Birds in There

birdsinthereIN 1983

the new “He-Man” cartoon series was the most impor- tant thing in my life. At my preschool that year, we learned to hide under our desks to ward off the thermonuclear holocaust. Ozzie Smith was the coolest man in baseball—he made the starting roster of the All-Star Game for the first time that summer, back-flipping onto the field and into history.

That was also the year the birds died.

Once upon a time, North America was home to millions of different types of upland game birds, both native and stocked. Bobwhite quail were particularly common in Arkansas before the population took a sudden, precipitous nosedive in the early 1980s. In fact, they were once a seemingly numberless part of our landscape, like squirrels or robins today. Many a baby boomer grew up hearing the bird’s onomatopoeic “bob, bob white!” call from the fields. Ironically, their super-abundance, like most such phenomena, turned out to be artificial: an entirely man-made situation.

Native quail populations exploded after World War II, thanks to clear-cut logging and the new brush-hog tractor deck. More cleared spaces meant more brushy edges, creating millions of acres of upland bird habitat. All those farmers returning from the battlefield had inadvertently created a quail paradise.

Even nonhunters like my late grandfather owned shotguns in those days, when going bird hunting was just something you did casually with friends, like bowling. The game wardens and ecologists I’ve spoken with tend to blame the crash of the early 1980s on habitat destruction, mostly thanks to “clean farming” practices, which destroyed all those brushy fencerows.

Hunters are more creative. Sitting in a cheap diner in the Ozarks, swapping stories with snowy-haired men over coffee, I’ve heard ideas that verge on tinfoil conspiracy theories. Some old-timers cast the blame on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose paint-throwing campaigns crashed the fur market, causing coyote populations to boom. Others theorize that a virus must have escaped from a chicken farm, long before avian flu and West Nile became nightly news.

But for all the tall tales that are told, the old hunters agree on one thing: The wild quail are nearly gone. Even huge stretches of government property (such as Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith) contain a mere remnant-of-a-remnant of what once was. With wild coveys now sometimes miles apart, the classic upland hunt becomes well-nigh impossible. You simply cannot cover enough ground to make a hunt worthwhile. When the quail died away, many old-time Arkansas bird hunters started making the long drive to Nebraska or South Dakota, where pheasants still thrived in the corn fields of the Great Plains. Sadly, far more often, the hunters simply hung up their shotguns for good.

And yet, now—30 years after the fall, with bird populations as low as they have ever been—my family has established a yearly Thanksgiving quail hunt. In so many ways, this is just not like us. First, we are decidedly not a hunting family (our other annual tradition is a Christmas kickball game, played for a cheap plastic trophy). Second, only one of us—my Uncle Craig—has any memory of hunting before the crash. His experience dates to his days in the Army, when he also shot skeet as part of a shotgun team. We are unquestionably a parcel of beginners, most of us poor shots (with the notable exception of Uncle Craig, who backstops the field with his full-choked antique Remington, mopping up escaped birds at 75 yards and more). Despite our inexperience, this has become one of our favorite family events.

Of course, we have to be practical. Lacking accessible wild game (or the shooting skills necessary to bring down fast-flying wild quail even if we found them), we hunt planted ranches, most often one called R&D Game Farm east of Huntsville in the Ozark Mountains. On a typical wintry morning, we will pay to have the grounds well-stocked. Between 18 and 30 quail will be placed, along with a half-dozen pheasants (larger and slower, these make excellent beginner targets), and some chukar partridge—the best-tasting of all.

These planted hunts begin with the release of the birds, scattered like Easter eggs throughout the grounds by the hunt master. Once turned loose, the quail will typically meander around on the ground at random, leaving scent trails for the dogs to follow. The quail’s natural instinct is to find a tussock of grass or millet and hunker down—perfect for pointing dogs. The dogs themselves are sophisticated purebreds like the English pointer, Brittany spaniel or the German shorthaired pointer. All are bred to point, locking stiff at the smell and sight of a bird.

At a designated time, we, too, are released, following the canines through the frosted tallgrass in an amorphous, jocular pack, shotguns on our shoulders, clad in leather boots and brush chaps. The dogs switch back and forth in front of the group like downhill skiers, until suddenly one locks on to the scent. One quickly learns to spot the pointer with the bird in sight; he will be in front, with the others “honoring” his point from behind. The more certain the dog is that he has a live bird (as opposed to a feather, a squirrel or the place the bird was 10 minutes ago), the stiffer his tail will be. Once the dog is truly on point, our job kicks in.

