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Quail hunting in Panhandle is only a faded memory

By Staff | Dec 15, 2017

Many years ago, the farmers of Jefferson County could hear the jaunty call of bobwhite quail when they went out in the afternoon to bring their dairy cows in for milking.

The saucy little birds had both shelter and acreage rife with corn, grain crops and pasture. The planted fields were once ringed by honeysuckle, thorny brush, overgrown weeds like foxtails and other seed-bearing plants that kept them fed and prospering.

Farmers took patience to keep their acreage ready for any coveys of quail that wanted to make a living on their land.

The quail provided many hours of hunting pleasure for the landowners and their guests and relatives.

When the fall came each year, these farmers did what they had traditionally done for decades – gathered together for a group hunt with brothers, cousins, sons and good friends. Trained dogs sensed the importance of the days and readied for the task of finding the elusive quail, standing almost motionless at point so their masters could move closer and eventually get shots as the quarry scattered aloft in all directions.

Earlier in the day, there had been what amounted to target practice in preparation for ranging through open fields for the birds.

Barns, used to store hundreds of bales of hay, would be homes for pigeons. The pigeons could do well enough on mounds of barley or wheat stored on the floor between hay mows inside the barns.

Pigeons, or “squabs” as they were called, made tasty meals if cooked just right. But these pigeons were valued more as fast-flying target practice on the special days of gathering hunters.

Youngsters and those in their early teens would close tight all the doors of the barns. And the pigeons were inside, not knowing what was ahead of them that day.

Doors opening onto barnyards just below the buildings presaged the pigeon’s fate. Standing in a neat row along one side of the barnyard were the hunters and their shotguns.

The pigeons were flushed and hurried out through the open space. Their flight was more controlled and more predictable than that of the quail, still on deck out in the fields and thickets lining the fields.

After all the pigeons had streaked out of the barn and had seen their flight marred by flying buckshot, the hunters were ready to try for the wary quail.

Any quail later taken would be stripped of feathers. The pellets that brought them down would be removed and the birds cleaned of everything except the meat, so an age-old recipe with herbs, oils, greens, cranberry, pepper and possibly a nip of bourbon could provide a meal.

But first, the bobwhites had to be found by the setters and pointers that used their experienced noses to locate them.

A few birds would be taken and then retrieved by the here-to-please dogs.

When hunters quit the short-lived trip after no more than about 90 minutes, the quorum of relatives would retreat to a fireplace-warmed house. Tales, sometimes tall and always better with the retelling, would be spun about past baseball games or teams, summer camping trips on the Shenandoah River or fishing adventures that usually yielded what the outdoorsmen were chasing.

Those men are no longer here. And neither are the quail, which have been decimated by foxes, cats, hawks, dogs, egg-robbing mammals and, especially, a lack of habitat. Finding any quail in the open spaces or farmed fields of Jefferson County would make for a story that wouldn’t be believed by the most naive of wide-eyed listeners.

The quail are gone. Their perky demeanor no longer a part of the outdoors of the county. Their coveys are only a reference point in the stories of those still alive to remember when they were so much fun to hear or see in flight.