There are times when you make a good shot, mark it down, use all the dog power you have and still fail to retrieve a bird. We look hard for a bird that we hit, even a bird that we maybe hit. To do otherwise is the mark of a hack, a wannabe.
But it’s not a waste.
Nature does not allow waste. A dead grouse that falls to the forest floor but doesn’t make it into a skillet will make it into the belly of a coyote or a fox. A lost bird breaks down – in a stomach or in the dirt – into the building blocks of life that fuel the forest itself. It is a disappointment, but it is narcissistic of us to believe that we are the best or only use of a wild bird.
That’s not to say there is not waste. Only humans are capable of removing an animal from the food chain and locking it away. Let a bird go to ruin in a freezer and then send it to a landfill wrapped in plastic – better to have left it afield to be eaten by a bobcat or have it’s bones picked clean by insects.
To skin a bird that could be plucked is a waste. Breasting out birds and leaving the legs to sour and rot in a plastic trash bag is the ultimate waste.
And to that point, legs are delicious. Quail legs, seasoned with Tony Chachere’s and fried in a cast-iron skillet with butter are a delicacy. Pheasant legs are excellent simmered with mushrooms and tomatoes and served over fettuccini. Sharpie legs, slow cooked with red chili and shredded make incredible flautas. And don’t forget duck leg gumbo, spatchcock grouse, whole-roasted partridge, or battered and fried ruff quarters.
By all means, look hard for downed birds. But spend as much or more time at the end of the day cleaning your birds. Save the legs, pluck birds when you can. Enjoy all of your harvest. Don’t waste it.