Photograph by Jonathan Willis
“Good, Daisy! Good! Good girl!” Ron Ellis exclaims in a throaty whisper. Behind his wire rim spectacles, his eyes glow with pleasure. “It’s her first point,” he declares proudly.
Daisy is a 10-month-old Brittany weighing in at just over 30 pounds, the granddaughter of a 32-time field trial champion from North Carolina named Nolan’s Last Bullet. Bought from a breeder in Bowling Green, Kentucky, early in 2014, she has just pointed a farm-raised quail Ellis released in a fallow field thick with wild grass on the outskirts of Bethel this frosty November morning. He’s training Daisy on a docile upland game bird now so that she will be ready when they encounter the more elusive ruffed grouse and American woodcock in the wild. Ellis’s fascination with grouse is a lifelong passion; over the years it has served as something of a muse as he built a career as an outdoor writer, upland game-bird hunter, and committed conservationist. His reverence for the bird that he first began hunting at 14 is strong. Now 65, Ellis has hunted for most of his life and his relationship to the animals he hunts and the habitats they thrive in is fueled by an abiding respect. He cares about the grouse that he and Daisy are after but sometimes wonders if he and his dog are the last of a breed.
Daisy’s cognac-colored eyes have the depth of an old soul and match an exact shade in her orange and white coat as she glances up at her owner. She is the fourth Brittany he’s owned since he first brought home a spirited little bitch named Ellis’s Lady of Autumn—Lady for short—in 1976. Ellis, who lives in the Northern Kentucky suburb of Lakeside Park, summed up his life with and love for Lady a few years ago in “The Dog I Belonged To,” an essay published alongside work by such esteemed writers as Jim Harrison and Guy de la Valdène in Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs: “I often counted myself lucky to have stumbled onto such a wonderful dog to partner with in loving wild birds and the beautiful places they called home.”
A hunter can own many bird dogs in his life, but his first one often looms largest in memory. Just talking about Lady transports Ellis back to other times and places. “She hunted her heart out for me, always, throughout all of our years together, with the meager expectation that at the day’s end she could remain close to me, maybe sleep curled up on the car seat beside me on the long ride home,” he recalls. “And I tried never to disappoint her.” But his attention today is on Daisy, whose own auspicious first has Ellis grinning from ear to ear. It’s clear that a dog has never been just a part of his sporting equipage. As he rubs her velvety ears, Daisy leans into his leg for more.
Out in the field—on one of the first cold days of autumn, necessitating both a wool cap and gloves—Ellis and his friend Mark Jones are putting their Brittanys through the paces. Jones has brought three of his own: Hope, a 16-year veteran with a greying muzzle and minimal eyesight but a nose that refuses to quit; Max, 12, the sole boy in the brood, who is fairly calm and collected throughout the morning; and Piper, a 4-year-old female who bounces through grass and brush with such relentless energy that she begs comparison to the Energizer Bunny. Both men, clad in khaki with orange hats and vests, wear whistles around their necks and give short bursts to keep the dogs on task.
After 27 years at Northern Kentucky University, where he served as assistant vice president for advancement, Ellis retired in 2001 to write full time. In 1998, as his father lay dying, Ellis submitted 25 pages of an intimate account of their relationship and mutual sporting connection with a “magical” tract of dense hickory woods in northeastern Kentucky to the University of Montana’s Environmental Writing Institute, taught by the novelist and environmental activist Rick Bass. On the power of his submission, Ellis was selected to attend the seminar and came away with both an active mentor and cherished friend: Bass wrote the forward to the book that grew out of those 25 pages—a fictionalized memoir called Cogan’s Woods, published in 2001. “In everything I write, landscape is a character, the primary character,” Ellis explains. “It breathes, loves, and smells. It is lit with sunlight and moonlight; animals come and go. And the landscape where I’m sure my heart is buried is Cogan’s Woods. I deeply love that place because my family’s history is there. My father’s heart is still there, I’m certain of that.”
