Most of the time, “hunting season” refers to deer hunting specifically. That’s the default around here anyway. Gunfire is not rare at any time of year in my neighborhood; there are the usual exuberant, inexplicable nighttime volleys that seem to erupt out of sheer ballistic joy, and the metronomic rhythm of can shooting on Sunday afternoons. When it’s deer hunting time, there are new sounds: single gunshots sounding from the forests and swamps to the west and north of us, usually early in the morning or late in the afternoon, fading toward dusk. Deer and deer hunters are crepuscular.
I’m not a hunter myself, but I often curious about what is permissible to shoot at any given time here in New Hampshire. I’m partial to the oddities, the less prestigious quarries. I like to know when gray squirrel hunting season is, and crow season. I like to know what the bag limits are — how many you can kill per day — which for squirrels is five (but you may never hunt them in a cemetery), and which for crows is unlimited.
It’s strange, what you can hunt and what you can’t. Almost all birds in the United States are protected from human harm by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but as Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website puts it: “Not all North American bird species are protected under the act. Birds that are considered non-native species such as the House Sparrow and the European Starling are not protected, and many groups of hunted or game birds, including ducks, geese, doves, and many shorebirds are subject to limited protection and can be hunted in season.”
The logic is circular: Some birds can be hunted because they are hunted. Some birds, it seems, just look like meat. I cannot dispute this in the case of the ruffed grouse. They are chicken-size, chicken-shaped birds, rounded, bosomy. Their Latin name, Bonasa umbellus, emphasizes maleness; the first part means “wild bull” and the second “umbrella,” for the ruff of feathers around the neck that is most prominent in displaying males. Actually, the birds seem matronly in appearance; even the males remind me of my backyard hens.
In spring, the male grouse attempt to attract mates by standing on logs or stone walls and drumming their wings against their sides, making a percussive rising and falling that sounds like the cantankerous rope-pull-start lawnmower of my youth, winding up and then failing to catch, over and over. There are surveys for these grouse drumming displays, where biologists and volunteers station themselves at designated roadsides and listen, and this helps scientists get a sense of their abundance.
Hunters do much of the citizen science monitoring work on grouse populations; a research program through New Hampshire Fish and Game asks them to submit feather samples and report what they find when they open the birds’ gastrointestinal tracts. This gives a snapshot of their diets. Last year’s report showed the contents were mostly catkins, alder leaves, fern leaves, birch buds, beechnuts, cranberries and beetles, slugs and mushrooms. After I read that list, it kept coming back to me for days, though I couldn’t determine why. Something about it raised a feeling of tenderness in me, a nostalgia that I could not place. Then, walking through the woods behind my house, it occurred to me that these grouse had been eating almost exactly the wild menus I used to create when I was a child, laying out berries and nuts on little leaf plates for creatures I hoped would come dine while I hid in the underbrush. I left that childish project aside as I grew up, of course. Turns out, I only needed to wait for a grouse to join me at the table.