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.