Drive about 50 minutes in any direction out past Cincinnati’s suburban sprawl and you’ll find yourself in a similarly wooded setting—acres of family farms, private stretches of forest, and state-sanctioned wildlife areas all begging to be explored. Certainly inner peace can be sought in a church pew or yoga class, but it’s also readily found in a contemplative meander through the woods. We ferry our kids to countless sporting events and activities, but all too often neglect their exploration of the natural world and a solid understanding of their place in it. Collectively, American consumers spend millions of dollars a year on fad diets meant to budge the bulges created by processed foods—the more affluent paying top dollar for “clean” meat and fish while talking a steady stream about sustainable food sources, never having killed or butchered a chicken, let alone a deer, currently the most abundant (read: sustainable!) source of animal protein available in our wilds.
Much of this fervor is generational. Many Midwestern baby boomers, including my own father, grew up spending significant time outdoors hunting, fishing, or simply observing the cycles of life. The largesse of these wild places, where relentless forces of predation are constantly, though quietly, battling for domination, has given many of our elders a lifelong sense of awe and a commitment to a brand of conservation that is rooted in scientific study and common-sense land management. But with ever-increasing competition for young people’s attention, the old guard worries that their children and grandchildren may not share their appreciation and take up the mantle of informed environmental stewardship. As Bass put it in his essay “Why I Hunt”: “All I know is that hunting—beyond being a thing I like to do—helps keep my imagination vital. I would hope never to be so blind as to offer it as prescription; I offer it only as testimony to my love of the landscape where I live—a place that is still, against all odds, its own place, quite unlike any other.”
A commendable stance to be sure. Except that sometimes it’s difficult to get that heartfelt respect and appreciation for the land across when all non-hunters want to see is a guy marching into the woods to blast birds from the sky.
Ellis’s deep love of wild places forms the bedrock of his friendship with Mark Jones, a 67-year-old retired City of Cincinnati development officer. “It’s a natural friendship,” says Jones. “We’re interested in words and ideas, dogs and hunting.” The two are active members of the Gilbert R. Symons chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS), a national conservation group dedicated to preserving the habitat of the quixotic upland game bird that has fascinated them and other hunters for years.
Unless you hunt, or perhaps are into birding, you probably haven’t heard too much about grouse. They’ve got an avid fan base. In the anthology A Passion For Grouse: The Lore and Legend of America’s Premier Game Bird, the ruffed grouse is identified as a non-migratory, solitary bird that typically weighs a little more than a pound. Dubbed the “king of game birds,” it has been likened to a partridge but is notable for tufts of feathers at the base of the neck that look like avian shoulder pads. Both sexes share gray and red mottled crests at the crown of the head and are so similarly marked that it’s difficult to denote gender, even at close range. One of the few ways to tell is by the different dot patterns on their rump feathers—a single dot for females, two dots for males. The bird’s most distinctive characteristic, however, is something called “drumming.” Males establish and defend their territory by bracing their tails against a flat surface, standing upright on logs or stumps (referred to as drumming stages), and rapidly beating their cupped wings against the air. The low frequency sound reverberates in the thickly vegetated “early successional” habitat—that is, forest regularly disturbed by wind or fire every six to eight years—to attract females and warn off other males.
Ellis and Jones first met at a fund-raising dinner for the Ruffed Grouse Society more than 20 years ago and ultimately bonded over Ellis’s memoir. In addition to Cogan’s Woods, Ellis has since edited Of Woods and Waters: A Kentucky Outdoors Reader and In That Sweet Country: Uncollected Writings of Harry Middleton, on top of writing Brushes With Nature: The Art of Ron Van Gilder and numerous essays for various sporting anthologies.
