Why I Love Little Birds

The view overlooking Bennett Lake, after summiting my first mountain, while accompanying a friend on his goat hunt, will stay with me forever.

The noise of the wind through the high passes, blowing clouds through the huge expanses below always leaves me feeling a little haunted.

The huge span of tundra, the winding rivers, the hills and valleys of the Yukon have been an unbelievable trek and an unforgettable experience for this Yukon transplant.

In all of this grandeur, it’s is easy to forget and overlook some of the small joys that we come across on every trip – one of my favourites being little birds (grouse and ptarmigan). It’s where most of us started, being handed a .22 or .410 and taking careful aim through the whispered advice and encouragement of family or friends. It’s an initiation that soon gets lost in ambitions of antler and twisting horns, but it should never be forgotten and remains a damn good way to spend an afternoon.

Once a few years back, some friends and I were duck hunting. Badly. We were working opposite sides of a small pot hole lake that we were sure would yield good results. After a fairly good spell of dismal luck, I decided that my time would be better spent hunting for beverages at the truck.

On the way back I happened across a spruce grouse and it seemed that my luck was changing. As I was dressing my grouse I heard two more shots and it turned out that my hunting partners had had a similar thought about duck hunting, and had also stumbled across some grouse on the way out.

We ended up fanning out and flushing a healthy harvest of birds. It was a great moment that took me back to my first couple trips into the woods with a gun. We have since put aside at least one day of every season to go out and just chase grouse and ptarmigan.

Birds are delicious, the gamey, sharp accents of the ptarmigan and spruce grouse are so different from the white and tender ruffies. They are delicious cooked over fire, cooked into pie, made into soup or pulled apart for sandwiches. This fast appy pie recipe will work with any sort of little bird you’ve managed to find, and makes especially good use of the legs, which can sometimes be a bit tough on their own.

Spruce Grouse and Mushroom Pie

(originally published on EatingYukon.com)

Serves 4 as an appetizer

  • 1 Tbsp bacon fat
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 6 spruce grouse legs
  • ½ pound button mushrooms, quartered
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 bottle of beer or cider
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 sheet puff pastry
  • ​1 egg, beaten
  • Chopped parsley, to garnish

1. Set oven at 400ºF. In a skillet heat the bacon fat over medium high heat until shimmering. Season the grouse legs with salt and pepper then add to skillet and cook until brown on all sides. Remove from skillet and place skillet back over heat.

2. Add onion and cook until beginning to soften, about 4 minutes then add mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms have begun to brown, about 8 minutes. Add grouse back to skillet then pour beer or cider over the grouse and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium low heat until grouse is tender, about 45 minutes.

3. Strain liquid from the skillet, reserving both the liquid and the grouse and vegetables separately. Pick grouse meat from the bones and discard the bones. Return skillet to medium heat and melt the butter, when butter has melted add the flour and cook for 2 minutes then whisk in the reserved liquid, bring to a simmer and cook until thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Return reserved meat and vegetables to the thickened sauce and allow to cool.

4. Place puff pastry on a lined baking sheet then place grouse filling in the centre of the pastry leaving a 1-inch border of pastry. Brush the border of the pastry with beaten egg and fold border up around the filling. Brush remaining egg over the pastry. Bake for 18 minutes, or until pastry is golden and filling is bubbling. Garnish with parsley, slice and serve.

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