We Give Thanks to the Birds and the Gods of Chase

Waterfowling on the Vineyard.

My waterfowling on Martha’s Vineyard began with a piano crate given me by an aunt, Mrs. Arthur Simmons, who lived next door to my parents’ home in West Tisbury.
Albion Alley Jr. – who had introduced me to Mill Brook and trout fishing soon after my family moved to the Vineyard in 1930 – and I dragged the crate down the road and across the field in our wagons and located it on Etta Luce’s land on the eastern edge of Tisbury Great Pond’s upper Town Cove, opposite the Mill Brook marsh.

We made a door, a sliding window, a bench, and a table for the crate, and that fall and winter sat in it with our BB guns, waiting for ducks to come to the three 
or four decoys we had placed out front. Often when it got dark we would light a kerosene lantern and play cards. It wasn’t commodious, but we were skinny little guys not yet in our teens.
We bagged no birds from our piano crate, but we did get to see how they 
responded to the decoys and also learned how wind and weather affected their movements, and often we could hear the distant guns of grown-up gunners to 
the south of us.
A few years later, on Christmas Day, I was given my first shotgun, a 20-gauge, single-barreled hammer gun, and a box of shells for it. Shortly after noon, I pulled on my hip boots, took my gun, and walked to where the collapsed remains of our crate were still visible. The day was bright and there was no wind and I knew that the birds wouldn’t be flying, but I had to try.
I crossed the cove over to the marsh, sat on a mounded house of cattails that muskrats had built, and looked down the pond toward the ocean.  
A lone black duck was flying toward me about thirty yards above the water. 
I crouched behind a thick stand of cattails, and when the bird was still a few yards out in front of me I stood and fired. Its wings folded and it fell less than twenty feet away on its back in the black, tide-exposed muck of the salt marsh, legs 
paddling slowly in the air.
I bore it home triumphantly, showed it to my 
parents, then took it out behind the backyard fence 
to the table where I cleaned fish and picked chickens. I immediately learned that picking a wild duck 
requires more effort than doing the same to barnyard fowl, and I probably spent more than half an hour 
getting it ready for the icebox.
In the next two or three years I learned the 
limits of my little 20-gauge and eventually got so 
that I could count on one duck for every two shells expended. I wasn’t, and still am not, a first-rate wing shot, but I learned to pass up the difficult chances. Economics, as well as a dislike of waste, prompted this. In summers I worked on Carl Magnuson’s farm hoeing corn for ten cents an hour and I seem to recall that 20-gauge shells cost about a nickel each in that era. I gave half of my earnings to mother, so my spending money was scarce. At that time, Albion 
Alley’s father, Albion Sr., was head man at Charlie Turner’s general store in West Tisbury and, a few years later, the owner. He was kind enough to “break” boxes of shells for me, selling me two, three, or four rounds at a time. Sometimes when I ran out of money, mother would loan me a quarter to buy 
ammunition and it was understood that food for the table – whether duck, Canada goose, rabbit, or even an occasional quail – would be brought home. The quail are, alas, virtually nonexistent on the Island 
now. They weren’t hunted into that parlous state. Their plight was caused by loss of habitat, feral cats, 
and skunks.  
In that era a boy walking down the road or 
across the fields with shotgun in hand caused no 
consternation among adults. Duck hunting was an accepted aspect of the fall and winter scene. One year I even had a duck blind in the swamp at the head of the Mill Pond in West Tisbury. No one complained and sometimes when I left that blind late in the day 
I would walk to the general store, now known as 
Alley’s, lean my fowling piece against the porch wall, and go inside to listen to the old-timers gathered around the wood-burning, potbellied iron stove.  
I can’t remember when I got my first double-
barreled shotgun, but I do remember when George Magnuson Sr., Carl’s brother, loaned me an automatic shotgun. I took it down to Mill Brook marsh on a wild, snowy afternoon and shot several black ducks with it. Heavy snow, driven by gale-force winds, caused the birds to lose all caution, and when 
I was walking home after dark across a plowed field I 
noticed dark shapes scuttling away or flushing before me: black ducks driven to earth by the storm.