We take turns, so whoever’s up must approach the pointing dog from behind at an easy pace, slipping the shotgun’s safety and waiting for the explosion from the grass. Birds will erupt from a grass clump with the speed and trajectory of a guided missile, beating their wings hard and calling loudly in alarm. The effect can be stunning at first. We’ve learned, however, that if you do it right, you will allow the bird to gain some altitude, cup his wings and straighten into a flight path before you bring him down. Fire too early, and you will either miss (because your shot-shell pattern must have time to spread), or worse, you’ll connect at point-blank range and pulverize the bird into quailburger.

There is always Uncle Craig, calmly dispatching the quarry and cycling in another shell, making no comment except with his twinkling eyes and his Cheshire cat grin.

While we will never be mistaken for the crack shots of yesteryear, we can at least put on a creditable showing. When the dogs point and the birds rise, our shotguns sing out in order, like a rolling broadside. The hunter on point waits for the proper moment, when the bird has exploded and straightened out, then fires. If his shot fails to drop the bird, the hunter “on deck” takes his turn, and if our ineptitude persists, there is always Uncle Craig, calmly dispatching the quarry and cycling in another shell, making no comment except with his twinkling eyes and his Cheshire cat grin. As the dog returns panting, with a mouthful of feathers and still-warm bird, it’s hard not to pause and take in the moment: a happy family, crunching through the cold field together, the scent of gunpowder and coffee in the air, and the promise of a fine meal in the snug warmth later.

We hunt, and we love it, even though we know we are only experiencing a shadow of what used to be. The superabundant bobwhite quail of the 1950s, like the passenger pigeon, are unlikely to ever be seen again. Farming practices have changed forever, and whatever virus or predator came out of Pandora’s box in the years prior to 1983, it will not be stuffed back in. Conventional wisdom is that upland hunting—at least in Arkansas—is dying, indeed may already be dead. And yet in the Ozark hills, an echo of the traditions lives on, and not only in my family. The planted hunt will never present either the challenge or the cinematic vistas of our wild-game heritage, but for sheer pleasure, and for bringing a far-flung family together over the holidays, it cannot be equaled—even after the crash.

Bobwhite Quail With Roasted Root Vegetables

My family will never be great quail hunters. But we are already great quail eaters. In an era of increased interest in our national foodscape, wild game represents one of the most accessible sources of uncommon flavor. Old-timers generally prefer to batter and fry quail, or wrap the breasts in bacon and throw them on the grill. Both are delicious but can grow somewhat boring. I prefer to roast my birds, skin on if I have the time to prepare them properly. Wild birds are lean, and one needs to be careful when preparing them. Basting or the addition of a fat, like butter, may be required; it also helps to roast them en masse over a bed of root vegetables that have been cubed and interspersed with diced bacon.

Ingredients

6 to 8 quail (fresh or purchased)
1 acorn squash
1 large sweet potato
1 Vidalia onion
3 strips of bacon
2 cloves of garlic
Cumin
Cinnamon
Salt
Pepper
Olive oil
Butter
Chicken stock for basting
Cavendar’s Original Greek Seasoning

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°. Peel the sweet potato and the acorn squash. Cube each into half-inch pieces. Chop onion, also into half-inch segments. Press or mince two cloves of garlic. Using scissors, dice three pieces of bacon into half-inch segments. In a large cast-iron skillet, lay down a liberal coating of olive oil. Toss all cubed vegetables, bacon and garlic in pan, mixing to coat with olive oil. Dust liberally with cumin, and lightly with cinnamon. Salt and pepper to taste. Toss all again and set aside.

Prepare the quail. For wild birds, most planted ranches will skin the birds for you. However, skin-on birds are preferred for moistness. If you have time, pluck the birds to retain their skin, setting each aside in cool water while you work. Liberally coat each bird with butter, then dust each with Cavendar’s seasoning. Arrange birds in a “wheel” directly atop roasting vegetables. For skin-on birds, roast at 35° for 45 minutes, checking with a meat thermometer.

Skinless birds require more work to prevent them from drying out. The simplest method is to season as above, then arrange birds in a turkey basting bag on a cookie sheet. Next, seal the birds with a half-inch of chicken stock, roasting at the same time as the vegetables.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

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