Genetic Integrity Among Partridges

and Other Southern Indigena

 

(For Oveda Gill & Jimmy Champion)

 

"We know nothing about the impact of this practice (release of pen-raised quail) on the genetic integrity of wild quail." George A. Hurst

 

Some say it was a land swindle involving a bunch of latter day carpetbaggers in cahoots with some scalawags. They bought up land dirt cheap after boll weevils and the depression gnawed their way through Southwest Georgia, creating quail plantations and perpetuating some bullshit notion of southern gentility, which was by and large a creation of yankee industrialists who'd read Gone With the Wind. They started calling their acquisitions "plantations," although indigenous Southerners hadn't the faintest idea what the difference was between a plantation and a big-ass farm.

In any case, The "Good Life City" is now famous worldwide as the quail capital. Over two dozen quail plantations mottle the map. Pilgrims in designer briarbritches and bandanna ascots deboard corporate jets to enjoy the scrotal heft of shotgun shells in an atmosphere of horseflesh, leather, and gunpowder, riding behind gundogs that stalk through wiregrass and longleaf pine. It's big business. Riverview Plantation alone pampers over 2000 quail hunters a year from all over the world in pursuit of the "aristocrat" of game birds.

Nothing fills lungs with clean air like wading through frosty wiregrass at dawn when the world is sprinkled with diamond dust amid fall's inflammation of hardwoods. To watch the horses huff vapor or a liver-spot pointer, his tongue bloody from dragging through catclaws, locked into rigor mortis on birds that zip around in the broom sedge before they explode into wild and rattling flight--swamp quail that corkscrew through the gallberries, birds that take off like rabid bats launched from slingshots.

BLAM, BLAM! "Hell's Fire! I didn't cut a feather!"

"I didn't even get my damned safety off!"

***

But quail hunting is different than it was when I was a kid. Non-equestrian hunters still ride the comfortable seats of the hunting wagon, although a tractor or jeep has replaced the flop-eared jack and ginnie, and plantation guests inhale exhaust fumes instead of mule flatus.

When I was a kid Ike came down to hunt on Blue Springs once in awhile to hunt quail, but now celebrities as diverse as Chuck Norris and Mary Ann Mobley flock here in droves to shoot pen-raised quail over dogs that cost what Buicks used to.

Two years ago General Schwartzkoff came to Campbell Farms just ahead of a group of Atlanta surgeons, one of whom was disappointed in missing a chance to meet the outspoken general.

"What do you want to meet him for?" a cardio-vascular surgeon inquired of his partner. "What would we have to talk about with a general?"

"We've got plenty in common," answered the first doctor. "He's killed almost as many people as we have."

***

Another thing that's changed since my boyhood is they ain't near as many quail. The population is in dangerous decline, about a 70% decrease over the last 30 years.

The problem is largely one of habitat not predation. Quail suffer approximately 80 percent annual mortality anyway, which has to be offset by reproduction. They need food and cover of hedges and fence rows, the type provided by tenant farmers and the forty-acres-and-a-mule approach to agriculture that characterized the South after Reconstruction until the late sixties. You know times have changed when the Melons' famous Pineland Plantation clearcut all the way to the Cooleewahee to raise 243 acres of catfish. $500,000 worth swam off during the flood.

One dubious answer to the decline in wild birds and the increasing demand of quail hunters is pen-raised birds--"liberated quail," the shooting preserves call them. These birds are used practically everywhere, and about the only good thing about them is any damned fool can hit one, making the Fall Feather and Quail Unlimited Celebrity hunts successful.

According to Timbers Research Station, the average life span of released birds is eleven days. Of 159,000 "liberated" birds only 1.2 percent survived for a year. I've seen an entire covey of these birds recycled into hawk manure and owl pellets before a corporate jet can fly a hunting party down from Boston. I once saw a cold-trailing Leuellen setter lock down on a coyote spoor next to a cone-topped metal feeder where a half dozen birds had been released the day before. The bewildered hunters stood at port arms behind the dog, staring at the feathery turds as though they expected bobwhites to fly like phoenix from poop. The pavlovian clank of such feeders makes mammal predators salivate, and a Coopers hawk recognizes the sound as an open invitation to gluttony.

When putting out birds just ahead of a hunting party, it's best to windmill them, one in each hand, to get them dizzy enough to hold, but liberated quail are sometimes too trusting or indolent to fly and the dogs snatch them before hunters have a chance to get their safeties off.

