A Taste for Birds
How a lifelong passion for the gray partridge started with a very simple desire—dinner
I am watching a thousand feathers—gray partridge feathers—floating high on the surface of the pond in front of the cabin I pretend to work in. Moments ago, I stood on the dock that leads out from the cabin and plucked two birds I had shot in Saskatchewan the previous fall. Wind blew the feathers to the place where the birds’ severed heads bob. ¶ I have plucked a million feathers from the bodies of all the gray partridge I have cooked in my life, beautiful golden brown feathers matching the fall colors of the cypress trees that grow on the edge of my pond. ¶ On the porch of the cabin there is a wooden rocking chair, weathered and comfortable, I sit in every day. On quiet afternoons I think about the slowing growth of the loblolly pines I have been watching for twenty years, the ever-changing face of the pond, active with fish, and the condition of the natural world outside of my custody. Today, I watch a young osprey hunting below tree level glide past the dock. It cocks a disinterested head at the intrusion of feathers on the surface while I contemplate, with ambivalence, what I know about gray partridge and what they have meant to me.
We lived an hour’s drive southwest of Paris in the lower reaches of Normandy. There, surrounded by 325 acres of fields and pastures, Italian poplars, hardwoods, and the shade of 100-year-old oak trees, stood a small castle built by an undistinguished nobleman for his mistress in 1642. The castle, trivially larger than a pavilion, was fashioned out of mortar and pink brick. Of interest to me was the moat, full of pike and perch, eels, and whitefish, that encircled my home. Ducks visited in winter. My bedroom was on the third floor under the eave of the castle’s slate roof, at eye level with the calisthenics of crows.
Thickets and islands, woodlots, brambles, and sink-to-your-knees bogs begged me to get lost. Ankle-deep meadows and the colossal boughs of sycamore trees promised naps. Streams choked with watercress irrigated the land and concealed brown trout. The crowns of trees sheltered wood pigeons. But, except for a lonely covey or two of gray partridge, a handful of hare, and a few stray pheasant seeking refuge from the communal hunting grounds, ours was not considered a sporting estate. The local poachers—most of whom I knew—did not visit, except sometimes on weekends, at night, to impress a woman or to gig a fish under the yellow light of handheld lanterns.
I begged my father for a shotgun when I was eight but was given instead an American-made Daisy BB gun. For the next two years, I shot everything from girls’ butts to my mother’s expensive stemware. On my tenth birthday, after a hundred promises and a page of rules to be followed, my father granted my wish, giving me a 6 mm shotgun that broke at the breach and accepted a single shell the size of a thimble. The miniature weapon was powerful enough to kill a mouse or a frog, a feeding sparrow or, if close enough, a thrush. From then on, my days were spent in the loft above the stables surrounded by walls of hay that rose to hand-hewed oak rafters.
I charged my father a penny for every dead mouse, a nickel per rat. With a little urging on my part (cheese was the bait), I never ran out of targets. My competition was a calico cat—I shot at it often, as we were there for the same reason—a visitor from the village. As proof of my work, I’d cut off the tails of my victims with a red Swiss pocketknife and keep the evidence in my pocket. The mouse bodies were pitched in a corner of the barn, where they were eaten, I presumed, by my rival or a family of owls. The carcasses were always gone the next day.
Unlike the other kids in the village who played with toy cars and lead soldiers, I ambushed rodents and held up short gray tails for ransom. I was a certified bounty hunter, my quarry at the mercy of my stalking abilities, a steady hand, and a show of patience I never allocated to my studies.
A lifelong pursuit of sport, one that I have embraced and derived pleasure from ever since, was under way.