This time of year, it’s still dark when Patrick Rickaby and his springer Ada leave home. They climb out of Patrick’s truck at dawn deep in the heart of Cape Cod National Seashore. Ada’s a bird dog, and she and Patrick are here to hunt ringed-necked pheasant. Today I tag along.
“This is the demarcation line. I always load and release her here,” Patrick explains.
He clips a bell onto Ada's collar so he can find her and loads his gun.
Then he whistles three times. This means it’s time to start working.
Ada runs off in a zig-zag pattern called quartering. She’s looking for pheasants. Her job is just to kind of wildly sniff them out and put them in the air.
Once a pheasant is in the air, Ada stays sitting until the bird is killed or Patrick releases her. Then she retrieves the dead bird. This is the basic job of any bird dog, regardless of what they’re hunting. These days in the Seashore, the birds are almost always pheasants. Each fall they’re released there twice a week by the state.
“This is the best and worst type of hunting to expose someone to because these are put and take birds, they’re stocked, and they don’t belong here,” Patrick said.
Ringed-necked pheasant are native to China, and the stocked birds are raised locally in pens. This means we’ll likely have success hunting. But Patrick would rather hunt wild birds. Native species like bobwhite quail have been disappearing, and he thinks it’s in part because of the way the Cape Cod National Seashore manages our land.
“Unfortunately they’re taking a—have since 61—taken a let’s do nothing approach to the land that’s not really how nature works. There’s 62 species of birds, songbirds included, that require for their existence human interaction with the land.”
This is a longstanding debate that raises a lot of questions about how we humans relate to the land. For example, bobwhite quail live in old fields and hedgerows, grasslands, and open forests—places where people have shaped the habitat—and the birds have declined 85 percent across their American range since the 1960s. We’re walking through an open forest on the edge of the dunes when a pheasant suddenly flies into the air.
Ada puts a bird up. Then fetches it. And leaves it for Patrick. It’s beautiful.
The pheasant is a male, bright crimson around its eye with a teal and blue head and a striking white ring around the neck. The feathers on the body are rusty brown and speckled with tan, and long, straight plumes make a stunning tail. Patrick tucks the bird gently into his bag, gives Ada a long drink of water, and stops for a few minutes to watch the sun keep climbing over the trees. I wonder out loud—why are so many of us so uncomfortable with hunting?
“There’s so many layers to that. There’s the idea that it’s blood lust or blood sport. Which I mean, might be undeniable to some degree, isn’t it? And isn’t that kind of where we came from? So there’s that, I think there’s a general uncomfortability with killing. I mean it’s been said before, you can just go to Stop and Shop and buy a chicken, it’s easier,” Patrick said.
But to Patrick, that’s not the same. He brings his kids out on a hunting trip at least once a year. He wants them to know where food comes from, and to understand up close that another animal has died so that they can eat.
I asked Patrick how he eats them.
“Fricassed, which is Southern, pounded flat and breaded. That’s really good. Because again it’s like chicken, chicken cutlets. And even like chicken fingers which just deep fry em bread em and deep fry em. I think in the freezer right now I have one whole that’s plucked, we were gonna try one as a roaster, I don’t think we’ve done that before," he said. "And sausage. Everything is good as sausage, especially game, because it’s so lean, you get to mix it with fat. It works out well.”
I’ve never eaten a pheasant. Or hunted anything, for that matter. But I do think all the time about where our food comes from, and the way our choices shape the land.