Friday, May 20, 2011

Foraging - Hunting and Fishing

    I consider hunting and fishing part of the Foraging for Food process as part of our collective Hunter/Gatherer past.  Both hunting and fishing can put protein on the table.  The problem is time and cost.  If you hunt and fish for pleasure, then you can categorize the time under "entertainment".  So if you set a certain amount of time aside for these sports, for the sport's sake, then time is not an issue.  But if you are only going out hunting or fishing to get something to eat, then it is not a very efficient use of your time.  You always have to figure in the cost of your time.  There is also the dollar cost involved.  A basic fishing rig is inexpensive enough and will last a long time.  I used the same $5.00 (back then) Zebco 202 fishing reel from when I was five or six until I joined the Army.  Hunting gear is a much more expensive proposition though unless you inherit it. But there are two types of hunting that are not so time consuming, are not expensive, and can often even generate a little cash.  These are groundhog and pigeon hunting.
    Groundhogs, or whatever your region's ground burrowing varmit might be, are plentiful and don't usually have a specific hunting season.  In the spring, groundhogs are busy digging new dens or expanding old ones.  Thus lies the problem for the land-owner.  Groundhog holes are a huge hazard for livestock, horses, and farm equipment.  Most land-owners, especially farmers/ranchers, would be more than glad for you to harvest a couple.

    Nearly any rifle is suitable for groundhog hunting with the right bullet and load.  I've successfully hunted them with my 30-06 (I once made a 450m shot), a .357 revolver, and my old .22 rimfire rifle.  Most land-owners would be happier if you stuck with the .22 though for safety reasons and the noise.  I mostly used the hyper-velocity CCI Stinger rounds; the first hyper-velocity (about 400 feet per second faster than standard loads) .22 rimfire cartridge on the market back in the 1970's. They were very accurate and lethal out to 50m.  There are a couple other competing rounds out there now but I haven't used any of them so I can't comment on their effectiveness (or the .17 rimfire either).
Search for .22 rimfire ammunition
    When I was a teenager I talked to a couple land-owners in my area and got permission to hunt groundhogs ("grunt sows" in my Pennsylvania Dutch area).  I used these hunts as an opportunity to walk the land, see what was there (I am a big salvager/scavenger too), and scout for other game.  Since most of the land in my area was farm land, abandoned farm land, or woods, there was also a lot of foraging opportunities.  But we'll talk about that later. 
    Groundhogs are at the bottom of the food chain, prey animals, and so to survive the past couple million years they have developed keen senses.  They have super eyesight but mostly to see movement.  You can sit right next to a burrow and they will come out if you don't move.  They also have a good sense of hearing and smell.  So hunting them close-up with a .22 rimfire takes a bit of skill.  Developing your stalking skills on a wary groundhog is a great thing. 

    Groundhogs, also called Woodchucks, are large members of the ground squirrel family.  Adults are 4-9 pounds.  They usually only live 2-3 years in the wild and can reproduce at one year old.  Gestation is quick, 31 days or so.  Once the babies are born in April-May, the male will move out and set up his own den.  The babies will stay with the mother only 5-6 weeks and then they also move out and start digging a den.  So in May to early June you should look for the solitary adult groundhog.  This will be the single males and you don't have to worry about shooting a mother with young.  By mid to late July, all the babies are able to survive on their own so you don't have to be too selective.
    If you know your area you can probably go out any day of the week and harvest a groundhog within an hour or so.  They are fairly large so one a day is good enough.  Groundhogs should be handled according to the general rules for game in the field. Field dress it as soon as you can and try to cool it down since you are hunting in warmer weather.  You can put it on ice or wrap it in a wet towel so evaporation cools it down. Some people like to hang them in a cool, dry place to "age" them (I don't). Groundhogs have several scent glands in the small of their back and under their arms; remove those carefully.  I always soak game meat in salt water over night.  It does a couple things: it draws out the blood, it kills any pathogens, and it lessens the "gamey" taste.  Woodchuck meat is dark, but mild flavored and tender. They usually have a pretty good amount of fat, especially later in the year, but wild animal fat is fairly healthy.  Trim off the excess if you are going to cut up the meat for certain recipes.  Parboil the meat of older animals; use in recipes calling for rabbit.  I usually cut them up into quarters and then cook in a slow cooker (crock pot) until the meat falls off the bones.  I then use the meat in BBQ or chilli.  I've seen recipes for making burgers but haven't tried it.
Search for wild game recipes

