Posts Tagged ‘bobwhite’

The Last Covey of Quail

bobwhites (2)

They came marching through the dead stalks of corn, filling the air with their eerie little noises that denote their comings and goings to anyone who happened to listen. They were of the bobwhite tribe, and this was their last redoubt in this little rugged hilly country n middle of nowhere in West Virginia. There were 9 of them, three cockbirds and six hens, and they were living the best they could in the land of the little corn patches and brier patches. They were not the land of grass and grain, but in in the land of encroaching woodland, the stooping hawk, and the wily nest-raiding raccoon.

A man with a shotgun and stronger taste for squirrel meat than wild poultry heard their rustlings and eerie calls, and knowing that, despite their rarity, the state allowed a quail season, he decided to creep along the cornfield to flush the birds into the air.

The birds shot out of the corn like living confetti released from a can, and the 20 gauge blasted three times. Each wad of shot hit its mark,  and the birds fell, two cockbirds and a hen. The man gathered them up and put them in his game bag, then began to mosey his way to the hickory stands on a distant ridge, where the gray squirrels squacked and scurried and a hunter’s shots were sure to bring home a limit of game.

But what he didn’t know is he shot out the last covey of bobwhites that ever would grace these hills. All the old farmers knew these birds. They would set out to cut their hay with scythes, and the birds were all around their hayfields, moving in great companies of paired off hens and cockbirds and chicks of the year that varied in size from slightly larger than bumble bees to the size of sparrows.

But the birds evolved for the farmfield, and when the farm boys all found good jobs in places like Detroit and Cleveland, no one came with scythe or tractor upon the land. The hayfields filled with multiflora rose, then Virginia and white pines began to pioneer their way upon the scene, quickly followed by quaking aspen colonies.

And the hayfields and pastures returned to forest, not the forest primeval of which we so romantically dream, but the secondary growth that is all viny and stunted. The greenbriers and the multiflora rose created a paradise for ruffed grouse for a time, but a total martian landscape for bobwhite quail.

And so the decades of disuse took their toll, and the forest conquered the pasture and hayfield. It was an ersatz reconquista, for yes, the forest is what stood on the land before the Europeans came was full of mighty oaks and chestnuts. But now the spindly secondary growth took over the scene.

Each year, the calls of the quail became fainter and fainter to the old farmers who eked out some semblance of survival upon land, and it wasn’t long before most of them thought the birds were gone. A few enterprising souls complained to the state about the continued liberal hunting season of the birds, but the state never would take action. The war against the woodland’s advance was simply not worth fighting, and there were well-funded bird dog trialers who set out pen raised bobwhites for their sport. A ban on their hunting would interfere too much with this constituency, and so nothing was done.

So the shots rang out over the cornfield, and three birds fell from the sky and out beyond their mortal coil. The man roasted the quail breasts in his oven, and he thought long and hard about nice November nights, when he’d eat some quail breasts for dinner and then he’d step out on his back porch and smoke a cigarette and stare up into the infinity of stars above. He would wonder a bit about the big questions of existence. The smoke would fill his lungs and shoot out his nostrils, and he would feel at peace in the cold, crisp stillness of a night before the coming winter.

But now he felt as if he were eating a relic from a time gone by. He savored the quail flesh, and be began to worry if these might have been the last ones to grace his plate.

And then the cold winter came, and the chill winds rushed down from Canada and froze the land for six hard weeks. The five of the quail died of horrific starvation, and the survivor, a demure but tough little hen, made it to see the greening of March and April.

But a lone bird doesn’t last long, and one night, a barred owl staked out her resting place, then stooped down from a little walnut tree and carried her off a nice morsel of night fare.

And so the quail’s little marching songs no longer pierced the grass and the corn patches. The “bobwhite” call never sung out around the old hayfields, where this call and the sound of scythes being sharpened were so quintessential of the farmer’s haycutting as to be its sound track.

The land went from big woods to farmfield then back into woods again.  Those creatures whose fortunes soared when the land was cultivated saw their fortunes collapse once the constant tilling and haycutting ceased.

The old farmers spoke with nostalgia of the sharpening of scythes and the twitter of quail, as if it always been that way, but these old farmers lived only the life time of men. And they could not have seen the world before their forebears came and opened up the land and grazed cattle and sheep and planted big stands of corn.

