I’m pretty sure neither I nor my hosts in New Zealand earlier this summer would’ve guessed in a million years that my bird of regret would be the pukeko.
The pukeko is a swamphen that’s referred to, not affectionately, as a “puke.” It’s so disparaged as table fare that many Kiwi hunters apparently don’t even bother to pick them up after killing them. Considered a pest in some places, these clever birds have been known to jump on outdoor restaurant tables, tear open every sugar packet they can find, eat it all, and leave.
OK, maybe I should’ve known I’d love that bird. I love me an underdog! But my affection for any species of gamebird is inextricably wound up with how fun it is to hunt and how much I love to eat it. Take away any one of those three things and the other two will not be sufficient to command my admiration.
My boyfriend Hank and I learned about pukekos before we arrived: Our primary host, Lawson, was eager to see if Hank, a wild game chef, could make the bird delicious. Hank and I will hunt almost any edible species at least once to see if it’s something we like to eat.
We started spotting pukekos along the road pretty much as soon as we left the airport in Nelson, on the north tip of the South Island. It’s a very striking creature: a black bird about the size of a coot with a brilliant blue sheen that wraps around the shoulders and runs down its chest, a fluffy white butt, and a red chicken-like beak that continues up the forehead as a plate for … um, I don’t know … head-butting?
It lives in boggy areas, but has not a shred of webbing on its feet. In flight, it looks like a long-legged coot, and up close you can see it has alarmingly long claws to match. We were warned that the bird would be harder to hunt than we expected. Pukekos are anything but dumb.
Our first pukeko hunt was in Hari Hari on the South Island’s West Coast, just hours after we arrived at the home of our hosts, Andy and Jan, a dairy farming couple.
It did not go as planned.
We drove out to a scrubby field at the base of some rather abruptly rising mountains and made our plans: Hank, Bill (another host) and I would walk toward the mountains and set up a firing line. Andy and Rhys, who works for Fish & Game New Zealand, would start where we parked our trucks and drive the birds toward us, like a driven pheasant hunt.
The shrieking began as we walked down the road toward our firing line. Alarmed pukekos let out a scream like none we’ve heard before, so unlike pheasants, they let you know exactly how many of them are in your field. Apparently, there were a lot.
Just as we turned left to head to our spots, we saw a wave of pukekos flying across the line. Where we were supposed to be. A good 100 yards away.
Once we got in place, a few trickled over that firing line, but mostly off to the side, out of range. Neither Bill nor I fired a shot, and Hank made one or two futile pokes. By the time Andy and Rhys reconnected with us, they had three birds and we had none. Awkward!
Light was fading, so I figured we’d be done for the night, but shoot time in New Zealand goes well past sunset, and our hosts assured us we had plenty of time. So off we went to another field just down the road. This one was a field of “humps and hollows,” which is a way to make wetlands more useful to farmers without draining them completely. They’re parallel rows of ditches with humps between them to create more dry ground.
We set out in a line, moving perpendicular to the humps and hollows, Andy’s Lab running ahead of us.
“Holly, behind you!” I whipped around in time to see a crossing shot – my best shot! – well within range. Two shots, two misses, and the way the pukeko reared back midair told me I was shooting ahead. Note to self: They fly pheasant speed, not duck speed.
The next one flushed low and straight away. I quickly located the dog – outside the line of fire – pulled the trigger and watched the bird go down. I trotted over the hump and found the limp mass of black in the green clover. I’d gotten my first pukeko! I admired it for a moment, and stifled the urge to gaze at it even longer. Time for that later!
After that, a swing and a miss, then growing darkness. A game of chicken with the fading light. Would I keep shooting as long as I was allowed, or would I reach a point where I couldn’t take a confident shot? Colors faded to blacks and grays, and a pukeko flushed right in front of me, maybe 20-30 yards ahead, another crossing shot, low. Enough light to know it was a pukeko, but so little light that the bird almost blended into the green-black background. I shot. It dropped. I hurried to the spot but in this light, the clover and grass was just luxurious enough to hide a dead bird – or a wounded bird one.
“I need the dog!” I called, and she raced to my aid, bee-lined to the spot where I’d expected the bird to be, picked up my bird. Dead. Good shot.
Now it was getting seriously dark, so we were done, but I was happy. The hunt was fun. I’d had two good shots. And I had a couple beautiful birds in hand. Only one question remained.
The next day, after a morning duck hunt, we dug into our little pile of pukekos, determined to pluck them to see if the skin was worth keeping. We were surprised to find a layer of down befitting a water bird. Lacking our preferred method of plucking for ducks – a pot of hot wax for dipping, so you could peel off the down with the wax – we went to Plan B: skinning.
The first sign of trouble was orange fat, as bright orange as the fat on the skankiest crustacean-munching shoveler you’ve ever seen. Uh oh.
We brought the meat to our noses, inhaled deeply and puzzled over the inoffensive smell. “In our birds, this is a bad sign,” we told Andy.
“Maybe it’s the beta carotene in the clover?” he speculated.
That night, Hank commandeered Jan’s kitchen for a pre-dinner taste test: pukeko breasts and paradise shelduck breasts, seared in butter and served with a mustard-based South Carolina barbeque sauce. It was our first time eating either species, and to a person, we agreed that the pukeko breasts were superior, with ducky texture, mild flavor and color somewhere between the deep red of coot breasts and the beige of pheasant breasts. The parrie breasts were more dense and less savory.
A few nights later in Christchurch, at the home of yet another set of hosts – Andrew and Jendy – we would tackle the pukeko part that gives the bird a bad reputation: the legs, which tend toward the tough and stringy.
Well, the drumsticks do – they have those insane sinews you’d find on an old pheasant. Nothing wrong with the taste, but making them pleasant to eat would require slow stewing and a patient hand to remove all those sinews before serving.
But the thighs – there was nothing wrong with them at all! Hank made a Spanish chilindron for our hosts, and Andrew, who does video for Fish & Game New Zealand, filmed it and posted it here. It was pronounced delicious by all.
That turned out to be the only hunt where we targeted pukeko, though we would bag a few more during a wandering hunt of opportunity on a sheep farm in Cheviot on the east coast of the South Island.
I wanted more. I wanted to hunt more of them. I wanted to hold more of them in my hands. I wanted to eat more of them. I wanted to hear that crazy shriek one more time.
On the morning of departure, we went out for one last duck hunt with Lawson and his wife Niki. To get to the pond, we had to go through an avocado grove that the pukeko pillaged all the time. Scattered all over the ground were avocados, opened up, their creamy flesh pecked out as deep as a pukeko beak could go.
Oh. My. God. Avocado-fed pukeko would be SO GOOD. And we’d be doing our hosts a favor.
But it was not to be. It was a slow hunt, one paradise shelduck down, no pukekos flying in range. We packed up our guns and headed out to begin the long journey home, with one more good reason to go back someday.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at http://hollyheyser.com