Hunting the new evaporating quail
By JIM MATTHEWS
Quail are elusive; I have known that for years.
They have disappeared from the dinner table -- sometimes my own plate -- right before my very eyes, with only small bones scattered and left as traces of their former presence, quiet belches coming from hunting companion's lips. There have been hunting dogs who nosed into the back of a vest while riding home in the pickup that made birds disappear, with only a few feathers on their happy faces giving away the crime. (That is not why we call them bird dogs.)
On the eve of this year’s quail opener I have been thinking about experiences in past seasons when birds disappeared in the field. Disappeared, as in gone. Phoof! No more quail.
Cornered coveys have seemingly melted into the ground leading some of my hunting companions to believe that we have -- through hunting pressure -- developed a super race of burrowing birds that have an intricate network of underground pathways. How else can you explain the sight of a covey of valley quail running into a thicket of brush never to be seen again? The dogs are baffled: The pointers lock up on point, and the flushing dogs worry the bushes, tails roping side-to-side in excitement over the smell of fresh quail. But even when the hunters kick and stomp through the low brush no birds materialize in whirring balls of feathers.
We would try to convince each other that the birds were just holding awfully tight. A couple of season ago while a lot of you were watching playoff football, I was out stomping bushes where the Lab acted birdy and managed to shoot half a limit, flushing nearly three times that many birds. I actually had one bird pinned to the ground beneath my feet before he squirmed free, bolted out to the edge of the bush and then flushed behind me where I missed him three times from an awkward stance. It made me think the tight-holding theory was correct. But like so many theories, it was based on a partial data set, imperfect analysis, and outright wearing of blinders. For example, I simply ignored the fact that the covey had at least 30 birds when I first saw them running together ahead of me and the dog. What happened to the other 15 birds we didn't flush?
The truth is that I have never really believed the birds were just holding tightly. It’s the little lie we tell ourselves when the unexplainable happens. I knew, and you should read “knew” with emphasis and conviction, I knew the quail were actually disappearing from beneath our noses decades ago. Years of experience reinforce the conviction.
One of the first times it happened, there were two of us who saw a group of birds and trapped them between us, an aging Labrador retriever with a good nose, and some open ground. They had no place to go. My old friend Jim Brown was on hill watching them, gun ready while I worked in with the Lab. Nothing happened.
``There were six or seven of them, right there,'' said Brown.
I stomped bushes. The Lab acted birdy. There were tracks. In ever widening circles, I stomped through every bit of brush in the area. Finally a single, young bird flushed 30 yards from where Brown had seen the birds. I missed. That bird was obviously from a different party -- or had it simply come up out of the tunnel system to get a look and got cut off from all entrances? Brown kept standing in the brush, staring at the ground shaking his head.
Many seasons later, same area, I saw four birds hotfooting it across an open area to several small clumps of bushes. I ran over. It was open ground in all directions; they were in those bushes. But they weren't. I kicked, stomped and then kicked some more. A different dog’s tail was roping with scent and excitement. But there were no birds. No one saw me with the shovel and I won't admit to using it ever. But there were no tunnels.
Out in the desert more years ago than I care to admit, Bob Robb and I found a huge covey of Gambel's quail and flushed them off a hillside (out of range) down onto a flat below. The 70 birds fanned out as they glided down, and we watched them land. The flat ended at the edge of a broad wash with steep banks. We were going to just hammer them on that flat and probably get into another big flush as we pushed them to the edge of the wash. But only five singles got up, and there were no tracks anywhere at the edge of the wash. We went back across the flat three times and got sweaty kicking brush and encouraging the Labrador to find the birds. No birds ran up the hillsides that rimmed the flat. The birds were simply gone.
This scenario has played itself out over the decades repeatedly, and I expect it will happen again this year. While I still don't believe they're burrowing (and I refuse to consider a shovel as quail hunting equipment), my new theory revolves around the drought and unseasonable heat. It goes like this: The birds hold tightly until it gets very hot and then they simply evaporate like water, condensing a half mile away under a bush where they immediately call to regroup the flock -- and aggravate tired hunters.
It's a genetic adaption, a new species, and the few birds I flush are throwbacks that are meant to be shot so they don’t mix their genetics with these superior, newly evolved quail.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]