 

Quail-Predator Interaction

Without natural predators, wild quail would be as stupid as pen-raised birds. Foxes and hawks tend to kill tame quail and educate wild ones. They do more good than harm by keeping nest-destroying rodents in check and keeping game birds on their toes. They bust up coveys during the springtime to insure dispersion and genetic integrity. We should all know by now that in matters of ecology one hand washes the other. My plantation friends like to take me quail hunting because I can shoot a box of shells without ever cutting a feather. Like other predators, I teach survival skills and bust up coveys to perpetuate genetic integrity.

***

Even rattlesnakes, who eat lots of cotton rats and no quail eggs, are beneficial to wild quail habitat until they hang a fang in your prize setter. I was hunting once with Frank Wetherbee and Joe Powell when I stepped in a stump hole and fell eye to eye with a coiled diamondback about the size of Opra Winfree's thigh. I sprung to my feet as Frank threw up his shotgun. "Wait!" I said, "Snakes do more good than harm to wild quail populations."

Rusty, Frank's liverspot, was pointing the reptile and shaking like the proverbial dog defecating peach pits.

"You wanna step back?" Frank queried.

"Wait, wait," I cried, "let's catch the snake and use him to snake-proof bird dogs."

"Snake-proof dogs?" Joe, Frank, Rusty and the rattlesnake all looked at me like I'd cracked my dog whistle.

"Sure, I'll get Dr. Hart to suture his mouth shut. Any dog that points him, we'll juice with the shock collar."

Frank's mouth made a perfect equilateral triangle beneath his salt and pepper mustache. His eyes squinted like hickory nut seams as he pondered whether I was a thoroughbred fool or just purely ignorant in matters of the moment. He shot the snake from the hip, spattering snake meat and broom sedge on my canvas britches.

"Frank just dog-proofed your snake," Joe Powell said, sucking a tooth.

I removed my boots and unlocked my toes, which had knuckled under and cramped with the blast. Then with my pocket knife, I dissected portions of the reptile that were not blasted, removing a full grown fox squirrel entombed in an elongated membrane of stomach. "See?" I said.

"See what?"

"Squirrel."

A pecan farmer, Frank hates a squirrel, but he still wouldn't repent killing the diamondback. I butchered the reptile into steaks and accidentally fed it to my mother-in-law, Clarice, when it got mixed in with some dove breasts my sister cooked.

***

Landowners often ask me to shoot bobcats that trespass my deer stand stalking quail. I tell them I will, but I've never been able to. I tried once, aiming at a sleek bobcat with paisley gray fur, but just before I pulled the trigger, the cat turned to look into my scope and I glimpsed into its soul through the magnified pupils of those wild, wild eyes. I'd have shot myself before I'd shoot that cat. I decided right then and there if I ever killed animals in the name of quail conservation, I'd shoot the irresponsible blockheads who abandon puppies and pussycats on country roads to fend for themselves on quail eggs and chicks. One healthy bobcat is worth a longbed pick-up of pen-raised quail and fickle pet owners.

***

Frank says liberated quail infect wild birds with blackhead and other maladies that can spread to wild turkeys. They attract hawks to the area causing a feeding frenzy of "predator/quail interaction" that overlaps into the wild bird population. He hates pen-raised birds, has never released one on Gravel Hill.

I live across the Kinchafoonee from Fowltown Farms. Billy Mac and E.J. McAfee think I poach their birds, but I don't. I accidentally road-killed a plump partridge one morning on the way to work, and ate her smothered in gravy, a bird so savory as to lead me into sore temptation to covet my neighbor's coveys. For all I know, the word covet derives from covey during a time that my poaching progenitors were chased across McAfee Grange in Scotland, keeping them on their toes and perhaps scattering bevies of potentially incestuous Millers during the spring.

Billy Mac shares Frank's aversion to birds raised in captivity, but he feeds his wild quail cracked corn and sorghum all year to make up for nutritional losses caused by insecticides. He provides plenty of cover and plants long lines of sweet sorghum and philosophically tolerates predators, except house cats, which he hates with the same passion Frank harbors for rattlesnakes and squirrels, but I love a pen-raised quail. They keep bobcats sleek and rich yankees happy. A happy yankee is a good yankee. Without happy yankees there'd be no plantations and damn few wild quail.

