Many gourmets regard quail as the finest wild game to eat. Many hunters prize quail as the ultimate wild bird to shoot. Quail stuffed with a duxelles of mushrooms, truffles and crab and browned in clarified butter makes one quail connoisseur swoon. The sudden freezing of a dog on point, the explosive rise of a covey of quail makes the heart of many a quail hunter nearly stop.
Unfortunately, quail are in decline. Some blame wild turkeys, which have staged a miraculous comeback. Others cite loss of habitat and an increase in predators. Whatever the reason, our natural surroundings are diminished by the fading of quail, and not just for hunters and bon vivants.
A desire to attract wildlife and renew the quail population was one of the things that drew me to the country. A government program for wildlife habitat improvement paid most of the cost of planting native grass for nesting and trees for refuge. A bounty of weeds in the first year of the project had instantaneous impact. Songbirds flocked to the farm. Thrilling "bob whites" surrounded our hill.
Releasing pen-raised quail to jump start the program was less successful. The day after, the only quail we found had been deprived of their heads. Apparently, hawks and owls are selective eaters when their table is so lavishly set. A "call-back pen" worked better. One bird kept in this simple wire mesh enclosure calls the others back home when they're set free. The released birds can enter but, once in, a one-way door prohibits their escape.
The birds get the best of both worlds an opportunity to exercise and enjoy the open air during the day and safe, stocked quarters for the night. The call-back pen project has given me hours of entertainment and a few insights into the nature of Nature. In the pen, the quail swarm in terror at my approach, climbing over one another and crowding the corners like commuters on a Japanese subway. "They're like vermin," my frank daughter observes.
But once set free, they become glorious emblems of wildness. With a startling percussion, they test their wings in short, Kittyhawk flights, then land and stride about in miniature majesty, dusting themselves with relish and inspecting their surroundings with obvious delight. I know what you bleeding hearts are saying: You're just raising them so you can shoot them, George, you brute. But you're wrong. Birds you feed and water soon become pets. I've come to know them as distinct personalities. I have held them in my hands, spoken soothing words to them and given a few of them names. The idea of harming them is abhorrent.
One evening, I found the pen empty but for the call-back bird. The other rascals had gone AWOL. Perhaps they wanted to see what it was like to camp out under the stars. I was stricken with anguish like any mother hen and spent a sleepless night tormented by nightmares of talons and snapping teeth.
The next morning as I drove out under a cloud of despair, I spied some quail by the roadside. My birds! I got the pen and set it near them in the grass. In five minutes the entire bunch was huddled in the pen, shivering with fear and somewhat crestfallen. I was a overjoyed and a little angry.
"Had enough, have you? Pen looks mighty good after a night on the cold ground, isn't that right? How many times do I have to tell you it's dangerous out there.
When they're in the pen, my quail clamor for freedom. But the great outdoors can be harsh and terrifying when you're used to the comforts of home. Prison is cozy. You get food and water without having to work. The raccoons, skunks, coyotes, bobcats, hawks and owls are on the outside.
But let's not be judgmental. We humans flock to our prisons, spending most of our lives cooped up in automobiles, driving to and from our cubicles. There are men, "who deliberately commit a crime in order to be sent to penal servitude and thus escape the incomparably harsher servitude of freedom," wrote the great Dostoevsky. The true prisoner in this arrangement is Master, the one who cleans out the cage and delivers the victuals.
The average quail lives to be only 8 months old in the wild. The challenges to survival are daunting. Danger doesn't end when the sun goes down. It only opens the curtain on another cast of nocturnal carnivores. The bob white's two-note whistle uplifts the human heart. Unfortunately, it's also a dead giveaway of their whereabouts, a dinner bell for predators. Freedom, in a matter of speaking, is for the birds. The pen has much to recommend it. I, too, know why the caged bird sings.
That scrape with disaster has endeared my quail to me all the more. Naturally, I have my favorites, particularly one "Scraggily," who's learned how to escape her quarters and loves to strut around, taunting the others from beyond the walls. But let the glowing bars of twilight fall over the barn yard and it's back to the pen in a flash.
Shoot them my own children? How could anyone entertain such a vile thought? On the contrary, I plan to feed them through the winter and set them free for good next spring. By then they'll be as strong as wild birds. With luck, they'll mate and raise a clutch or two. Those new birds, of course, will be nameless birds, strangers and fair game.
George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.