Their mind’s eye could only see what they knew as children and young men upon the land. They could not see the days when the forest was full of big trees, and the descendants of that Siberian colonization hunted wild game. They grew some corn and squash in the river bottoms, but they left the rugged hills to stand as big woods, parkland for the bison, elk, and bears that were their meat and hides.

And so the last covey of quail died out in the hills, but it was not the shots that killed them in the end but the simple decades of disuse that allowed their land pastures and fields to go into forest once again.

To have an ecological view of the world, one must not fall into the trap of the old farmers, who could only know what they had seen in their lives, but one must think of the way land shifts from use to disuse, how one can see things like the forces of economics driving hard against the way things are into what surely must be.

And so it was that the people of the hills learned to shoot squirrels and grouse on cool November days before the big rifle season for deer came rushing in with Thanksgiving week. A few of the old ones would reminisce about the big coveys of bobwhite, but the young ones never paid that much attention. They would never know the sound of a scythe upon the tall orchard grass on a sultry day in late June that would be accompanied by the eerie calls of quail in the tall grass.

Their mind’s eye was trained upon the woods, the yapping squirrel dogs and the solid setters. They no longer felt that connection to the land of farms, but instead, thought of themselves as truly sylvan dwellers.

Each epoch and era twists the winds of existence for each generation, and so no one alive in twenty years will miss the quail.  But as the forests grow more mature, the land stops being such a great paradise for ruffed grouse, and maybe that will be the thing that the present generation will feel a nostalgic sorrow for when their drumming ceases in the aspen.

Maybe we will know the full story of the succession of the land from field to forest. Maybe a more ecological view point will be more commonplace by that time.

But we are a remembering species. Nostalgia is our great disease, and so long as we feel peace and comfort with some association, that association will be soft and deep and balming to our spirit.

That is the story of our species, not the story of quail, but it is what we are.

We just have to be aware of its power, and its powerful beguiling.







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These are pretty wild!

Bobwhites are essentially extinct in most of West Virginia. They prefer agricultural lands.  Most of the state has returned to forest in part because the agricultural economy has declined and because timber prices are quite low.

I’ve never seen a wild one here, but my grandparents saw thousands upon thousands of them. You could hear them in all the pastures and cropland.

The main gamebird of West Virginia today is the ruffed grouse, which is followed closely by the stocked pheasant and “squeegy bird” (better known as the American woodcock).

Wild turkeys don’t count. The state regards those as big game!

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In theory, bobwhites are found all over West Virginia.

In reality, I’ve never seen a wild one here.

They used to be fairly common in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century.

Which was well before my time.

These birds prefer cultivated land with brushy areas between fields.

That’s not what West Virginia looks like now.

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The pheasants are stocked, but the bobwhites are native.  And this Brittany’s game is on.


This is from a Kentucky PBS show called Kentucky Afield, which is a hunting, fishing, and conservation show– with its own Youtube channel. It’s where the Turtleman go his start!

Adam Edelen was Governor Steve Beshear’s chief of staff at the time this footage was taken.  He was elected State Auditor in last week’s election.

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This is a rooster:


The description to this video said the bobwhite actually came in the house.

That means that this was a captive-reared bird.

Bobwhites have been bred in captivity for so long that they’ve become tamer than any domestic fowl. They also come in several color and size varieties. Some of the larger sizes appear to be bred for table fare only. (The so-called “jumbo” varieties.)

I have never seen a wild one in West Virginia.

They once were common, but the land no longer can support what is essentially a species that is more at home in the farm fields than dense woodland.

Releasing tame bobwhites into the wild actually doesn’t help much.

All it does is ring the dinner bell for every predator within a ten mile radius.

If they don’t know how to hide from hawks, then all you’re going to have in the end are some rather well-fed raptors.

Bobwhites naturally pair off in the breeding season, but they also travel in groups called coveys. The coveys tend to use the same roosts every night.

Foxes and raccoons are not stupid animals. They catch onto this very quickly.

And it would be one thing if they roosted in trees, but they don’t.

They roost on the ground in a circle. Their tails all point to the center of the circle, and their heads point outward. If they are disturbed, the birds will scatter in all directions. That way, if a predator grabs one, the others will have gone in so many different directions that the predator won’t be able to track them down.

But all of this works nicely in agricultural land.

It doesn’t work in forests that are full of lower and mid-level predators.

