“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.”