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When game birds could still be found in the farm fields of the county

By Staff | Nov 1, 2019

A male northern bobwhite quail perches on a moss-covered rock. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — There was a time in Jefferson County when northern bobwhite quail could be found on farms and open land. Their upbeat calls and quick-to-flight ways were as welcome as a bountiful crop of golden delicious apples or peaches were, in the county’s many orchards.

The coveys of quail could be found without much chasing if people hunting them had well-trained pointers or setters, whose noses could locate even the most cleverly hidden game birds.

Families or same-age relatives stood firmly on traditions that were maintained around the annual hunts for the little winged rockets.

One particular group of relatives, every Thanksgiving morning, gather to find the elusive quail and aim their shotguns at them as they burst into flight.

The group of about five cousins and brothers would come together for a sumptuous breakfast before donning their camouflage vests and comfortable boots to go into the nearby fields.

A breakfast of sausage, bacon, cold cereal, warm cereal, buttered toast, juices, coffee, biscuits with jams and jellies and pancakes would fortify the group, before they slowly left for the hunt.

Before the actual locating of the quail, the group would go to a large barn filled with hay and sometimes barley or wheat. The enclosed structure was home to pigeons. The pigeons stayed dry there, ate their quota of grain and unknowingly were going to be a live version of clay pigeons.

Other non-hunting relatives who had gorged themselves at the same breakfast table as the hunters entered the barn while the men in the orange vests gathered below in the barnyard. The sliding doors on the barnyard side of the wooden structure were opened and the pigeons began flying through them. “Practicing” their aim at the birds, the hunters downed a number of the pigeons, which were gathered together and meted out to anybody who might want to eat them for a meal.

It was time to go to the weed-lined pastures, vegetation-rimmed farm lanes, abandoned orchards and just-harvested grain fields.

At least two and sometimes more bird dogs were led to where the quail could be found.

With the dogs as their guides to the quail, the much-experienced hunters watched for the still-stance of the dogs that indicated they had found a quail on the ground. A hunter would move toward where the dogs were standing sentry . . . and flushed the quick-to-rise quail.

This dog/man/quail activity went on for some time. Ground was covered. Shotguns were fired. Dogs found and retrieved any downed birds. And the tradition had continued on for another year . . . the same as it had for 45 years.

Now there are no more quail in the fields and brush-filled acres.

The group of hunters would be much smaller because of the passing of most of them and the severe lack of game left for any of them that might want to continue the tradition.

Most of the orchards have disappeared. Many of the open pastures now sprout only townhouses or housing subdivisions.

And the bob whites have long ago stopped making their shrill calls that seemed to signal that the countryside was healthy and alive with wildlife activity.