F&S Classics: The Call of the Cuckoo

In this vintage adventure story, our legendary shooting editor travels to Spain to chase trophy ibex

Birdcalls you seldom hear at 36,000 feet and 600 miles an hour. Yet even as I happily chewed coq au vin on the KLM jet, I could’ve sworn I heard the two-toned song of a cuckoo. Not sensible at all. But the mission that had me rushing across the Atlantic to Amsterdam and thence down to Madrid wasn’t very sensible anyway. Most trophy hunts have a certain irrationality about them, and most trophy hunters, like those prizefighters whose heads constantly ring with bells, hear the call of the cuckoo now and then. Even in comfort aboard a high-flying jet.

For those who are not members of the Audubon Society, the cuckoo is a bird slightly bigger than a robin, fairly common in Europe. There he makes a noise precisely like the hourly announcements of those fancy clocks the Bavarians whittle out for tourists. He has a few American relations, but their song varies harshly from the ventriloquial “cooook cooo” of the old-country version. The European bird sits on a tree in the mountains, echoing his call off the opposite slopes. From these occasionally comes a real response, from some other cuckoo, so that fantasy and reality can get mixed up, and the man who would chase a cuckoo by his song wears himself to the knees in short order. Much, I thought as I sopped up the last bits of chicken and wine sauce, as does a trophy hunter.

And this particular trophy hunt, I remember thinking when our plane’s wheels eventually locked down for the Madrid landing, certainly proved me a cuckoo-chaser. I’d already been thoroughly licked on it once.

Vintage Conservation Comeback Story

The ibex of Spain is hardly a rarity, and thanks to the interest of confirmed hunters is not likely to be announced by the New York Times as an endangered species. Yet it is a trophy owned by few from these United States, surely fewer than a dozen. My first pass on Capra Hispanica, in April of 1969, had been an utter strikeout. For the three days of my hard-won permit the rain and fog lay so heavy in the Sierra de Cazorla that a man couldn’t see his riding mule’s ears, much less spot ibex on the peaks. During that trip, the few water-soaked love calls by the resident cuckoos had sounded like derisive hoots. A more intelligent man would have given up the whole business.

But the ibex of Spain has unique qualities. For one thing, it had become virtually extinct until King Alfonso XIII, himself an ardent hunter, moved, as hunters so often do, to reestablish a true game species. In 1914, the King used his royal prerogatives to establish a set of three reserve areas in the mountain regions of Spain. At first the macho montes, or stud of the mountains, was under total protection. Then as the ibex bred up, limited hunting became possible, under controlled permits.

Today, there are more ibex than in Spain’s known history, just as we now have more whitetail than when the Pilgrims landed. Nicolas Franco, my host in Spain and a trophy hunter of world note, gave me as his guess a total ibex population of at least 8,000 head, scattered in various of Spain’s 28 national parks and hunting reserves among the six mountainous regions proper for ibex. The desert-dry Gredos range, only 150 miles west of Madrid, has given up fine heads on permits issued through the Tourist Department; the more remote Sierra de Cazorla y Segura section of the great southern Sierra Nevada range probably has more animals, but permits through the Ministry of Agriculture are harder to come by. As of now, ibex continue steady increase under such sensible biological controls.

The July 1971 cover of Field and Stream magazine
“The Call of the Cuckoo,” by Warren Page, appeared in the July 1971 issue. Field & Stream

Off to a Slow Start

As a matter of fact, under present government methods, game everywhere in Spain seems to be improving in quantity and quality. For example, back in 1950 an Exposición Nacional de Trofeos de Caza had displayed game heads of gold-, silver, and bronze-medal quality—about like our Boone and Crockett Club contest winners of the ten types of big game found in Spain. These are the red, fallow, and roe deer, boar, chamois, mouflon, ibex, lynx, and very surprisingly, bear and wolf. There were only 413 specimens in that show of 20 years ago. But in 1970, the exposition I visited had on display over 2,800 record-quality trophies. This from a country twice the size of Wyoming but with 10 times the population, a land of which much is either desert or under heavy cultivation.