Jones’s smirk is almost invisible beneath his bushy white mustache as he good-naturedly calls Ellis “the romantic.” It’s a mantle that Ellis accepts with a shrug and a rueful smile. “This guy’s all about deep introspection and effusive explaining. I just want to do stuff,” says Jones. A master of understatement and self-deprecation, Jones is a voracious reader and a regular contributor of literary criticism to Library Journal, but he’s also one hell of a do-er. If Ellis’s prose can entice a couch potato out into the winter woods in pursuit of an elusive game bird, Jones is a regular ringleader of the local sporting conservation movement.
This past April, the local RGS chapter staged a fund-raising benefit at New Riff distillery in Bellevue. Jones put the whole evening together. David Cook, chef and owner of Daveed’s Next in Loveland, and himself a hunter and lover of the outdoors, prepared multiple tasting courses with game provided by members, including rabbit à la King, Florida wild hog sausage with sauerkraut, Lake Erie walleye piccata, mallard duck confit, and sliced pheasant with peach compote and blackberry drizzle. The evening unfurled, slow and pleasant, an endless procession of food, tumblers of private-barrel bourbon, fly-fishing demonstrations on the terrace with Orvis instructors, and an extensive auction that included two guns—a CZ 20-gauge over/under shotgun and an Ithaca Model 37, one of only 10 ever produced, engraved specially for the society—both successfully bid on by women. Nationally renowned wildlife artist John A. Ruthven, a long-standing member of the society, always auctions off a signed limited edition print—this year it was “Dogwood Spring”—and he didn’t hesitate to toss in a charming anecdote or two, which helped ratchet up the bids. Jones estimated that that one night of good food and easy company netted more than $5,000, funds that will be used to finance habitat projects that the federal government can no longer afford to support.
Of course, it’s not just the federal government that finds itself strapped these days. In 2014, the Ohio Division of Wildlife reported spending 41 percent of its $59.6 million budget on fish and wildlife management; the remainder covered administrative costs, staff payroll, and outreach education. More than 60 percent of that working budget—well over $36 million—came from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, deer permits, turkey permits, and wetland habitat stamps. Federal dollars accounted for only 28 percent of the state conservation agency’s working budget. Bottom line: Ohio’s sportsmen and -women are funding habitat management, and often pitching in on the work themselves.
The list of habitat reclamation projects that RGS volunteers have lent their time, money, and muscles to in southern Ohio is impressive. Jones happily gives me a quick rundown: thinning stands of trees in parts of Shawnee State Forest to help develop more early successional habitat; laying down seed mixes that provide clover and other wild grasses that feed deer, wild turkey, and a variety of other woodland creatures; using habitat machines (similar to a bulldozer) to clear trees in Wayne National Forest and Tranquility Wildlife Management Area, which enables fledgling plants that provide both food and habitat to repopulate former pastureland that is no longer fertile and typically supports little biodiversity, often only red cedar. “These huge tracts [of red cedar] have become a monoculture, meaning animals do pass through, but the land is not providing any kind of quality habitat for them,” Jones explains.
At Indian Creek Wildlife Area near Fayetteville, RGS has invested about 10 years of habitat maintenance under the careful eye of trained wildlife biologists (who oversee all of the society’s habitat projects). By clearing culverts and creeks, they’ve helped to maintain the moist soil that woodcock need for easy access to worms, their dietary staple. The area is also adjacent to open ground where the birds often sing and attract mates. “We’re only cutting and clearing about an acre a year at that location,” Jones says—a rate that supports a variety of habitats. Fellow society member Rick Bryan III and his son Rick Bryan IV, owners of Bryan Equipment Sales near Wards Corner, play a key role in getting the work done, donating the use of their equipment (chain saws, safety chaps, hard hats, face guards, and protective ear muffs), and providing training for volunteers.
But it’s not all bulldozers and chain saws. According to Mark Wiley, an upland game biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, volunteers from the Symons chapter of RGS run three drumming routes in the Shawnee State Forest in southeastern Ohio. “There’s a two- to three-week period in April where these birds are at the peak of their drumming,” says Wiley. “We use 10 points along a roadside roughly half a mile apart—because the dense habitat can be tough to traverse—where a surveyor will get out of the truck or car and listen for a few minutes at each point. We train them to count how many drumming males they hear at each. Then they’ll move on to the next point, recording again, giving us an index as to whether there are more or less.”
