Don’t be afraid to open that bag on your first game of game birds. It can prove invaluable for the rest of your hunt.
On a late-season quail hunt in January, located in the middle of the Flint Hills of Kansas, we found flock after flock. Our goal was to walk along a tree line that turned into a series of thickets of plums for about a third of a mile.
A dry creek bed ran down the middle. The plan was for two hunters to walk within the limits of the trees with the dogs, and the other two hunters to work on the edges. Eventually the dogs would take the lead once we reached the bushes.
The day was perfect. The temperature that morning was cool with a light wind blowing gently in our face, and the property was a mix of native grasses and plum bushes that provided ideal cover. Groups of trees were interspersed creating small protection belts. The crack of snapping twigs and the sound of grass being parted were welcoming. The jingle of my dog Staley’s brass bell had suddenly gone silent. I immediately started scanning, but couldn’t see her: Staley’s rust-colored coat had turned her into a chameleon against the shadows of the brown and tan background.
Then a faint clang of metal on metal: Staley had inched forward, causing his bell to seize.
I was able to locate it among a tangle of branches and bushes. I inched closer as the flapping of wings hit the cold air. Like a starburst, plump little feathery bodies flew in all directions. Yelling, “Quail!” I moved my shotgun to my shoulder and followed a quail that headed away from me. She was already hearing gunshots. When the smoke cleared, it was necessary to take a closer look at the reward of the morning.
The craw of a particularly strong bird was clearly getting fed up. Opening the crop revealed small reddish-brown, oval-shaped seeds. It seemed to be Milo. Most of the section appeared to be rolling grassland. I surveyed the area and did not see any standing crops. We continued to bump into flocks as we hunted, eventually finding a small patch of overgrown milo bushes, small enough to remain hidden. This little “grocery store”, as we ended up calling the public space, was where some of the quail fed. We also found two other long-forgotten strips of milo across a field that had also produced a flock of bobs.
The point of the story is, don’t overlook the area you’re hunting and make it a good practice to check the harvest of harvested birds. We probably would have come across the milo anyway, but because the quail had been feeding on it, we knew for the most part that sorghum could be found somewhere on earth.
It is a good habit for bird hunters to inspect the first birds that are placed in their hunting vests. I am amazed at the number of wing shooters I meet in the field who do not regularly open crops. Doing this can help determine what the birds are eating. This, in turn, can help direct hunters to a specific food source and area.
What is a crop?
The crop, sometimes called a “crop,” functions as a food holding area during feeding hours. Think of it like a food pantry. The crop can get so large at times, that whatever the game bird was feeding on sometimes sticks out. In addition, it functions as part of the digestive system. Pigeons, grouse, quail, and pheasants start foraging for grit (sand or fine gravel) when the crop is full, which helps grind up food.
Also, locating the crop on a game bird is easy. Especially if they’ve been stuffing themselves. Grab the bird by the bottom of the throat and look for a lump. If the culture is full, carefully with a knife cut apart a thin membrane to reveal the contents. If it is empty, then there will be no food.
By examining and comparing the contents of the crops, it will provide a bit of knowledge that can lead the hunter to find more birds. Even comparing different crops can provide clues about the birds’ habits. During one of those hunts, we had been walking between rows of corn pushing the roosters out of the water. After a couple of drives through the field, a vest full of birds appeared. Upon closer inspection of the crops, it clearly showed that the pheasants fed on corn. But to our surprise, one had also been raiding a bean field.
Pulling out our public land access atlas, we circled a couple of parcels within a mile or two. Driving to these areas, we found a bean field with waist-high grass and scrub around the edges. It definitely had a “bird” look to it. A couple of hours later, we left the field with a couple more roosters. Guess what was in their crops? You guessed it, beans! He wants to know what else was found… sunflower seeds. Reading the content or ingredients of each crop is like deciphering a treasure map. The harvest was giving clues. Take each of those clues to determine areas to lounge, feed, and rest. Grains from farm fields, as well as grass, leaves, roots, wild fruits, nuts, and insects will lay the groundwork you want to focus on.
Although I have never had the opportunity to hunt traditional grouse, I know that they eat a variety of foods. By checking the crops of these birds, you can direct it to certain food sources. For example, if you devour a Rufous Grouse and, upon reviewing the contents, it is full of orange berries, then your focus should be, or at least keep an eye out for, those types of berries as you traverse through woods and brambles in search of the King of Birds. hunting. . I have also noticed and even read that some game birds feed on “subjects”. By “themes,” I mean that when a variety of foods exist and is available, some birds will tend to stick to one type at a time. Move from one food source to another. Sort of like going through a food line at a buffet and eating each delicacy at one meal and then moving on to the next.
Crop monitoring should also be done to help identify certain insects they are feeding on.
A variety of species of grouse tend to feed on the leaves of many different plants and the needles of conifers. During the winter months, some grouse eat mainly spruce, pine, and spruce needles. Therefore, being aware of your surroundings while walking through the woods and forests will help you spot potential food sources.
Keep in mind that checking what upland birds eat is not a guarantee that you will find them. What it does mean is that it gives you knowledge and understanding of the birds we hunt. Hunters who are knowledgeable, understand, or should know the birds we hunt eat a variety of foods. Diets can be composed of seeds, grains, fruits, leaves, shoots, flowers, tubers, and roots. Being aware of how these food sources intertwine with our quarry makes us better hunters.
This knowledge gives us an advantage and another means in our upland toolbox to improve our chances of catching a bird or two. The feeling of a little weight in our game vests as we walk through meadows, fields and forests is always welcome.
This is especially true since, in the end, what matters most are the dogs we love and hunt with, the weapons we use, the memories we make and treasure, and ultimately the respect we give the bird of game we eat These are the things that fuel our passion as bird hunters.