“Very encouraging,” I had said to Nicolas as we drove southward over the high tablelands of central Spain. “But the remarkable accomplishments of the government people or of fanatical hunter groups like your Club des Monteros won’t mean a cussed thing if we hit weather like last year’s at this time.”

But no hint of rain darkened the moon when we passed the barrier into the national park in which we’d hunt—the Spanish see no point in having the inevitable natural increase of protected game shot off by wardens or rangers—and the lights of the parador, or inn, set high in the mountains gleamed bright and clear. The sky was still clear at 5:30 next morning when, a full hour’s drive by Land Rover from our wake-up potion of lye-strong coffee, we climbed onto mules for the next lap upwards.

Since it is a national park, open to the public, the Coto de la Cazorla has graveled roads winding precariously around most of its valley sidehills, so that much of its roughly 750 square miles of mountain scenery and some of its game can be seen by tourists; but so far the Spanish parks have not been discovered by the weekending thousands that are beginning to swarm onto Spanish highways in their buzzing seats. Unlike some of ours, their parks have not been turned into unfenced zoos with parking lots and Hershey bar wrappers. Once we turned off the road onto steep slopes dotted with Spanish pines we saw no soul save from our own party.

Nor much by way of ibex. For some puzzling reason, they were not, as they normally would be, scattered along the rocky spines of the Cazorla peaks. Early we located a sizable band placidly feeding in a grassy saddle, with no approach possible, but as we watched, looking for a billy of size, they wandered over the cliff edge that looked down onto the red-tiled roofs and the ruined castle of Cazorla, a mile or so down. But when we looked over, the ibex had somehow vanished. During the day we looked at perhaps 40 animals, counting nannies and kids. Since that was perhaps half the usual number, my guides, one of whom had aided Generalissimo Franco in the taking of a colossal trophy red deer, the modern record for Spain, were abnormally quiet as we rattled back through evening darkness toward the warmth and food of the parador. I had the awful feeling that the lousy luck of the preceding spring was due to repeat itself.

But the men who listen to cuckoos are if nothing else over hopeful, and by full light next morning I was crouching behind a boulder, glasses on a 10-acre pocket high in the Cazorla, estimating horn length on a full-grown male ibex. Beyond him the light browns and tans of at least 40 ibex showed against morning grass, a few of them with the darker body markings, near-black pantaloons, and chin whiskers that distinguish the proper macho montes, but I could take this flare-horned billy easily. He was at less than 200 yards. Question—was he good enough?

I looked at Nicolas. Pursed lips and an upward move of the eyebrows made his meaning clear. “Your problem, amigo.”

I looked at the chief guide. He smiled. I asked “¿Bueno?” He smiled some more and raised his hands, palm upward and flat. I’d seen that before. The ibex, if it could raise no more enthusiasm from either friend or warden, had to be mediocre. “No,” Nicolas said afterward when we’d slid back around the ledge away from the band of ibex. “He might make 60 centimeters, or even 62, but was no trophy. No reason to shoot.”

Bronze-Medal Billy

By nightfall that “average” billy had proved the best we could approach all day, and when we headed for shelter ahead of a black cloud fat with rainwater, I gloomily predicted, “Another washout. Precisely like last year.”

Friends who had hunted in the Gredos had enjoyed no such floods or fogouts. The lush Cazorla ridges, removed from the Mediterranean by one even higher range and so benefitted by a moisture fallout like that of the Olympic Peninsula, might have more ibex but they were certainly harder to come by.

Since Nicolas had business in Madrid the third hunting day, and since for that try I was scheduled to switch to a new set of guides and a new area, to practice my 11 cents worth of New Mexico Spanish on total strangers, the pressure really came on. We had already worn out the mules and looked holes through my binoculars, had climbed everything insight in a cleat-booted scramble around on rocky spines that only a goat critter could love. The weather wasn’t really improving, and on that last day I was scheduled to head north shortly after noon.

