Alternative Game Birds Add to the Diversity of Texas Hunting

Ever get tired of competing with a thousand other hunters for game? Want to hunt abundant species with long seasons, liberal bag limits and little pressure— sometimes no seasons or limits?

Think you might need to hire a bush plane to fly you off to some forgotten lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada? —No!

People often find such action close to home, if they know where to look. In most states, hunters can enjoy numerous opportunities to bag game that most other people overlook.

Do you remember the last time you heard someone bragging about the gallinules they shot? Texas allows liberal bag limits for gallinules and there is almost no pressure. Generally, these seasons run concurrently with duck hunting. These shy shorebirds can provide great action for young hunters when ducks won’t fly.

Let us start with rails.

With their short, stubby wings, one would think rails couldn’t fly 10 feet. While they prefer to run through grass to escape enemies, they migrate across the continent. 

Also called marsh hens, clapper rails inhabit salt marshes. With their skinny, grayish bodies, long legs and long bills, they make common appearances throughout coastal areas. More often heard than seen, they make a clattering, clucking sound.

Their close, somewhat larger cousins, king rails prefer freshwater marshes, occasionally spotted in swamps or along river and lake shorelines. King rails are a richer cinnamon color than the grayer, buff-colored clapper rails. Clapper rails have gray cheeks compared to the king’s brownish cheeks. 

The most widely distributed rail in North America, sora rails look more like quail or a cross between a chicken and a sparrow, and they are about as big as a meadowlark. Instead of long, probing bills, they have chicken-like short yellow bills. Sora rails live in brackish marshes or even salt marshes. They have gray-brown body, and black throats.

Also called moorhens, gallinules prefer a freshwater environment, or rice fields, but stray into brackish marshes. Purple gallinules, or “blue peters,” are brilliantly colored in rich purplish blue with olive-green backs and wings. They sport a blue patch of skin on their foreheads and red bills. Feathers under their tails are white. With their long, yellow legs, they can easily walk on marsh vegetation.

More drab common gallinules closely resemble slate-gray coots, except for red instead of white bills. Common gallinules spend more time in water than their other cousins in the rail family, except for coots.

People can hunt rails and gallinules at high tide by poling shallow-draft boats through flood marshes to flush the birds. Weak fliers, when they do flush, they usually don’t fly far. They’ll present a second opportunity quickly.

Other people hunt rails at low tide by walking the marshes. Several hunters abreast 50 yards apart might put them into the air. A good flushing dog helps.

At low tide, hunters can also scan exposed mudbanks from poled or paddled boats. Rails prowl mudflats and grassy shores looking for small crustaceans and other food items. Not especially intelligent, if one runs into the grass, wait a few minutes. It will probably return 10 feet up the bank in a short time.

Rails and gallinules do not require high-powered ammunition. A .410 shotgun with 7 1/2 shot works great on them. Magnum loads destroy too much tasty meat. Therefore, they make great species for beginning hunters to learn about the sport.

Snipe constitutes another little-sought species. In late winter, large numbers of snipe descend upon salt marshes. Typically, most snipe fall to duck hunters’ guns. Few people specifically hit the marshes to hunt snipe although the season generally runs well past duck seasons with liberal bag limits.

Unlike rails, snipe zip through the air, swiftly and erratically like their woodland woodcock cousins. They flush in a screeching fury and kick in afterburners. Snipe hunters should carry plenty of ammunition and hunt them with light number 8 or number 9 shot and open chokes. They’ve embarrassed many a good wing shot.

Considered outlaws in Texas, Yellow-headed, red-winged, rusty, or Brewer’s blackbirds and all grackles, cowbirds (does not include cattle egret), crows, and magpies may be controlled without a federal or state depredation permit when found committing or about to commit depredations on ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in numbers and in a manner that constitutes a health hazard or other nuisance.

Farmers will welcome help in controlling these birds. Crows are tough, wary birds that make difficult targets. They are usually scattered through field and timberlands. Hunters can concentrate them by using owl calls and decoys.

Crows and owls hate each other. At night, owls hunt crows and destroy their nests. Crows retaliate during the day. Whenever a crow spots an owl perched in the open during daylight hours, it raucously calls its buddies. En masse, they attack the solitary owl until they drive it away or kill it.

Hunters can use this propensity to their advantage by staking out a few large, scattered owl decoys where crows will surely spot them. As crows gather for the attack, they might offer several good shots.

Hardy birds, crows require larger shot, such as number 6s and modified or full chokes. Hunters may need to take shots at these wary birds from longer ranges.

 While deer woods and duck ponds burst with hunters, few sportsmen take advantage of these other lesser-sought species. Taking advantage of them could add increased sport to days afield—and sharpen skills for those “other” game species.

—story by John N. Felsher


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