In addition to drumming surveys—overall indexes are monitored at a state level and are publicly available—some RGS members also keep hunting diaries. “Since 1972, we’ve had a program where grouse hunters keep a diary,” Wiley says. “We send out about 200 to 300 diaries each year [in Ohio], some to guys who have been participating since the first year. Unfortunately not as many of the older hunters are in the field on a regular basis.” Indeed, as the average age of the grouse hunter has increased, the number of diaries the Division of Wildlife gets back has fallen to about 75. Still, the data is integral to understanding the health of the game bird population throughout the state. “For 100 hours of hunting, how many grouse are they flushing? In the ’70s and ’80s there were anywhere from 100 to 150 flushes in 100 hours,” says Wiley. “This year we are down to 22 flushes, and it’s all driven by [a loss of] habitat.”
Cutting down trees to help create habitats for multiple species may seem counterintuitive, but that has more to do with misconceptions that flourish in popular culture as opposed to well-researched and documented wildlife biology. “During the ’60s and ’70s, as much as 50 percent of Ohio’s forested land was in seedling and sapling stage,” Wiley explains. “That’s very young forest. Much of the non-forested land was in agricultural service and regularly plowed. As family farms were abandoned in southeastern Ohio and the land has reforested, Ohio has lost precious young forest—the exact habitat that is vital to the survival of ruffed grouse and American woodcock but also home to many songbirds, mammals, and reptiles. All species that are dependent on early successional habitat are currently trending downward.”
Wiley cites a study by Amanda Rodewald, formerly of Ohio State University and now at Cornell, who found that many species of songbird previously thought to be mature forest birds, such as the scarlet tanager, are
heavily utilizing these young forests. “Typically people think of a mature forest area—and I’ve seen this written—as a vibrant ecosystem,” says Wiley. “While that is the case, a young forest area is equally as vibrant and produces a lot of plant species that support wildlife, not only with cover but with foliage—like wild raspberry or blackberry.”
Wiley can also connect the dots further up the food chain. “[People] associate an animal like the bobcat with a forested system, but bobcats actually really benefit from early succession environments because that’s where you’ll find much of their prey,” he says. “We’ve been trained to think that no disturbance is a good thing for wildlife when in fact a wide variety of wildlife species are highly dependent on disturbance.” Human populations have purposely minimized the disturbances, especially when it comes to fire and disease; ironically, now that means the disturbances necessary to promote wildlife diversity require a human hand.
Wiley’s graduate studies at OSU involved a long-term habitat study of the bobwhite quail that continues today. The university’s terrestrial wildlife ecology lab is not the traditional stationary model. It includes four learning sites on different slices of private land with specific habitat characteristics located near Hillsboro, Sardinia, Belfast, and a parcel where Highland, Brown, and Adams counties converge. According to Olivia Smith, a master’s student currently working the sites, since 2008 OSU has fitted 774 birds with bands that utilize radio telemetry to zero in on habitat usage. Each tiny transmitter worn by a bird emits a specific frequency that can be tracked; birds must weigh at least 165 grams to offset the weight of the band. “Bobwhites usually move about 1.5 kilometers between seasons, depending on where they find good habitat,” says Smith. “While they can fly, they typically don’t unless they’re flushed.”
The results of Smith’s work help local conservation groups target habitat management projects; in turn, those groups provide funding and logistical support. “Both Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, not to mention Division of Wildlife, help us catch birds for tagging,” she says.
