Gamebirds - What Are They?


''When I use a word, '' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less. " Lewis Carroll "Through the Looking Glass"

An aviculturist may reasonably ask, "What is a gamebird?" Our not so distant ancestors viewed anything that they could eat, that once had feathers on it, as a gamebird, suitable for the roasting spit or the boiling pot. And it is a pure certainty they were not adverse to stealing eggs out of a songbird's nest or sneaking up on their prey with all the cunning and artifice of a lender's repossessor.

By the middle ages, our feudal forefathers had ritualized the quest for feathered food items, along with making it a social happening. The majesty of the law was employed to make hunting a right of land ownership and the courtly pursuit of game, which became both sport and pageantry, used such high tech weapons as trained falcons and the cross-bow. While songbirds and just about anything with feathers on it continued to be "faire game" for the royal huntsman, because it was an activity restricted to the few, it was looked upon with longing by those who were excluded.

The discovery of the New World brought about revolutionary changes in the conduct of the hunt. Wildlife abounded and was relied upon by the early settlers for food before they could get their first crops in. The kill belonged to whoever could get it. The perfection of the shotgun and the availability of cheap ammunition during the latter half of the last century drastically reduced wildlife numbers; and the rise of social classes in America brought about further changes.

Since the well-to-do no longer needed the product of the hunt, what was a person to hunt to show off his or her prowess with an expensive firearm? They imported from China a handsome bird called the ring-necked pheasant, which abounded in its new land, and provided a colorful and coveted prize, along with the native turkey, quail, and migratory waterfowl. The definition of gamebird by the turn of this century (which is nearly ended, have you noticed?) had come to mean just about any feathered creature customarily hunted with a shotgun that is precocial at hatching, meaning that it is well-developed at hatching like a duck or a chicken, in contrast to a naked and blind songbird.

There soon developed a worldwide hunt for new species to be introduced for the benefit of the sportsman; and the early aviculturist was naturally attracted to some of these birds, which were spectacular ornamentals, even if they later failed as targets for a shotgun wielder. Today it is hard to imagine anyone shooting a Golden pheasant, or a Lady Amherst, for beauty such as that is to be protected and admired, not used for sighting a double barrel. As the avid aviculturist expanded his interest in precocial birds, his definition of what was a "gamebird" also expanded to fit his interests and his collection.

Today, the term "gamebird," in its most expansive connotation, means just about any precocial bird. The biggest gamebirds would be the ratites, such as emus, cassowaries, ostriches, and rheas. The smallest gamebirds would probably be some form of Button quail. And in between these two extremes in size there abounds a terribly diverse collection of species that include the extremely colorful (Red-breasted geese, Roul Roul partridge, Carolina Wood Duck) to the relatively plain Secretary bird, Hoatzin and Bustard.

Geographically, they vary from arctic waterfowl to jungle pheasants, and desert dwellers such as Sand grouse. They are distributed over all the continents. Their needs are diverse and, for many of the species, their continued survival depends upon the hard work and dedication of aviculturists around the world, people...