George Magnuson was a talented fellow. A 
house painter by trade, he had a glorious tenor voice and often sang in the Congregational Church. He also carved lovely little decorative decoys. It was he who described to me the final days of hunting with live Canada goose decoys on Tisbury Great Pond.
George was nineteen years old when he arrived 
in West Tisbury in the early 1920s and went to work for Jim Look, a farmer, commercial fisherman, and carpenter who also operated a waterfowling club on the east shore of Tisbury Great Pond.  
The setup involved a long, five-foot-high wooden fence along the pond shore. Behind the fence were twelve pens holding scores of young-of-the-year Canada geese. Ramps led from the pens to the top 
of the fence. Out front on the pond shore, wing-clipped older geese, including the parents of the younger birds, were staked out. They were known 
as the “beach teams.”
From a lookout tower set back behind the fence, Jim Look would scan the skies with binoculars, looking for wild birds. In the tower was a control panel for the electrically released gates on the pens. When he spotted a flock in the distance – perhaps coming off the ocean from the south and over Long Cove – he would tell young Magnuson to release a pen of birds. The gate would drop and the young birds, known as flyers, would run up the ramp to the top of the fence, launch themselves aloft and fly out to the wild geese, “talking” as they flew. Meanwhile, the beach team would set up a wild clamor which served to attract 
the newcomers and to bring the youngsters back. So that it wouldn’t be confused with a wild bird, each flyer had a long leather thong attached to one leg.
On occasion the flyers would bring their wild brethren over the fence on the wing. At other times, said Magnuson, “the wild flock would be one family, goose, gander, and from four to ten goslings, and 
the parents would talk to the young ones, warning them that something was wrong. The flyers and the beach teams would try to convince them otherwise.”
The gifted Cape Cod decoy carver Elmer 
Crowell, who died in 1952 at the age of ninety, 
was one of the pioneers in the combined use of 
tethered live goose decoys and flyers. In his The 
Atlantic Flyway (Winchester Press, 1949, 200 pages, 
photographs by Walter Osborne), Robert Elman 
provides an engaging profile of Crowell.
Clearly there was a lot of effort involved in raising and training the flyers, and in many areas only tethered birds, often in conjunction with shelled corn as bait, were used. Live ducks, either staked out or in pens, were also used, but in 1935, federal law made both baiting and live decoys illegal. I remember a still night in the late fall of 1934 when I was wandering as an eleven-year-old along the shore of Town Cove. It was so quiet I could hear people talking on the porch of the general store, which was more than a half-mile away. I could also hear an odd swishing noise which turned out to be the sound of kernels of corn striking the water. Daniel Manter, a well-known West 
Tisbury builder and selectman, was sowing the bottom of the pond thirty yards south of his boathouse and also feeding the penned ducks he kept there.
When I first began waterfowling on Tisbury Great Pond, black ducks were the birds most often seen and shot, but their numbers have declined in the Atlantic flyway. Presently when I go duck hunting 
on Tisbury Great Pond, mallards are the birds I most 
often bring home for the table.
My waterfowling adventures have taken me as 
far north as James Bay, Ontario, where I shot snow geese coming in over vast mudflats as the tide rolled in nearly as fast as a man could walk, and as far south as the Yucatan, where, crouched in a makeshift blind in the mangroves, I had trouble convincing my Mayan guide that I wasn’t going to shoot at any of 
the teal hurtling past until it got light enough for me to see them clearly. I have huddled on the windswept, spray-drenched rocks of Connecticut’s Thimble 
Islands in below-freezing cold with the late Bud Beckley of Branford, Connecticut, waiting for bluebills to come to our enormous spread of decoys – more than one hundred – and I have lain on my 
back in an anchored, wave-tossed sneakbox on 
Long Island Sound, wondering if when the birds 
did come I would be able to hit them.
On the Vineyard, I have shot Canada geese from hay bale blinds in pastures and have knelt in a thicket of Rosa rugosa on Chappaquiddick as flights of scoters and eiders – and once in a while a pair of brant – came in from the ocean over Cape Pogue Pond.