If it weren’t for the knowledge and skill of sportsmen and -women who have devoted themselves to the layperson’s study and passionate pursuit of upland game birds, many more academics would be fighting a rear-guard action. A week after his blowout 90th birthday bash at the Cincinnati Club—hosted by Senator Rob Portman and Nick Clooney, and attended by RGS buddies Ellis and Jones, along with more than 400 other friends—John A. Ruthven is giving me a quick tutorial of Herbert T. Brandt’s ornithology collection at the Geier Center, the collections storage facility of the Cincinnati Natural History Museum. Row after row of metal double door cabinets are filled with drawers containing birds from around the world. Organized by taxonomy, each bird bears a tag around its ankle denoting its Latin and common names, age, sex, collection date and location, name of collector, and any special or circumstantial information. Ruthven’s familiarity with these birds stems from the fact that he collected a lot of them.
Ruthven’s fascination with birds started early. As a kid, he would walk from his family home in Walnut Hills down to the shore of the Ohio River. “In those days it was safe for a young boy and I often took my sketch pads with me,” he recalls. “I was always encouraged by my family to draw and learned much about the outdoors by just looking.” The more he looked, the more he wanted to get closer to the birds and animals that he spied. His parents allowed him to sign up for correspondence courses—a luxury during the Depression—from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. “Every month I received documents on how to prepare bird skins. Not for scientific study, but just how to stuff them and put them on a post or a table,” he says.
Eventually, his bird obsession paid off. In 1960, a painting by Ruthven (“Redhead Ducks”) won the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, a competition started in 1949 to promote the highly collectable stamp required for hunting waterfowl. Like much to do with hunting, conservation, and wild game, the annual competition flies under the general cultural radar, but it’s prestigious enough that Ruthven went from hardworking commercial artist (he designed the iconic Play-Doh logo) to a nationally recognized wildlife painter virtually overnight. He’s made a good living painting birds and other wildlife ever since.
Ruthven’s success owes much to his rigorous study of the subject. For Herbert T. Brandt, scion of a Cleveland meatpacking family, bird collecting was a passionate hobby. But in 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it illegal for a private individual to collect birds for non-research purposes, and Brandt donated his birds to the City of Cincinnati. Eventually, the collection was housed at the University of Cincinnati and Ruthven became fast friends with its curator, Emerson Kemsies, who allowed Ruthven access to it for his artistic research. It didn’t take him long to start adding specimens himself.
A devoted upland game bird hunter, Ruthven secured collecting permits from Kemsies to bring back samples of non-protected birds from his research trips to Africa and South America. Ruthven would typically shoot a male and female of each bird required, then immediately peel the bird skin from the carcass and reassemble the bird’s body form using whatever stuffing material was at hand (he often improvised with wild grasses) and plenty of borax. Ruthven would wrap the bird in cotton batting, then plastic, and pack it up for its journey back to Cincinnati.
“Taking one or two samples does not impact the population as a whole, but yields significant information and a better understanding of the overall population,” says Glenn Storrs, curator of vertebrate paleontology and vice-president of collections and research at the Geier Center.
In 1962, after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s account of the devastating effect that pesticides were having on North American birds, Ruthven traveled to Africa and collected a variety of common bird samples for UC under the careful eye of the Nairobi Division of Firearms. The idea was that collecting samples of birds from beyond our shores would help scientists in the U.S. compare and monitor pesticide levels on various continents.
From one of the cabinets, Storrs helps Ruthven locate the last bird shot on that trip, a large African crow they found near downtown Nairobi. Ruthven recalls it happened to have been regularly defecating on a car owned by an official in the Division of Firearms. Storrs places the bird in Ruthven’s outstretched hands. “Well, hello there, old friend,” he says, fondly.
As drawer after drawer is opened to reveal exotic parrots, backyard robins, and eventually a jackpot of ruffed grouse, Ruthven’s ability to identify birds he gathered nearly 50 years ago is uncanny; his emotional investment in the collection and his understanding of its importance as a reference for both science and art couldn’t be clearer. Storrs estimates that there were 75,000 specimens in the collection when it was first donated by Brandt; at last count, they had more than 100,000.
