When I was a boy, it was on dog-day mornings that the quail’s classic bob-white, bob-bob-white changed abruptly to a lonesome who-he, who-he, as the coveys that had scattered to nest reassembled. A dozen voices, unable to restrain their enthusiasm for the day to come, would break the morning silence and after a minute or two stop as suddenly as they began.
My grandfather’s farm always had several coveys of quail, and on many mornings the daybreak chorus was sung almost at our doorstep. And in one way, September was the best of all months. It held the promise of November and the wonderful terror followed by triumph or despair that comprised the thrill of chasing the wild Northern Bobwhite.
Lately, I have a dream. I am 14 again, and it is a crisp November day with the sun just warm enough and the breeze soft. I am walking through the 10-acre field behind my grandparents’ house. Dead stems left from their garden stick up among frost-browned weeds.
One of my dogs is cantering easily, nose in the air, a cock to his ears that tells me he knows where he is heading. The other is circling rapidly, nose to the ground, and all of a sudden both stop – their heads are rigid, eyes focused on the same spot. The nose-in-the-air dog wriggles down close to the ground and performs a shimmy with his hips. The circling dog crowds into the act, and the contest is clear. One of the dogs will freeze and may even lift his right, left, front, or hind foot. His tail will either stick straight up or straight behind him like a baton. And it will not quiver. Whichever dog loses the contest will honor the winner by dropping and freezing.
I walk up behind the dog. I am carrying my great-grandfather’s shotgun. My face is white. I am sweating. My hands are shaking. My heart is pounding. My reflexes are cocked and my stomach is full of butterflies.
I prod a hummock with my foot and the dogs sneak ahead to freeze again. I draw a deep breath and kick again. Nothing happens. Again. Nothing. Both dogs inch forward, and I scuff the weeds with my boot. The lead dog switches his nose and points it straight down. This is it. I kick, and the world erupts around me.
Small birds burst from the ground. They take off in all directions. They are traveling at more than 40 miles an hour, and each presents a target the size of a big orange. If they are to be killed, it must be before they have traveled 60 yards. But first, I must select one bird from the mass of rocketing fowl, because a man who shoots at the group hits nothing.
I make a split second decision. A quail comes into my eye, the gun goes under my eye, I squeeze the trigger, and if I did it right the bird drops in a shower of feathers. If I am good, I pick another bird and fire again. If I am very good that bird drops.
The dogs, Trixie and Bruce, were connoisseurs of shooters. If you were shooting well they would cooperate. That’s to say, they would work. If you were shooting badly, they would go home. I missed 13 straight shots that day. They took one look at me and said a variety of things with their eyes – all profane. Then they went home and refused to hunt for a week.
The satisfaction of chasing the wild Northern Bobwhite is as great for the man now as it was for the boy then. Unfortunately, the brave quail is a frail quail and has become less available to the ordinary hunter. It breeds well: a couple of clutches a season will build a covey to 30. It sticks to its own ground. The “same” covey will inhabit the same place for years if sufficient seed birds are left.
As a boy, I hunted the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of my first feathered friends in the field behind my grandparents’ house. But today, 80-acre farms like theirs with their little fields and overgrown hedgerows are few. And weather, varmints, fire ants, high grass, low grass, lost cover and fire suppression have all conspired to make the quail a candidate for extinction except in areas where its habitat is managed.
Apart from its courage and trickiness in the field, the bobwhite inspires pleasant nostalgia when the evening fire snaps and hisses and the bourbon melds gently with the branch water. It tastes good on the plate and looks good in the field, and no game was ever more exciting to hunt.
Tate is a Carrollton resident and bird enthusiast.