    Pigeons are even easier.  Pigeons live everywhere and all year round.  Doves and Pigeons have been raised as food animals for centuries.  When you buy them in the store they are called, "Squab".  They were raised and housed in structures called "Dovecotes" in English or "Pigeonaire" in some areas of the US.  For the landed gentry, these were often fancy little buildings like this one from The Netherlands, below:
   For our purposes though I presume we are going to collect wild doves and pigeons.  If you live in or near the country, just ask any farmer if you can shoot some of his barn pigeons.  Pigeons like to nest and roost in farm buildings.  Unfortunately for the owner, they produce lots of droppings.  These droppings are highly corrosive and they damage the machinery below.  For barn hunting I recommend a good quality pellet rifle.  You don't want to shoot through or miss a bird and punch a hole through the farmer's roof.  Use flat tipped, low-penetration type pellets like the one here.  Birds are really fragile; if you hit it you will kill it.
    Many people just cut the breast off the birds but that is something of a waste.  They are very easy to pluck or skin and you can compost the feathers or dig them directly into the garden.  Feathers are high in nitrogen, which is good for your plants.  Doves are migratory game birds and therefore protected by hunting regulations; pigeons are considered pests, non-game birds and they are not regulated.  The Mourning Dove is on the left and the common Pigeon is on the right.

     Pigeons are almost twice the size of a dove.  Make sure you can tell the difference.  Take head-shots if you can.  Again, you want to cool them down as soon as you can.  I never field dressed birds but Field & Stream suggests that you should; as described below.
    To gut a dove (or Pigeon), turn the bird over on its back, pull a few feathers away from the vent area, and slit the skin. Reach a finger inside and pull out the entrails, making sure you get all the way to the top and front of the cavity to remove the lungs, which are nestled up along the backbone. Make a second short cut at the base of the neck and pull out the windpipe and crop. Wipe the inside of the body cavity with a paper towel. Field dressed in this manner, doves will last several days. In fact, some cooks like to age birds by storing them uncovered, with feathers on, in a refrigerator for a few days.

     Doves and Pigeons are delicious.  They were considered a delicacy until very recent times. You can cook them the same way you would any small bird, such as a Cornish Hen.  Ok, some people call Pigeons "Flying Rats" because they are everywhere in the cities and they seem to eat anything.  That is true.  But they are clean, low-fat, nutritious poultry too.  You probably don't want to know what chickens and turkeys eat either but you eat them.

   They are small so you will need a couple but for the price of a couple pellets you can get yourself a nice meal.  Farmers in my area paid me ten cents a bird to get them out of their barns.  I don't know if they still would but considering an air rifle pellet costs less than a penny I think the meat pays for itself and you get some serious shooting practice in at the same time.


  1. I have so many doves but I don't think I could shoot them. We watch them every year and we take care not to disturb their many nests. They mate for life. I would hate that I killed someones mate. I will just buy a chicken :o)
    I am reminded of our sister and how her freezers were stocked with game. You never knew what you were eating. Any time she made dinner for me she asked me what I wanted. I always said ham (she hated ham) but I knew where it came from. LOL

  2. Many people do not like to or want to kill their own food. That's ok. But if you eat meat, and most of us do, then something has to die. I don't think most people have such a big issue with pigeons and groundhogs though since they are so numerous and generally considered to be pests. Mourning Doves are migratory birds and as such are governed at the federal level just like ducks and geese. Most of the doves that people hunt in the fall are just passing through on their way south.

    Our sister's freezer was stocked well and each cut of meat came from a named animal from their farm. "Oh this is a roast from Sally; she tastes good", she would say. I kind of like my meat to be anonymous, not named.