“In 1968, Emerson came to me one afternoon and said that he thought he’d die soon,” Ruthven tells me. “Well, I thought that was just crazy and I didn’t want to listen to him, but he sat me down and explained that he’d made me the executor of his estate. He was sure that as soon as he was gone, UC would up and sell the collection. He made me promise that I’d use what he left behind to make sure the collection stayed in Cincinnati. He knew I was as committed to it as he was. Sure enough, two weeks later he died, and about two weeks after that I got a call from UC that they planned to sell. I set that guy straight. I told him that I planned to use all the financial resources I could to fight them and make sure the collection never left the city.” Ruthven chuckles at the memory. “I really scared them.”
A few days later he got a call from someone at UC. “He said if I wanted the birds I had better come and get ’em,” he recalls. Ruthven rented three vans, marshaled a committed group of volunteers, and together they moved 75,000 bird specimens to the old Cincinnati Natural History Museum on Gilbert Avenue. Surveying the room and all the open drawers of birds, Ruthven puts his hand on my arm and looks me dead in the eye. “I’m so glad I could save it,” he says.
Ruthven’s legacy would, at first glance, seem to be his prolific art career. With more than 800 original works and multiple commissions waiting to be completed, it’s obvious. But the closer one looks, it’s his outstanding dedication to the scientific and artistic study of wildlife, primarily birds, paired with a commitment to habitat conservation, that forms the formidable backbone of his oeuvre. Ruthven is fiercely proud of a plaque from Ducks Unlimited that hangs in his studio, commemorating his personal fund-raising efforts of well over a million dollars for the organization. Mark Jones estimates that he’s raised at least $500,000 for RGS as well.
Much has been written of Ruthven’s admiration for John James Audubon, the early American wildlife painter who spent part of his career in Cincinnati. Ruthven has been known to use techniques similar to Audubon’s in his art, furthering the ideal of hyper-realistic wildlife painting, including personally procuring and preserving his specimens. The difference between the two is that when Audubon was shooting the birds he catalogued, the North American continent was teeming with wildlife. No one in the 18th and 19th century could conceive of the drastic effects that human hands would wreak on American soil and in the air. Ruthven and his fellow hunters in the Ruffed Grouse Society fully understand that impact. Their desire to hunt game birds is what motivates them to document, maintain, and sustain the wild bird populations and their dwindling habitats.
When I ask fellow RGS members Ellis and Jones about cultural touchstones that inspire their dedication, like Ruthven they point out the contributions of parents, teachers, and mentors who led by personal example. But the flip side of that reverence is urgent concern, especially as they age, over future generations’ seeming lack of interest, scientific knowledge, and exposure to nature as a whole.
“More and more young people are interested in sustainable food from close to home,” Jones says. But without a parent, friend, or mentor who hunts, access to the sport can be tricky. “We encourage people to come to the RGS events,” he adds. “I love to invite people to come out to my place in March and watch the woodcock mating dance or train dogs with me.” Other RGS members are active in youth programs, introducing middle-school-age children to hunting safety courses and arranging youth hunts—doing their part to expose young men and women not just to hunting but to the thrill and unexpected mysteries of life in the outdoors.
“We have to get young people and more women involved,” stresses John Eichinger, president and CEO of the Ruffed Grouse Society. Eichinger has dedicated much of his adult life to conservation. Before moving to Pennsylvania to helm the RGS in 2012, he spent years volunteering with the Michigan United Conservation Club, an umbrella organization of more than 250 conservation clubs throughout the state, and also served as a vice chairman of the National Wildlife Federation. Eichinger admits that RGS’s challenges are not unique. “We are experiencing what other conservation groups are experiencing,” he says. “We have found over the years that many of the youth members of RGS also have a parent who is involved, and while we want to continue that, it’s now time to reach beyond.
