SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Savannah, the southern city of the sea, is well known for its wild shrimp, crabs and wide variety of fish, but what about marsh hens?
Marsh hens are 15 to 20-inch sized brown water birds that live in the marshes of Savannah and other areas.
TV host Andrew Zimmern took a trip to the coastal crossroads of Savannah where he hunted for them in the first season of “Bizarre Foods” as part of his quest to find the world’s most unique tastes.
However, for some Georgians, eating marsh hens is common and has been on plates of families and friends as a fall tradition for years.
“I heard my grandfather talk about marsh hen hunting when I was a kid, and it was one of those things that kind of had an old timey mystique to it,” said John Howkins lll.
His grandfather John Howkins l spent part of his life across from Forsyth Park in the home that later became Fox and Weeks and then The Mansion. He also spent younger years in Jamaica and Bermuda, where he excelled at sailing.
“His love of all things on the water passes through his son, grandson and great grandson who all carry the same name through the four generations.” said Howkins dad John Howkins ll.
Also passed down, hunting marsh hens. “I was actually riding a jet ski one day when I was in my 20’s, probably mid 20’s and it was a high tide and I saw a bird pop up. It looked really gamey, and I thought ‘that’s probably a marsh hen’ and I started kind of researching it and got interested in it and sure enough it was a marsh hen.”
Howkins continued, “So I started asking some friends if they wanted to try for them and I realized that if the tide was right, it wasn’t too difficult. So, I had a successful hunt and started doing some yearly trips with different groups of friends and going after them.”
The tide is right to hunt marsh hens when the moon is full and the fall brings flood tides which allow hunters to get back to where the marsh hens live.
During high tide, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, and poling boats are able to get out of the creeks and rivers and back onto the flats.
“We’ve had a good time doing it with friends and family and you know, it turned out to be something that was accessible for me. My dad lives out on Wilmington Island, right on the water so it’s pretty easy to get out and do.”
Describing the taste Howkins said, it’s a gamier bird similar in taste to a dove.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the best waterfowl or bird I’ve ever tasted, and I would challenge anybody to give it a try in a couple of different ways to see what they think. That’s the reason for the “Bizarre Foods” episode, a lot of people don’t like them, and they taste gamey but, you know, it’s all in the preparation, like a lot of things. I’ve had them on the grill, wrapped in bacon and with cream cheese and jalapeno, which makes just about anything taste good and of course that’s a good way to eat them. You can fry them, and people fry them with gravy.” he explained.
This year, families may consider starting new customs such as tidal bird hunting for a special meal.
“I think for a lot of people it’s just kind of like a good fall or Thanksgiving tradition, you know, home for the holidays and you’re from Savannah or the Low Country area, you know, it becomes kind of like a nice thing you look forward to with your family and friends around the holidays.”
For those considering putting marsh hens on the dinner table this year, a hunting license is required, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division.
Until then Howkins has some advice, “Stick to fishing right now and dream of those cooler days in the fall when you can get on the birds.”