Frank plants vetches, partridge peas, beggars weed, lespediza. He harrows to encourage grass seed and insects. Both men are careful to leave plenty of cover when they burn. They realize that habitat is all, or nearly so, and in regimented and intelligent stewardship of land lies the answer to saving quail. The solutions seem to lie, as they so often do, in the ironic and paradoxical love avid bird hunters have for a quarry they spend so much time trying to kill, something intelligent birdwatchers may understand and animal rights activists bitch about. Songbirds need what bobwhites do.

Kamikaze

Even among wild birds there's one kamikaze quail who flies back through the shooters instead of flushing ahead of the dogs, a trend that has been by and large genetically successful. Kamikaze quail often live to reproduce, although shooters sometimes don't, and kamikaze chromosomes flourish among release birds. Seasoned guides who neglect grasping the back of their clients' belts during a covey rise often have stippled complexion. I used to stand on the dog box and kill kamikazes with a Prince Pro until one day on a celebrity hunt I was showing off my overhand for twin Hollywood soap-opera starlets. From the dog box I had a vantage view of the creamy cleavage provocatively visible between the parts in their unbuttoned safari shirts. I was impressed with these strange bleached women with thousand-yard stares and spun glass hairdos. Their voluptuous smiles made me flutter with endorphins as though I was full of little quailbirds that were trying to fly. Thinking back on it, I was suffering from some primordial predator urge to bust their covey in the name of some genetic integrity I imagined to be my own.

"Point!" yelled the huntmaster, lifting his orange cap. One of the twins dismounted, loaded her shotgun, and hurried to the frozen dogs, a German shorthair honoring a lemon spot. The dogmaster stepped forward to flush the birds with his flail.

Amid the excitement of the covey rise and the blasts of firearms, one terrified kamikaze, having never heard a noise louder than the clank of a water pan, bee-lined within reach, but my eye drifted from shuttlecock to mammary cleft and I missed it with the racquet. The little bobwhite lit on my head, clutching my scalp with pinprick talons as I suddenly discovered myself gazing into the duel nostrils of a finely made double barrel Parker haloed in platinum bouffant. As I jumped from the wagon, the terrified bird flapped its wings as if to cartage us both to safety. We disappeared beneath the sweet-young-thing's line of sight just as she discharged both barrels and the quail shat analgesic birdlime into my cowlick, where it burrowed and held on for dear life.

"You made me miss," pouted the disappointed starlet, breaking her shotgun and ejecting two spent shells. "Why'd you move?"

***

I killed my first bobwhite on the Funston Plantation (now Oakland) with my uncle Thad Huckabee with a Winchester model 12 twenty gauge pump that belonged to his son John O., who died in England in 1942, the year I was born. My son killed his first bobwhite on Gravel Hill with Frank Wetherbee behind a dog named Bear with the same gun. Maisy, my twelve-year-old daughter, hunted the same wiregrass Thanksgiving behind Sam and Rusty, declining to fire the same gun--I haven't had much luck hunting with my daughters, but I love them anyway.

***

When I was Maisy's age, I spent every fall and winter weekend I was allowed on the Champion Farm in Worth County, where I hunted quail with a black kid of pure but unknown genetic integrity. Luke, an orphan without a last name, slept in a corn crib, and we were more or less the same age, although Luke didn't know exactly how old he was. Gator, the Negro patriarch of the place, tried to age him once by looking into his mouth. "He bout the same age as this boy here," he said looking into mine.

On crisp winter mornings I'd crawl out of the feather bed and eat cathead biscuits cooked on a wood stove and sopped in cane syrup. After breakfast I'd go outside and slap the side of the corn crib, which rustled like Rice Krispies as Luke stirred. "Who dat?" I'd pass a sticky biscuit into the darkness, and a thin black hand would snatch it. Soon Luke's ankle and head would emerge from the squealing trap door, a slither of corn husk in his hair, and we'd hunt, leaving our tracks in a sparkling world, walking up sometimes ten coveys of wild quail in a day. Without cutting a feather. Luke would tote my shells if he could wear my canvass jacket.

One day when we came in empty-handed at dusk, Mr. Jim Champion, the owner of that wonderful place, told me the difference between a plantation and a farm regardless of acreage. "This is a farm here," he said. "The folks that pay the taxes live right here and work for a living."

(end)

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