“We know that we cannot do this on our own,” he adds. “We are actively looking for a partnership or an alliance with an organization that has programs for youth, particularly in urban areas. In the last census, the results showed us that 90 percent of the population live in or near cities. That doesn’t mean we need to turn everyone into a hunter—that’s not our objective at all—but we do need to get people outdoors.”
For all their earnest attention to habitat management and respect for the birds, the fact is that a lot of RGS members rarely even kill many these days. Most came to hunting when grouse and woodcock were plentiful, and white-tailed deer and wild turkey were few and far between.
“Decreasing populations of upland game birds, loss of habitat, and the aging of the bird hunter population dims the outlook for this sport’s popularity. It’s a reality that’s hard to face. In southwestern Ohio—except for woodcock hunting and dove shooting—you’re going to have to travel good distances,” notes Jones, who routinely drives up to his native Michigan, as well as New Hampshire, where he and his wife spend most of the warmer months.
Both he and Ellis actively lament the way hunting culture is portrayed on cable television. “I’m appalled because the emphasis is always on killing—like it’s football. Hey look, I’ve scored a touchdown!” Jones says, shaking his head.
In the course of my conversations with RGS members, no one bragged about birds killed or tried to give me any kind of hard sell on gun rights; mostly they came across as devout disciples of conservation. Ellis summed up his point of view with a line from Wallace Stegner’s open letter to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1960, later entitled “Wilderness Letter” and published in his book The Sound of Mountain Water: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
Ruthven, Ellis, and Jones all speak solemnly about hunting ethics. They pick up spent shells and litter left behind by less concerned sportsmen—“It’s just how I was raised,” says Ellis—and are committed to cooking and eating every upland game bird they bag. Ruthven, who says his mother laid down the law and demanded that he never waste a life, enthuses over woodcock “stuffed with a jalapeño pepper, wrapped in bacon, and cooked exactly two minutes on each side over a charcoal fire.” Later on, Jones e-mails me a luscious-sounding recipe for baked grouse breast with crème fraîche, fresh thyme leaves, and wild mushrooms.
Ellis credits his father with his introduction to game bird hunting, but Germanic hunting culture sealed the deal. Stationed in Berlin with the Army in his early 20s, he spent hours at the Grünewald forest and joined a rod and gun club, immersing himself in a group that often switched between four or five languages during the course of an evening, reliving stories from wilderness regions around the globe and sharing a common love for bird dogs, clay pigeon shooting, and fine food and wine. “I’m not finicky, but a good wine and a good game bird and I’m happy,” he says. “It just hit me there—these are my people.”
There was a hunting school he was required to attend in West Berlin to earn a hunting permit. “It was all about respect for animals,” he recalls. “What color are the eggs? What are the seven terms for the mating dances? You also had to break a certain number of clay pigeons, and then complete a written and oral exam. It was a very big deal. I remember that the instructor—who looked like Kris Kringle in lederhosen—made me identify the scent glands on a roebuck, and asked me how many eggs were standard in a mallard duck nest.” He earned his beautifully illustrated Jägerbrief certificate at the end of the course. It hangs in his home office to this day.
Ellis says that his son completed hunter safety courses when he was young and often hunted alongside him, but he’s 30 now and not currently hunting. “When I asked him why he went then and not now, he said, ‘I always just wanted to be with you, Dad.’ These days my son sends me postcards from all over the world and they’re all of beautiful, wild country,” he says. “He’s not hanging out in cities—he loves nature and experiencing those very special wild places.”
For Ellis that signifies one thing: mission accomplished. Still, fostering an appreciation for the majesty of the outdoors and a commitment to the conservation of the land he loves remains his prime concern. Sometimes that includes responsibly harvesting a bird or two for dinner, but more often than not it’s about a quiet morning tramping in the forest with his good friend Jones and their four Brittanys.
“The woods are a magical place for me,” he says. “That’s why I still go there. That awe, that wonder, that splendor—there’s always the anticipation of seeing something that I’ve never seen before.”
Originally published in the January 2015 issue