“Levitan the painter and I went out to the woodcock mating area yesterday evening. He fired at a woodcock and the bird, wounded in the wing, fell in a puddle. I picked it up. It had a long beak, large black eyes, and magnificent plumage. It looked at us in wonder. What were we to do with it? Levitan closed his eyes and begged me, ‘Please, smash its head in with the rifle.’ I said I couldn’t. Levitan kept twitching his head and begging me. And the woodcock kept looking on in wonder. I had to obey Levitan and kill it. And then two idiots went home and sat down to dinner leaving one less beautiful, adored creature in the world.”
Letter to his friend Suvorin, April 8, 1892
Perhaps Cheney should have whacked Whittington’s skull in as the wounded lawyer looked up at him in wonder, while the covey of bobwhite quail rejoiced at the happy chance of Whittington’s head and upper chest intercepting the Vice President’s salvo from his 28-gauge shotgun.
Even so, the bobwhite and scaled quail have little to cheer about these days. Quality-of-life indicators for the little bird have been on a steady downward tangent ever since the late nineteenth century. When the early settlers came, quail were abundant, flourishing where natural grasslands were interspersed with forests. Indian burn policies helped too. By the mid-nineteenth century you could buy a dozen quail for 25 cents. A single hunter could kill a hundred, even 200 in a day, sometimes in a single haul if he used nets.
Fields in those days weren’t “clean farmed,” and the topsoil was so rich that quail could forage from an extravagant menu of weeds, grasses and crops. Progress, as so often, spelled doom for those creatures caught in its path, not least the quail, which require very specific habitat to flourish, or even survive: nesting and screening cover, bushy overhead to stop the hawks, yet open at ground level for spotting terrestrial marauders. Quail literally live on the edge, where different kinds of cover come together. As Frank Edminster explains in his 1954 classic American Game Birds of Field and Forest, “the quail must feed, rest, roost, dust-bathe, nest, court, escape enemies and avoid heat, cold and wind to a considerable extent concurrently.”
Cheney is never far from his ambulance, and in similar style the quail follows the so-called Huggins 50:50 Rule, which, in the words of the Texas-based Quail Technical Support Committee “provides guidance on the proper amount and distribution of woody cover: ‘A bobwhite should never be more than 50 yards from a clump of brush 50 feet in diameter.'” Another rule of thumb, advises Quail Tech Support, “holds that you should be able to throw a softball from one covert to the next.”
Quail parenting is a demanding business. As Edminster describes it, “Discipline of the chicks is strict; a continual ‘conversation’ of low clucks and cheeps goes on, but when a parent gives the danger call every youngster freezes in its tracks. If the threat materializes in an attack, the old birds try to draw the intruder away from the young ones by pretending injury. After the danger is past, the gathering call is sounded and the family quickly reassembles and goes about its usual activity.”
The bobwhite lives “a rather grim existence,” Edminster concluded in the early 1950s, and the past half-century hasn’t changed the story. Ironically, similar decline in the habitat of a larger and often less alluring species, Homo latifundicus Texanicus, the owners of vast Texas ranches, may offer the bobwhite a modest reprieve.
As Mary Lee Grant outlined it in a very interesting piece in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, cattle ranching on these big spreads is not nearly as profitable as leasing them to hunters. Grant cites the Texas Department of Agriculture as saying that hunting brings about $1 billion annually to ranches across the state, and of 200,000 farms and ranches statewide, 40,000 have leased their land to hunters.
Fred Bryant, director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Institute in Kingsville, told Grant the cattle and oil markets are “played out” and “hunting is the only stable income many ranchers can rely on. As the old ranch families grow and the pyramid of heirs expands, there are more people to support and they don’t know how they are going to do it–to keep heirs in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed.”
So the bobwhites have not only their own broods to worry about but the well-being of vast coveys of Texan human trustfunders, scanning the skies for swooping taxmen and looking for safe habitat with decent carrying capacity. Quail habitat is minimally improving, as the ranch managers try to adapt the terrain from the needs of longhorns to quail and the other targets of Cheney and his fellow hunters.
Out here, the California quail has it pretty good, to judge by the two or three coveys that scuttle out of my way as I make the two-mile drive to the Petrolia store. A few years ago I shot one, and like Chekhov, felt bad about it as I gazed at the cock’s once jaunty crest. Since then I just like to look at them.
Bush should publicly invoke the California quails’ family values. The birds are monogamous when paired, though as so often in this wicked world, there are limits to faithfulness. According to Sumner’s observations in 1935:
the red male [refers to leg band color] tried repeatedly during the week to copulate with the blue female whenever both pairs came out of the brush to feed together at twilight. In every instance observed, the blue female refused to accept his attentions, although she received the advances of her own mate.
A few years ago you could buy a nice postage stamp of a quail, part of a US Postal Service series featuring endangered species, though the status of the stamp’s subject wasn’t announced anywhere on the stamp, the USPS obviously having been cowed by the hunters’ lobby. They’re hard to find now. Cheney probably had the series withdrawn.