When the habitat is gone, turning loose tame bobwhites is a futile exercise.

They simply won’t last.

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With game birds, habitat is key. Without proper habitat, you’ll not have game birds. You can stock them, but without proper cover, they will fall to predation. And without proper access to cultivated fields and open pasture, the birds won’t make it long.

My grandparents and great grandparents lived in a land very different from the dense woodlands that cover most of West Virginia today. The land was used for intensive agricultural enterprises. The land was at best marginal to large scale crop production, but because they relied so much on what they could grow, they had to work as much of the land as possible.

When Europeans first came to this part of West Virginia, they cut small clearings in the forest and then shot all the wolves, cougars, and bears. They relied on wild game and domestic hogs for meat. They later took up small scale grazing of sheep and cattle. When the timber companies came in the decades following the Civil War, the forests were almost entirely cleared

Then market hunters killed off most of the white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, and everyone came to rely on domesticated animals for meat. Hog-raising and cattle husbandry became skills that were passed on from generation to generation.

As a result of having so much open land where corn and other grains could be grown, the northern bobwhites were the most common game bird.

Now, bobwhites do need some cover. They have to have it to hide from predators, and because they roost on the ground, they need some dense bushes to cover them up.

However, they do tend to thrive where there are fields of grain and pasture land. These areas are even better for them if there are some areas at the edges of the cultivated land with some of those dense thickets.

The way pastures and agricultural land was maintained in those days was to leave some “waste” at the edge of the field. The really super-powerful mowing machines were unknown in those days, and most crops and hay were cut using scythes. It would be too much effort to cut the waste at the edge of the field, so these areas were left intact for the bobwhites.

Also, because the land was open, the hawks didn’t have many perches from which to launch their attacks.  Except for the harrier, most hawks can’t hover in the air and then drop down on their prey.

By the 1970’s, though, things changed. Scientific management of forests had finally begun to pay off in West Virginia.  Agriculture became much more profitable and efficient in other areas of the country, so people were less interested in farming the high ridges. It was cheaper to buy food at the grocery store. Also, the post-war industrial boom had provided new incentives for people leave the hills and give up on hill-farming forever. As a result of these changes, the land was becoming more and more forested.

The bobwhites lost their food source, and it also became easier for the hawks to hunt them. The hawks now had far more platforms from which to swoop down on the bobwhites.

After losing much of their food souce and having lost their ability to avoid predation, bobwhite numbers began to decrease.

Then in the late 70’s, harsh winters did them in. They simply could not put up with that much snow and such low temperatures.

By the time I was born, the bobwhite had disappeared from most of West Virginia. And it hasn’t returned since.

Quail Forever’s 2008 hunting forecast for West Virginia painted a bleak picture:

With approximately three-quarters of the state in forested land, marginal habitat and limited agricultural production, bobwhite opportunities in the Mountain State remain limited. The best quail habitat lies in the Greenbrier River Valley, the eastern panhandle and in isolated pockets along the Ohio River Valley. West Virginia hunters can again expect to see a harvest of less than 1,000 bobs.

I don’t live in any of those places. And when they say “Ohio Valley,”  they mean the lower part of the Ohio Valley in West Virginia, where the land is largely flat and still open. Indeed, there are lots of large farms for corn and tobacco down there. Where I live,  you aren’t going to see anything like that.

So I live in a bobwhite-free zone. However, we have plenty of other animals. We have a growing population of wild turkeys, a sizeable population of ruffed grouse, and very good woodcock numbers. These animals didn’t do so well when the land was open and full of cornfield and pastures. And partly because the forests have returned, we now have a growing black bear population. And I don’t have to mention that we have tons of deer.

It’s not unusual to hear old-timers wax romantic about those long days in the hayfields, where they spend hour after hour swinging a scythe through the tall grass. As the sweat would pour from their brows, they would hear the little feeding calls of the bobwhites as they scurried around the fields, catching little insects and nibbling on tiny grass seeds.

But those days are past. The ubiquitous nature of the bobwhite in those days was an unnatural occurence.  Like the farmers, the little game birds relied upon an unnaturally open landscape to make their living, and once people found they no longer had farm in order to eat, the land returned to the dense forests. And these forests were no homes for the bobwhites.

Because I grew up in a land of dense forests, I was more likely to see a black bear than a bobwhite. I think I can handle the trade.

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