When Wild Ducks Were on the Menu

During the market-gunning era, wholesalers were willing to pay top dollar for ducks in order to distribute them to fancy restaurants in such cities as Chicago and New York. The photo below appears on the Sculling Waterfowl website and was first published in Harry Walsh’s fantastic book, “The Outlaw Gunner." It lists the money doled out by J.C. Jackson Wholesalers in Baltimore, Md., for various ducks:

price list

The prices are fascinating, but I do have a few questions:

1. What does J.C. Jackson consider a "butterball?" I've only heard this slang term used to describe the round, football-like shape of buffleheads; however, there is a separate listing for buffies. My best guess is that butterball was a term for mallards at the turn of the century, because there is no listing for mallards. It is rather implausible that the wholesaler could have overlooked mallards when it was even willing to purchase blackbirds. I have yet to find a waterfowl expert who can explain why butterballs and buffleheads are both listed. Does anyone out there know the answer?

2. Why are sprigtails (pintails) and wigeon priced so low? I know they are smaller than blacks and cans, but I consider them to be pretty tasty ducks. I can't imagine paying more for old squaws (long-tailed ducks), ruddy ducks or even brant than for pintails and wigeon.

3. Redheads are $2.50—twice as much as black ducks and other dabblers! I know redheads are tasty as far as other divers are concerned, but even wrapped in bacon, I'd never rank their flavor among puddle ducks.

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