History of Quail Hunting
November 9, 2014
During his periodic stays in this small town in the Arkansas delta, Ernest Hemingway was looked upon by the locals as something of a proto-hippy with his shabby clothes, unshaven face and artistic disposition. He was once mistaken for a hobo. Children taunted him and pelted him with rocks. Obliged to visit his in-laws’ home in Piggott, Hemingway made the most of it and became a bird-hunting bum.
Pauline Pfeiffer became Hemingway’s second wife in 1927 and her brother Karl became his quail hunting partner.
“Of course he came because Pauline would come back to see her parents, but the one thing he liked was the quail hunting here,” said Don Roeder, who grew up going to church with the Pfeiffer family and is a trustee of the Matilda and Karl Pfeiffer Foundation.
“One of the stories that Mr. Pfeiffer would tell me was if he killed more quail than Ernest had, they had to stay out there until Ernest had killed as many as Karl had.”
Then, spreading his arms wide, Roeder said, “Hemingway had an ego like this.”
Roeder said that during the time when Hemingway visited, quail were just about everywhere, but that began to change.
“When I first came back here out of the service, I could go out here hunting with friends and we could shoot quail, but they were going away then, and now you rarely hear a quail,” he said.
The mating call of the bobwhite quail provides the bird its name, a ringing three-count whistle: bob-bob-white. It is a sound many baby boomers have heard while growing up and one their children might have heard. But it is one their grandchildren may never hear. In many parts of their range — from New England to the Dakotas to Texas — bobwhites have disappeared and the sport of quail hunting has fallen on hard times.
Quail hunting has been both aristocratic and egalitarian. It is a sport of Southern plantation gentry who ride walking horses with bespoke double guns in their scabbards and have pedigreed pointing dogs racing across the fields before them. It is also the sport of the farm kid armed with a dad’s old shotgun and a rangy mutt for a hunting companion. Both types of hunters have equally satisfying hunts, but these days social standing does not matter. Everyone is quail-poor. Bobwhite quail are one of the most studied wildlife species in the United States, yet conservationists have yet to halt the declining populations.
Biologists agree that overhunting is not the issue. Quail are prolific breeders but have a short lifespan. Hunting seasons could be eliminated and still approximately 90 percent of the quail would be dead within the year. Other predators, like raptors, coyotes or raccoons, are also not the reason for their decline, although many hunters point the finger at them.
Don McKenzie is in charge of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a team of 25 state fish and wildlife agencies and conservation groups. The goal of the group, formed in 2002, is to get wild quail populations to what they were in 1980.
It is one of the most difficult large-scale wildlife restoration projects. Canada geese, whitetail deer and wild turkeys — all at one time low in numbers — have become so populous that they spill into the suburbs, but bringing back bobwhite populations is a struggling enterprise.
“One of the difficult parts of quail restoration is we have to restore suitable habitat at a landscape scale,” McKenzie said. “When you compare that with deer and turkey restoration, the habitat was already suitable. It was a matter of catching remaining wild animals in places where they were and moving them to places where they weren’t and protecting them until they took care of themselves. It’s still a challenge, but nothing compared to what we face now with bobwhites.”
The reason restoring bobwhite quail is so difficult is because it involves changing the nation’s manipulated rural landscape. According to McKenzie, exotic fescue, Bahia grass and Bermuda grass took hold across the United States in the 1940s. These carpetlike grasses were planted to promote better cattle grazing and edged out the native warm-season grasses that are conducive to good quail habitat. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the quail to hide, move and forage and are essential to their survival.
With pastures covered with invasive exotic grasses, the quail found cover along brushy fencerows and field edges, but by the 1970s modern agricultural practices that maximized every inch of soil devoured these small sanctuaries and left quail with few hideouts.
Wildlife biologists have known about this connection between warm-season grasses and quail habitat, and many landowners have tried to create an oasis for quail on their property by planting a paradise of native plants. Yet the quail population never reached the old numbers.
“Resident game bird conservation professionals have been telling landowners this for 50 years: all you need to do is some small-scale stuff on your place and you’ll have birds and everything will be fine,” McKenzie said. “Well, after 50 years of doing that, it certainly doesn’t work.”
The problem is that the islands of prime quail habitat — restored or naturally occurring — are not connected to one another to create larger plots of good habitat where quail have greater odds of survival.
“We have to come up with bigger pieces of landscape that are managed in common, and have connections with other pieces of well-managed landscape where there are sustainable populations of birds,” McKenzie said. “We must make it happen by the millions of acres instead of by the tens of acres.”
Jeff Parrish, executive director of Freedom to Roam, a coalition of organizations working to conserve wildlife corridors, said, “Bobwhite quail are like a crucible for what the future of wildlife is going to look like in North America.
“There’s a new coal mine we’re living in and it’s one that is really fragmented,” he said. “The quail are telling us a story that we never thought we’d hear, which is the world’s gotten chopped up and the only way we can protect those species is to connect them more.”
Dan Petit begins all of his bobwhite quail discussions with the same story: he grew up in northern Ohio and last heard a quail call there as a teenager in 1978. He is the director of bird conservation for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which supports the quail restoration initiative.
“It’s easy to look into your crystal ball in 2011 and see exactly where the quail are headed,” Petit said. “Look at lesser prairie chickens. In your grandpa’s day, there were a million of them out there. Now there are 40,000. They just need that connectivity.
“We think that converting pastures of cool-season grasses into warm-season grasses is economically very palatable to those individuals that make a living off of those grasses. This does not require a stimulus bill or anything like that.”
McKenzie bemoaned that a generation of Southerners is growing up without quail hunting.
“In my family,” he said, “the culture of quail hunting is as much part of our lives as barbecue, fried catfish and SEC football. It’s a part of life, a part of growing up and it’s part of what being from the South is all about.”
Although Hemingway worked on different stories while visiting his in-laws, only one story, “A Day’s Wait,” can be traced to a true experience that happened in Piggott, and it includes a quail hunting scene. He writes of the quail “coming out while you were poised unsteadily on the icy, springy brush they made difficult shooting and I killed two, missed five, and started back pleased to have found a covey close to the house and happy there were so many left to find on another day.”
Maybe that was why he chose to stay in Piggott and chase bobwhites when the film adaptation of his novel “A Farewell to Arms” made its premiere on Broadway in 1932.
Unlike the hunters of Hemingway’s generation and the generation after, the hunters of today are lucky to see a covey of quail, and they are uncertain there will be many left.