Don’t be afraid to open that pouch on your first game birds of a hunt. It can prove invaluable for the rest of your hunt
On a late-season quail hunt in January, nestled in the middle of the Flint Hills of Kansas, we found covey after covey. Our goal was to walk a tree line that morphed into a series of plum thickets for about a third of a mile.
A dried-up creek bed ran down the middle. The plan was for two hunters to walk within the confines of the trees with the dogs, and the other two hunters to work the edges. Eventually, the dogs would take the lead once we got to the thickets.
The day was perfect. The temperature that morning was brisk with a slight wind gently blowing into our face, and the property was a mixture of native grasses and plum thickets which provided ideal cover. Groups of trees were interspersed creating small shelterbelts. The crunch of twigs breaking, and the sound of grass being pushed aside were welcoming. The clinging of my dog Staley’s brass bell had suddenly gone silent. I immediately started scanning but couldn’t see her–Staley’s rust-colored coat had turned her into a chameleon against the shades of tan and brown backdrop.
Then, a faint metal-on-metal noise–Staley had inched forward which caused her bell to cling.
I was able to locate her amongst a tangle of branches and shrubs. I moved in slowly when the flutter of wings hit the cold air. Like a starburst, small little plump bodies of feathers flew in every direction. Yelling, “Quail!” I moved my shotgun to my shoulder and tracked a bobwhite going away from me. I was already hearing shots. When the smoke cleared, a closer look at the bounty from the morning was in order.
One particularly heavy bird’s crop was clearly gorging. Opening the craw revealed small oval-shaped seeds in a reddish-brown color. It appeared to be milo. Most of the section appeared to be rolling grasslands. I surveyed the area and didn’t see any standing crops. We continued bumping coveys as we hunted, and eventually found a small shrubby patch of milo overgrown with weeds, just small enough that it lay hidden. This small “grocery store” as we ended up calling the piece of public ground, was where some of the quail were feeding. We also found two other long-forgotten milo strips on the other side of a field that had also produced a covey of bobs.
The point of the story is, don’t overlook the area that you’re hunting and make it a good practice to check the crop of harvested birds. We probably would’ve come across the milo anyway, but because the quail had been feeding on it we knew for the most part that somewhere on the land was sorghum to be found.
It’s a good habit for bird hunters to inspect the first birds placed into their game vests. It surprises me by the number of wingshooters I meet in the field who do not regularly open the crops. Doing this can help determine what the birds are eating. This in turn can help steer hunters to a specific food source and area.
What is a crop?
The crop—sometimes called a “craw”–works like a holding area for food during feeding times. Think of it as a food pantry. The crop can become so enlarged at times, that whatever the game bird was feeding on sometimes bulges out. Further, it functions as part of the digestive system. Doves, grouse, quail, and pheasants start looking for grit (sand or fine gravel) when the crop is full which aides in grinding the food.
Additionally, locating the crop on a gamebird is easy. Especially if they have been gorging themselves. Grab the bird by the lower throat and look and feel for a lump. If the crop is full, then carefully using a knife cut and spread apart a thin membrane to reveal the contents. If it’s empty, then there will be no food.
By examining and comparing crop contents, it will provide a bit of knowledge that may lead the hunter to find more birds. Even comparing different crops may provide clues to the birds’ habits. During one such hunt, we had been walking corn rows pushing roosters to flush. After a couple of runs through the field, it yielded a vest full of birds. Upon closer inspection of the crops, it clearly showed the pheasants were feeding on corn. But to our surprise one also had been raiding a bean field.
Getting out our public land access atlas, we circled a couple of plots within a mile or two. Upon driving to these areas, we found one bean field with waist high grass and thickets around the edges. It was definitely “birdy” looking. A couple of hours later, we walked out of the field with a couple more roosters. Guess what was in their crops? You guessed it, beans! Want to know what else was found…sunflower seeds. Reading the contents or ingredients of each craw is like deciphering a treasure map. The crop was providing clues. Take each of those clues to determine areas for loafing, feeding, and roosting. Grains from farm fields – as well as grasses, leaves, roots, wild fruits, nuts, and insects will lay a foundation to where you may want to concentrate or focus on.
Although, I’ve never had the opportunity to hunt traditional grouse, I do know they eat a variety of foods. By checking the crops in these birds, it may direct you to certain food sources. For example, if you down a ruffed grouse and upon reviewing the contents it’s full of orange berries, then your focus should be or at least be observant to those type of berries as you traverse through the woods and brambles searching for the King of the Gamebirds. I have also noticed and even read that some gamebirds feed in “themes”. By “themes”, I mean that when a variety of foods exist and is available, some birds will tend to stick to one type at a time. Moving from one food source to another. Kind of like going down a food line at a buffet and eating each delicacy in one eating then moving onto the next.
Checking the crops must also be done to assist in identifying certain insects that are being fed on.
A variety of grouse species tend to forage on leaves of many different plants, and conifer needles. During the winter months, some grouse mainly eat fir, pine, and spruce needles. So being aware of your surroundings as you walk the forests and woods will help you spot potential food sources.
Keep in open mind that checking to see what birds of the uplands are eating is not a guarantee that you will find them. What it does mean is that it provides you with knowledge and understanding of the birds we hunt. Hunters that are well informed, understand or should know the birds we hunt eat a variety of foods. Diets can be made up of seeds, grains, fruits, leaves, shoots, flowers, tubers, and roots. Being cognizant about how these food sources intertwine with our quarry makes us better hunters.
This knowledge gives us an edge and another means in our upland toolbox to better our chances of harvesting a bird or two. The feeling of a little bit of weight in our game vests as we walk the grasslands, fields, and woods is always welcomed.
This is especially true as in the end what matters most is the dogs we love and hunt with, the guns we use, the memories we make and cherish, and ultimately the respect we give to the gamebird we eat. These are the things that fuel our passion as bird hunters.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets. He's a contributing writer for several publications and e-magazines/websites. Follow his adventures on Instagram @hunt_birdz