by Julie Gyselinck
Quail hunting and skeet shooting have long been a favorite past time of southern gentlemen, and a few intrepid ladies as well. The imagery that comes to mind is of crisp fall days, with aqua blue skies contrasting smartly with hunter orange vests. Lithe dogs darting out ahead of the hunters, disappearing under dried brush and popping up again, noses on high alert for the scent of the quail, hiding in the grasses and fallen limbs.
The hunters slowly walk behind the dogs, chatting freely, discussing the hunt and past adventures. Quail hunting is not the break of dawn, silent hunt, sitting in freezing cold darkness. It is a social event and it’s not really about hunting birds. Any passionate quail hunter will tell you it’s really about the dogs.
English Setters and German Shorthairs are the preferred breed for the local hunters in the Lowcountry. Be it a beloved and plump pet with sofa privileges or one of the lean, loud, "professional” hunting dogs, they all share the same razor sharp focus for the birds. Bounding out of their dog boxes, they go straight to work. Expert noses work 4 to 8 inches off the ground, their bodies virtually vibrating with the excitement of the hunt. They scuffle at a steady pace through the clumps of native grasses and brush, only hesitating when they get on the scent. Once they have located the bird, they freeze in the quintessential pose; noses pointing in the direction of the bird, one front foot off the ground, and tails up in the air. The occasional lab, working its second job as a flush dog, will pounce on the dried grass, flushing the hiding birds up into the air. Shots are called calmly and in a safe manner, anyone not shooting drops to the ground as the hunters take aim at the fleeing quail.
The dogs rush to claim their prizes. Dutifully bringing the birds back to their handlers, the dogs release them eagerly but sometimes only after gleefully removing a few extra feathers. The birds are placed in smart messenger bags worn across the hunters’ chests. The group moves calmly forward. The dogs, eager for their next find, disappear into the tall dried grass.
Quail hunting, once wildly popular across the country has taken a drastic dip in favorability. Not for lack of people eager to go shooting, but for the lack of birds and habitat. The brown quail once prolific across most of the US, has found its preferred habitat of native tall grasses reduced by over 80 percent. Modern farming techniques and land development have all but removed the once vast stretch of connected nesting lands for the quail. Preferring the tall native grasses allowed to dry naturally in clumps on the outer edges of forests and fields or low lightly brushed forests, the quail literally has no place to turn for nesting and seems unlikely to adapt to a changing landscape. Now the little birds’ biggest protector is the very one who hunts it. It’s the combined efforts of the local and federal wildlife commissions and the hunters themselves who are implementing a massive conservation effort across the country to protect and preserve the natural habitats that are left for the quail.
While the dogs catch a breath and a drink of water, the hunters gather around to discuss their day in the field. It’s been one of the best in a while. Great, clear weather, few bugs, plenty of lively birds and well behaved dogs. As the birds are brought out and placed on the ground for inspection, one little hen seems to have a glint in her eye, her repose not as final as the others. As the hunter reaches down to gather his game, she springs back to life and is immediately in flight, buzzing his face with her wings as she barrels toward the nearby thicket. The hunter stumbles back in shock, mouth slack in dismay. It all happened so fast no one else saw; not even the dogs took notice. That little hen headed for home with one big story to tell.