Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Songbirds for Supper

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is about wildfowl hunting in 1910. At one time, wild birds were so plentiful on the Outer Banks that it seemed their numbers were inexhaustible. In the late 1800s market hunting with shotguns allowed the taking of dozens of geese and ducks, sometimes by mounting several guns on a boat or sinkbox. In one day hundreds of birds could be killed, then shipped to northern markets.

Of course, we now know that indiscriminate killing of wild birds leads to ecological disaster. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Federal Duck Stamp Act of 1934 put an end to market hunting and the wholesale slaughter of waterfowl.

Bird hunting is a long tradition on Ocracoke. Ducks and geese were the primary targets, but small songbirds such as robins were also hunted for food, even within living memory. As late as the 1970s island boys routinely shot small birds within the village.

As David Cecelski writes in his book, A Historian's Coast, "[h]unting coastal birds was an old custom in North Carolina. Long before market gunning, watermen's families savored wild bird dishes ranging from fried tern to stewed blue heron. In fact, few bird species eluded the cook pot."

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a 1910 article about waterfowl hunting. You can read it here:


  1. This comment was published on yesterday's post, but it refers to today's post, so I am repeating it here (with my reply):

    "Which rather begs the question, Philip, did you ever have occasion to savor such delicacies back in your earliest days on the island?

    "Seems strange to consider a meal of blue heron these days, but back in an era when subsistence was an overarching concern I suppose it was downright sensible.

    "Yet another interesting post, as always. Thanks."

    My reply: I have never eaten song birds or shore birds, but my father often told me how delicious they were.

  2. Back in the mid seventies a local friend of mine in Salvo proudly showed me a grocery bag half full of cedar wax wings. He had been walking around the village with his bb gun, popping them out of the trees. I was a bit shocked that he was planning to go home to clean and eat them.
    Another older local there relates his stories about hunting out of sand pits on the beach, surrounded by shorebird decoys to hunt willets. He referred to them as sea chickens.
    It was all about survival and nature provided sustenance.
    Now they hunt at Food Lion.

    1. Cedar wax wings, robins, willets, sand pipers...they were all considered "good eating."

  3. Anonymous12:14 PM

    Good eating living off PUBLIC lands no doubt. The notion that a grocery bag half full of cedar wax wings is okay well, what about the next guy that wants to walk through the village with a bb gun and is not such a good shot and shoots Jimmy's eye out or there are no more cedar wax wings for me or anyone else to hunt . Good eating -- if you resort to hunting song birds , I suppose anything is good eating. Those that hunt, know there are only a handful of game wardens to enforce the laws protecting the wildlife ; having said that, if hunters know there are violators in their midst they need to do the RIGHT thing and report them --- but it will be when hell freezes over when something like that happens. A Blind eye in more ways then one.

    1. Please...we're talking about a tradition that began three centuries ago (a "few years" before the National Park was established, and before Food Lion, as Mike points out), and ended about four decades ago. Relax.

  4. Philip,
    Your story reminded me of this recent NYT article about the French delicacy, the Ortolan:

    1. Thank you for sharing. The article is fascinating.

    2. Anonymous8:59 AM

      Lord Have Mercy. That sounds like a great new tradition for Thanksgiving 2014 --sit at the table with a napkin over your head devouring what would have been the National icon if Ben Franklin had his way. We think across the pond here in the US of A -- no stinkin' little mouthfuls of bird bones butts and brains we want a 27lb broad breasted turkey thank you very much