It’s bird season again and I have been thinking about the bobwhite and its relationship to man, and why man is so fascinated with it, and the behavior it inspires in man.
As a result of association with quail, all quail shooters are liars. They brag when the opportunity allows but they are liars first. Quail shooters do not merely lie to other people, they lie to themselves. I know this because I’m quail shooter, raised in the company of quail shooters.
By the same standard you will rarely find a dedicated quail shot who is not a pretty nice guy. He has to be because he is performing for the benefit of the dogs, his companions and himself; and all are expert in the detection of fraudulent behavior in the field. Lying after the hunt is permissible, but a man who comports himself shoddily in the presence of quail is stoned in the streets, derided in the taverns, and abandoned by his friends.
The quail shooter’s mind works like this:
They aren’t making the same kind of shells anymore, because when I aim at the bird and fire, the bird doesn’t drop. Obviously something wrong with the load… The sun was in my eyes… The damn bird flew around a tree just as I shot.
The dogs have lost their sense of smell… I had a headache and my timing was off… I was going good after the first two coveys but we couldn’t find more birds for an hour and I cooled off.
The safety on my gun stuck… The young dog wouldn’t hold a point.
These are things you tell yourself. You tell other people that you only used half as many shells as you really used.
The quail shot also lies about the dogs he has known — such as my grandfather’s Bruce. Bruce was an expert in the quail profession. Today I wouldn’t believe myself under oath when I talk about Bruce.
Bruce was a connoisseur of shooters. If you were shooting good, Bruce would cooperate — that’s to say, Bruce would work. If you were shooting bad, Bruce would go home. I missed 13 straight shots one day, and finally, in desperation, took a shot at a bird that had landed in a tree — unusual behavior for quail, and for me, too. I missed the bird in the tree.
Bruce took one look at me and sneered. He went home and refused to hunt for a week. I would take him out but he would just sit and sneer.
Bruce was a force broken retriever. That means he didn’t like to fetch things for the fun of it, but had been induced to retrieve by rigid training. Bruce never so much as wet a bird, let alone crushed one. He would come with the quail hanging limply from his lower lip, and he would rear up, put his paws on my chest, and nudge the bird inside my hunting coat.
One day we were training a puppy, Trixie, and she beat Bruce to a point. The birds flushed. I shot one and held onto Bruce to give Trixie a reward for her work. She found the dead bird and retrieved it faultlessly. I patted Trixie and told her what a fine, pretty girl she was. Bruce glared at me.
Then Trixie found a couple of single birds. I shot again and another bird dropped. Again I held Bruce to let Trixie strut her stuff. Bruce glared some more.
Then Bruce found a single. The bird got up and I killed it. Bruce retrieved the bird. He brought it to me and looked into my eyes. He said a variety of things, all profane, with his eyes. Then he bit the bird in two pieces, threw them on the ground, turned on his heel and stalked off. He didn’t speak to me for a week afterward. This was a dog I have seen point a covey with a dead bird in his mouth. This was a dog that I have seen hold one bird in his mouth and press a wounded bird onto the ground with a foot.
At least I believe I have. We liars are never quite sure later.
A couple of liars I know in Talbot County claim to have hunted over a dog that would find a covey of birds, wait a reasonable time for the hunters to appear, and then back off to find the hunters and guide them up to the birds. There was another story about a dog so staunch that he was lost for years. They finally found his skeleton frozen into a point over a covey of quail skeletons, but that is a little rich for even a practicing quail-liar to believe. We all know that bones fall apart.
Every man builds his birddog in his own image, but the definition of a good dog, like the definition of a good man, is one who knows and respects the bobwhite. No sincere hunter will over-shoot a covey out of concern for next year’s hunt. No good dog will flush a covey of birds until the hunter is at his side. No good dog will encroach on the point of another. A smart dog knows more than any man about the most likely spot to find his quarry. No good man or good dog is happy to leave a wounded bird unfound. No good man hogs the best shot, as no good man is disrespectful of the rights of his hunting companion. Altogether the quail manages to bring out the good in both dogs and men.
If there is an explanation for the fascination of quail shooting, it must be that no man can bet on just how good he’ll be on any given day. The challenge of bird to man is permanent. You can catch a full night’s sleep, have perfect shooting conditions the next day, and miss everything that flies. You can get falling down drunk, sit up all night, and kill all that get up.
Apart from his courage and trickiness in the field, the bobwhite has the power to inspire nostalgia and fairness in the man that shoots him, a trick that has not yet been perfected by humans in their relationships with one another.
And that’s the way it really is — give or take a lie or two.
Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him firstname.lastname@example.org.