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Original Issue

The fateful chop, chop, chop, pop, hisssss

The auerhahn is a wary bird, but love is its undoing. The only time a hunter can approach is during its song of wooing

Imagine a big-game trophy that has no horns or antlers to hang on the wall, no hide to convert into a rug or coat, little if any meat to put on the table, and only half the number of feet one associates with most big-game trophies. Add to these insufficiencies the fact that this trophy is one of the wariest in the world to hunt, that it is found in terrain that is among the most difficult anywhere and that, in most cases, it can be collected only once in a hunter's lifetime. Finally, this trophy is not even a mammal. It is a bird, but so rare and unusual a one that for many sportsmen it is in a class with such coveted big-game prizes as the mountain nyala, the bongo and the Ovis amin amin sheep.

This wonderful bird is the auerhahn (Tetrao urogallus), known as the Grossehahn in Germany, the giant black cock in Scotland and the capercaille in Spain. The largest of the European grouses, the auerhahn may stand 40 inches tall, have a wingspan of more than five feet and weigh 12 pounds.

As Europe became more settled over the centuries, the encroachment of man upon its habitat should have resulted in the auerhahn's extirpation, as was the case with a number of other species. Instead it retreated, its range finally being reduced to the most remote wildernesses of the continent. Remarkably the auerhahn survives there still, high in the Alpine forests and in other trackless places, and more remarkably, it continues to outwit man.

Austria probably has the largest population of auerhahn in Europe today, but only about two dozen are taken by hunters each year, all under carefully controlled regulations, and then only after a game board has conducted something of a census and determined that a particular old male is no longer vital to further propagation.

The lucky hunter chosen to try for such a bird is selected by the state if the bird's habitat is public land (usually through a program of special applications and drawings) or, if the bird is on private land, by the owner of the hunting lease on that land. As in most of Europe, virtually all hunting on private land in Austria is by long-term lease. If the leaseholder has already taken the single auerhahn he is entitled to in his lifetime, it is customary for him to sell the right to shoot the bird to another hunter. Because the auerhahn is so rare, and because there are so many more hunters than there are available birds, the hunting permit is generally good for only three days. After that, an unsuccessful hunter is ethically bound to step aside so that another may have a chance. In the month-long season during which the auerhahn is hunted early each spring, it is not unusual to have as many as eight or 10 hunters try for the same bird. It is not uncommon for all of them to fail.

"Nein," said the travel agent in Munich when I asked him my chances of taking an auerhahn on the hunt I had booked in Austria.

"Ja," said Herr Ainstetter, the guide, who met me in the tiny hamlet of Birnbaum, which hangs like a Christmas ornament from the side of an Austrian alp near the Italian border.

"Why not?" I thought, as we left the village in a vintage German car at one o'clock the next morning, driving in total darkness until we reached a barn where we left the car and started up the mountain on foot. It was raining steadily, and climbing through the darkness was an eerie experience.

The hunt had been arranged by Colonel Lloyd Hall, then the executive secretary of the Association of American Rod and Gun Clubs in Europe. He had assured me that there were auerhahn on the private leasehold on which I was to hunt and that if anyone in the region could lead me to one, Herr Ainstetter was the man.

Two hours passed before we came to the place where the auerhahn was supposed to sing its distinctive mating song. The actual mating takes place in daylight, but the courtship begins before dawn when the cock, perched high in a conifer, produces its amatory arias. These proclamations of love are its undoing. At any other time the auerhahn's hearing and eyesight are so extraordinary that it is unapproachable. But when the auerhahn is actually calling—a period of a few seconds at a time—it becomes so engrossed in its song that it is oblivious to all other sound.

At four o'clock we stopped and sat beneath a tree. The night was still formless and black. A steady, unending rain had soaked through my clothes and into my boots. I strained to hear any sound that might be the call of an auerhahn. No auerhahn, no bird songs at all. There was only the patter of rain falling on the forest floor.

Finally Herr Ainstetter got to his feet. He motioned me on and we climbed still higher, feeling our way among the stumps and roots in the blackness until we reached a crest where snow lay in hollows beneath the trees.

Then, from almost overhead, we heard the call of an auerhahn. Herr Ainstetter grabbed my wrist. I froze, one foot in midstep. The bird called again. It was a weird sound: a chop, chop, chop, chop, quickening until it exploded into a sudden pop, then ending with a long hissssssss. Herr Ainstetter suddenly tightened the grip on my wrist and pulled me forward.

