Mom used to add potatoes, sautéed onions and garlic, usually something like carrots, then douse it with red wine. We buried the Dutch ovens in hot coals, top and bottom, then covered them with dirt. Only a long wire revealed where they were.
It was usually my grandmother who started looking around while counting on her fingers. “Could a couple of you go back out and get three more?” Grandmas are great for making sure everyone has enough to eat.
This was decision time. As a new hunter, of course you wanted to go back out. As a kid, there was usually a new comic book from Tremune’s store in Mountain City but that was risky. Grandma also had a habit of bringing out an old, hand-crank ice cream maker. If you didn’t go back out, you wound up cranking on that damned thing until you thought your arm would fall off.
We had one uncle who always managed to bring back a sack of elderberries. This always led to elderberry cobbler, and so everyone needed a spoonful of ice cream to go with that.
Dad always skipped the afternoon hunt. He was our resident Dutch oven bread baker. To tell you the truth, his bread was horrible. I remember one time when it wound up doughy inside and burnt on the outside. When he tossed it into the brush, the dog buried it. You know it’s bad when the dog won’t eat it. Mom saved the day when she converted him to Bisquick. Turned out Dad was capable of making one gigantic biscuit that we sliced up like cake from that point on.
You can leave the meal in the ground as long as you like. As long as it has liquid it will never burn. Along around sunset, we’d dig them up. Folding metal tables were pushed together and usually covered with a rubbery tablecloth held on by clothespins.
We ate like it was the most special meal of the year. People started telling stories about their hunt, past hunts, those folks no longer with us, and it went on deep into the night. More than once, pinochle cards came out and we had a big tournament.
As I look across the living room tonight at my mother, she and I are about the only ones left who remember. Her brothers are still with us, including the cobbler maker. Some of the first cousins are still around. So many of us are gone now.
What’s also gone is the sage chicken. He’s one of those unusual creatures that doesn’t ask much. He needs a variety of sagebrush, a lek for his springtime breeding display, and to be left alone. Other than that one weekend per year, nobody ever bothered them and they were everywhere.
Twenty years of droughts, range fires, followed by more range fires, and a deplorable practice of dragging logging chains behind Caterpillars to remove the sagebrush in favor of grass have about done the trick.
Creatures of the Great Basin are not grass dwellers. They need sagebrush to survive, particularly one actually named Big Sagebrush. Everything lives in it. Deer like to shade up in patches of it. Birds and mammals eat it. They don’t eat crested wheat, or take cover in it. Cattle won’t even eat the damned stuff, so I don’t understand why they’re destroying the sage for it.
Nevada did pull one stupid stunt as far as management goes. I can’t speak for other states. Someone decided to do away with the extended week in September, then open the season for the entire month of October. That did some damage.
Folks who wouldn’t get off the couch for a sage chicken were all willing to throw in a shotgun during deer season. Many people traveled to Nevada for deer, and chickens were just a nice bonus. In this sense, hunting did do some of the damage.
Total protection of ravens didn’t help either. I swear, these guys kill a lot more eggs and fledglings than my family ever did.
Maybe I’m just missing the event and the people from those days, but I felt sorry for the lone bird I saw. He deserves so much better.
Times change. Most of the water has dried up. A large portion of the sage is gone. Fire really did a number on them. I hope the old sage chicken doesn’t pass from the stage. I’m afraid we may already be too late. Federal protection is warranted, but ranching is a powerful lobby. They don’t want to change their habits to give silly grouse some breathing room.
Sorry for the long post. I thought maybe a word about this important creature, and my past, would interest some of you.