Call me weird, but when I come home from a hunt and start plucking and dressing my ducks, I think of it as the autopsy.
Why did it die so quickly? Well, look, there were two shots to the heart!
Whose shot hit the bird? I was shooting 4s and you were shooting 2s, so let's see what we find.
And so on. I am endlessly fascinated by the process, which is probably a good thing, because it's not what you'd call inherently fun.
On Sunday, though, the autopsy got really interesting.
(If you're squeamish about such things, now would be the time to stop reading, and definitely don't look at the photo at the end.)
Three of us had gone hunting at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The weather was plain weird: It started out crystal clear and still, but as the sun rose, a north wind kicked up. We could see a dark fog rolling in around us, and soon it engulfed our blind as well, creating a hazy, yellow Apocalypse Now ambience.
We were in a diver pond, and most of the divers weren't looking at us very seriously. But one small group of scaup swung a little too close to our pit blind and I dropped a drake on my third shot.
Plop! He fell to the water behind us, head up. I jumped out of my blind to race after him, knowing this would not be an easy retrieve.
"Gimme a shell!" I hollered at Boyfriend on my way past him. He pulled one out of his gun and I chambered it, then charged through the marsh after my bird, who had gone underwater.
"There!" Boyfriend yelled. The duck had popped up 25 yards from me, but his head was lolling, so I didn't shoot.
Mistake! He took one look at me and dove again. I kept charging after him, but I could see him swim past me, back toward the blind. The water was too deep to just reach down and get him, so I slogged after him.
The next time he popped up, he was between me and my hunting partners - not safe to shoot. I kept my muzzle pointed up, and he dove again.
I had a feeling he'd swim away from the blind again so I changed position, ready to shoot away from my hunting partners. He popped up. Ten yards from me. I shot. It was over.
Now, for those of you who aren't shotgunners, I can tell you that shooting a bird at 10 yards ensures that the meat will be in really, really bad shape, because the shot pattern is still very concentrated.
"Sausage duck," Boyfriend said when I brought him back to the blind.
The autopsy was going to be interesting.
He was the only duck we got that day, so when we got home, I gave him my undivided attention.
The No. 4 Hevi-Shot that downed him had just hit his wing in several spots, breaking the end of it. He would not have flown again - had he eluded me, he would've been coyote food overnight.
I began plucking. He'd been facing away from me, angling slightly to the left, when I shot him on the water, so there was a LOT of damage on the left side. Shot to the head made death instant. The leg was a total loss. Oddly, the Kent Fasteel No. 2 shot that Boyfriend handed me had not penetrated much - there was a lot of shot under the skin. I recovered three pieces during plucking, then went into the house for the next stage - gutting, where I like to have lots of running water handy.
Plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink the shot went, into the stainless steel sink. Lots of shot.
Dammit, I hate doing that to a bird. But I also hate leaving a cripple in the field.
I cut off the butt of the bird and reached in to begin gutting.
Feel for the gizzard, grab, pull... what the hell?
What came out of that bird was like nothing I had seen from any duck in my three seasons of hunting. The gizzard and part of the intestine that connected to the gizzard was covered with bizarre nodules.
"Uh, Honey, could you please come look at this?"
I held it up for Boyfriend in my hands. My bare hands. They always tell you to wear gloves when handling blood and guts. I never do. I set the monstrosity down, washed my hands and asked for latex gloves. But that's a little like putting on the condom after you've had sex, isn't it?
I finished dressing the bird, took some pictures of the growth and started sending out inquiries. My guess was cancer, but I wanted a second opinion. And if it was cancer, should I eat the duck?
On the Duck Hunting Chat, one guy urged me to dissect the nodules.
Visions of scenes from the Alien movies filled my head.
No thanks, I told him.
My friend Matt weighed in, too. "That's nothing to worry about!! I'd eat it raw if it were mine. And I'm not talking about the meat, I'm talking about the bumpy ass gizzard!! Don't be scared Holly!!!! Put some ketchup on it and it'll be fine."
"Dude, are you nuts?" I responded. "You KNOW we don't have any ketchup in this house."
I sent the photo to Terry Scoville at the Women's Hunting Journal, because I knew she'd come across something weird - a duck she'd dubbed "tumor mallard."
"Possibly fat polyps or pre cancerous, or full blown cancer or some other ailment," she speculated.
I sent the photo to my friend Bob at California Waterfowl. He said my guess of cancer was as good as any.
But would he eat the duck?
"I’m not sure tumors will ever be high on my list of preferred things to eat, but Hank probably has a great recipe that would change my mind."
Oh, great, everyone's a comedian.
It's Tuesday now and I still don't have an answer. The bumpy-ass gizzard is in the fridge, in case science wants it, and so is the bird. It's probably fine to eat the bird. He appeared pretty healthy aside from this ... thing.
But quite honestly, I feel a deep, deep sense of revulsion at the thought of eating a sick animal. And I suspect it will outweigh my very strong taboo against wasting meat. Wasting an animal's life, really.
Damn. A lose-lose situation.
OK, so if you've read this far, you probably want to see what I'm talking about, so here it is. Don't say I didn't warn you...
© Holly A. Heyser 2008