Now, at eighty-one, I have only an occasional 
urge to go far afield in quest of ducks, and am usually content with occasional visits during the hunting 
season to Town Cove, where waterfowling began for me seventy years ago. I don’t abuse the spot, don’t hammer it every day throughout the season. I regard the marsh, the cove, and Mill Brook that enters it with reverence. My trips there are like re-reading a favorite poem. I never tire of the place, even if no birds are flying, and I am deeply grateful to the 
various owners of the property who have allowed 
me to hunt there over the years: Etta Luce; her nephew, Arthur Doane; and, presently, Arthur and Mary Doane’s children, Richard and Robert Doane, and their sister, Muriel Bye.
On occasion, I go there alone, but most of the time my youngest son, Jeff – who loves the spot as much as I do – is with me. In a typical year, we take less than three dozen mallards, plus an occasional Canada goose, from the spot.  
My son and I have a relaxed ritual when shooting from the same blind. For starters, I shoot left-handed and Jeff shoots right-handed, so he takes the birds 
on his side and I take those on my side. On lone 
birds coming up the middle, we take turns.
Our blinds are surrounded by dense, swampy thickets, so we often pass up shots when we know, even if the ducks are cleanly killed, that we might be unable to find them. Having no dog, we want to drop them in the water, the marsh, or at the water’s edge.
In short, we are relaxed, sometimes so relaxed or absorbed in talk – duck blinds are superb places for first-rate conversation – that occasional birds slip by. Other opportunities are sometimes missed because 
we have become engrossed in watching otters and muskrats, or a great blue heron wading and fishing.
The waterfowl we do bring home are prepared 
for the table with care, gratitude, and delight. My companion, Ruth Kirchmeier, and I have wild duck for dinner on Christmas Eve, and Jeff and his youngest son, Sam, join us for a roast-duck or 
roast-goose feast at the beginning of the New Year.
The same year I returned home from World War II, I was flight-shooting black ducks in a northeast gale at Black Point Pond with a dear friend, the late Everett Whiting. During a lull in the action, he ran his fingers over the breastbone of one of the ducks 
we had shot, pronounced it in fine shape, then said, “There’s only one way to cook these birds correctly: crank the oven up to 450 and roast them for fifteen 
or twenty minutes.”
I followed his suggestion and have never deviated from it. When you carve the breast of a duck so cooked, blood bursts from under the knife and the meat is moist and tender. The legs of a black duck 
or mallard so treated are a bit underdone, but my son Jeff delights in gnawing on them and the carcass itself. Our duck dinners have some aspects of an orgy. If legs and carcasses don’t appeal to you, they can be transformed into a duck soup.
Fish-eating ducks such as the mergansers are good table fare if properly handled. Breast them out, without skin, and marinate the chunks of meat in a mild solution (one to four) of vinegar and water, plus salt, pepper, a bay leaf, a small chopped onion, and 
a touch of garlic powder, for three or four hours. Pat them dry with paper towels, dust them with flour 
that has been seasoned with salt and pepper, and sear them in bacon fat in a frying pan, being careful not to overcook. They should be rare, red or nearly so, in the middle. Go beyond that and you’ve got a dry, leathery mess fit only for the cat or dog. The remainder of these birds can’t be used for duck soup – for starters, the fishy smell of them boiling would drive you out 
of the house – but not too much waste is involved; most of a duck’s meat is in its breast. I use the same approach with the hefty, shellfish-eating, white-winged scoters.
I always boil the hearts, livers, and gizzards of black ducks or mallards, chop them up, and use them in making gravy for the wild rice that is an essential part of such a meal. I also make a sweet-sour sauce for the meat itself. The basic sauce calls for a quarter-cup of marmalade, a cup of beach plum jelly, three tablespoons of butter, and two teaspoons each of prepared mustard and grated orange rind. Heat and blend these ingredients in a frying pan and serve warm over the slices of duck breast. Elderberry jelly or – the third choice – currant jelly can be substituted for beach plum, but the last-named has more zest.   
We have found that baked butternut or buttercup squash from our own garden and a tossed salad are 
excellent additions to a wild duck–wild rice dinner.
These are not ordinary meals and we feel 
privileged to enjoy them. Before the first mouthful 
is taken, we give thanks to the birds and to the gods 
of the chase.