Quickly he dropped to the ground. The bird called again and in that moment Ainstetter pointed skyward. The auerhahn was somewhere in the top of one of the tall pines directly in front of us. There was a faint grayness now to the sky, but the forest was still a shadowy blend of blacks and browns, and nothing had shape or form. Spotting a bird seemed impossible. I stared at the place where Herr Ainstetter pointed. I could see nothing.

Again the bird called. Again my guide pointed. High in the tree, perhaps 50 yards from where I crouched, something moved. It was the auerhahn. The great bird sat midway out on a branch, its long, puffed neck stretched skyward. Ainstetter handed me his gun, moving in slow motion. It was a boch buechsflinte—a combination 16-gauge shotgun over a 7.57-mm rifle with a 4X scope—an old, engraved hammer affair that, like its owner, had spent many hours afield.

The bird moved again and I had it in my sights. I put the cross hairs on its breast and squeezed the bottom trigger. The shot resounded through the trees and for an instant I saw the whiteness of the bird's undersides flash through the darkness. With a hollow thud, it hit the ground below.

For a moment there was silence. Then Herr Ainstetter said, "Ja, Fr√§ulein! Ja." He placed his hand upon my shoulder and said, "Weidmannsheil!"—the traditional hunter's salute.

"Weidmanns Dank!" I replied. And then we sat, as is also the custom, and observed the minutes of mourning allotted to all fine trophies. As we did, Herr Ainstetter whispered, "Ja, Fräulein! Gut schiessen! Wunderbar!" I felt strangely moved, both because the hunt had been such an eerie and suspenseful one, and because my guide showed such genuine emotion at its outcome.

Finally we got up and walked to the place where we had heard the auerhahn fall. We searched the area for about 10 minutes, hunting in widening circles, but we found nothing. We returned to where we had first marked the bird down and looked more carefully, probing under logs and into stump holes. The more we searched, the more futile the search became. The congratulations, it seemed, had been premature.

Suddenly, in an explosion of noise, a bird took off through the trees, its wings thrashing as it lifted its heavy body from the underbrush. I stood open-mouthed, staring at the place where an auerhahn had risen from the ground not 30 yards beyond, and I felt an emptiness in my stomach.

It was all over. From the beginning there had been something unreal about the hunt and about the bird. This, too, was unreal. I turned to Herr Ainstetter and said, "Kaput." He shook his head and said nothing. It was 5:45 a.m. A half hour had passed since my shot. The rain had stopped at last. We sat down to wait for morning.

After a while Herr Othmar, who owned the lease on which we were hunting, came puffing and panting through the forest.

"Weidmannsheil!" he said.

"Weidmanns Dank nein," I answered. "The bird is gone."

"Nein, Nein," he said. "I heard it fall. Even from so far away, it sound like a tree going down."

"Ja," I said. "More like a tree going away."

The thin gray of morning was beginning to filter into the forest, outlining the trees and bushes. Ainstetter got to his feet and in the half light began again to search the area, his shoulders stooped as he peered at the ground. Then he straightened and shouted. In his upraised hand he held a huge, dark bird. It was my auerhahn. The bird had not moved from where it had fallen almost an hour before. In our search for it we had spooked another auerhahn.

Everybody shook hands and patted shoulders and talked at once. Herr Othmar performed the ritual of the boughs. Breaking a twig from a pine tree, he touched it to the blood at the beak of the auerhahn, then placed it upon his hat and, with a half bow, presented it to me. Equally solemn, I accepted the bough, tucking it into the band of my Tyrolean hat. Herr Othmar snapped off a second twig and placed it in the beak of the bird. This was the letzter bissen, or last bite, symbolizing the link between hunter and game.

We carried the auerhahn down the mountain and back to Ainstetter's house, where we hung it outside his front door for all to see. Then we began still another part of the hunting ritual—the drinking of toasts. The first, served in shot glasses, was schnapps. This was followed by local red wine, then by hot tea laced with Austrian rum. This in turn was followed by the ultimate tribute to so grand a trophy—a thick, dark liquor known as Jaegermeister. This was probably followed by a number of other drinks in the salute befitting the great bird, but by then I had fallen asleep on Herr Ainstetter's sofa.