The gentry who met me in the dark morning were professionally optimistic, however, and before it came light enough to turn off the Land Rover headlights it was evident that we were heading into a radically different sort of country. Theoretically ibex are creatures of the highest bare ridges, steepest cliffs and rock outcrops. The tableland we were moving into, a sort of pass, was high enough perhaps, but everywhere garmented in timber save for little rock buttes and canyons. It reminded me of mule deer country in the Jemez section of New Mexico, where the piñons and junipers give way to longleaf pines.

When the Land Rover wheels ran out of track, a mile from what could’ve been a ranch house outside the park line, we set off on foot across this forested terrain. No sense in my discussing matters with my guides since we couldn’t understand each other and their chief gesture had put finger across lips for silence. Screwy sort of ibex hunt, I thought.

It seemed even screwier when I came to realize that we were moving as cautiously as deer hunters, and when we came to a canyon edge the pause was as much to listen as to look. Why listen? Cuckoos, maybe?

Then I remembered. Young male ibex, being full of masculine beans and later scheduled for knockdown battles with the old billies, spend much of their time in rough horn sparring. It is only partly play. When they slam together and wrestle their horns for an opening the impact and rattle can be heard for half a mile. The dense atmosphere, still wet although the rains had for the moment quit, would give that sound full carry.

We saw them first, though. On the opposite canyon slope, in pine timber, a band of ibex. Sex unknown and unidentifiable through the growth. Then we heard the banging of horns. A few males, anyway.

The stalk down our side of the 300-foot gully was easy enough but in the bottom we ran onto a family of jabali, a wild sow and her dozen striped piglets rooting happily. A bucolic scene, and if there’d been a really big boar, would have been a sight sought by every Spanish hunter, since to them a pig with 8 or 10 inches of ivory is a proper trophy; but the danger was we’d spook the family. They could run up through the ibex and blow the whole operation.

The fatter of my two silent guides solved the problem. He sneaked off upcanyon and deliberately gave the pigs his wind from an angle that made them flee away from the ibex. Score one for our side.

And in 15 minutes of gumshoeing up the slope we were ready to score two, or even perhaps win the game, except that we couldn’t see the ibex well enough to pick a trophy head. It was like guessing a whitetail deer in a thicket. Horns we could see, but which set was good and which indifferent? To make matters worse, there seemed to be two bunches of ibex shifting around, and if one batch of nannies and young males moved a hundred yards downslope they’d wind us for sure.

For 15 minutes that grew into a half hour, we sat there frozen. No way to move closer, and we were still 200 yards from the senior males. No way to pick out the best one of them. Who ever said that ibex were to be hunted in timber like deer, anyway? The whole idea was cuckoo, like that idiot bird.

The group of five or six billies were sporting on a rock projection I could see through the pine branches. All full grown, but one looked darker. Then he momentarily climbed up onto the top rock and posed. Could be no doubt about the trophy proportions of those horns! The two guides still could not see him, but when I lifted up the rifle and poked it through, my left hand resting on a springy pine bough, I could make him out in the scope and square the crosswires on the shoulder. Good enough.

For an instant after the rifle sets back into your shoulder there’s always that nervous leap of question—was it right? If the answer is a solidly reassuring bullet thump, the rest is anticlimax.

And so here. From the moment the longhorned ibex collapsed on the rocks until the park’s director of hunting gave me a printed slip announcing that my ibex rated trophy classification in the bronze medal class—and so an extra fee of 16,000 pesetas—little happened. Events, yes, like our own rough taping of 85 centimeters and enthusiasms from the guides, and the job of getting a pack animal to move the ibex to the Land Rover track. But only one happening of consequence. As we waited for the packer, the sun broke through, and a cuckoo saluted it from somewhere higher on the mountain. No derision in that sound. A welcome, and a challenge, perhaps. But for the time I was through chasing cuckoos.