Out of Bounds

Wing Song

Long ago I used to describe the whirl of flushing quail as that of miniature helicopters

By Rob Breeding

A few seasons ago I found a new covey of quail. The dogs found them, actually, but I drove us to the field so I suppose I get some credit.

The covey lives in a narrow band of habitat. There’s a conifer windbreak I know to be a mile long since the field is a section, and the trees run the length of it. West of the trees is a gentle rise covered in big bluestem so thick it is difficult to walk through. East of the trees there’s a strip of mixed grasses maybe 10 yards wide and weedy clumps grow along both sides of the barbed-wire fence that bounds the adjacent cornfield.

It’s an almost perfect place for a covey to make a living. There’s loafing cover, protection from the elements and a lifetime supply of waste corn to keep them plump through winter. When I do kill a quail out of that covey its crop is always full of yellow dent corn.

I find the birds there more often than not when the dogs and I hunt that windbreak, though never more than 50 yards or so from the place Doll first found them. I remember that point in part because Doll’s body was quivering from nose to tail as she stared into the trees. I heard the birds chattering as I approached, then saw them just before they flushed through the windbreak into that field of bluestem.

They aren’t the only birds in that windbreak. More consistently than quail, we usually flush a pair of great horned owls out of those trees, usually right where we find the quail. There’s certainly a relationship, but I don’t think the owls are there just to eat quail. Surely, they’ll take one when the opportunity presents itself, but if they were targeting quail that covey would have been long gone before Doll found them.

There are a few gaps in the tree line near where the birds live. The downed timber provides a little extra habitat diversity as compared to the monocultures on either side of the break. I suspect that’s why both species linger there, side by side.

Of course, there was the sound of that covey as the quail flushed through the trees, offering not so much as a Hail Mary so I never lifted my gun. That sound fills a considerable chunk of the part of my brain dedicated to why I like quail hunting more than just about anything. 

Long ago I used to describe the whirl of flushing quail as that of miniature helicopters. Then I heard my first drone and realized hummingbirds better fit that description.

Quail are more like velvet percussion, a rapid beating of a muffled drum some distance down a long, wall-of-sound-inducing corridor. My pulse races when I hear it, whether the flush is just in front of me with open shooting lanes or off some distance where the dogs have put them up by accident.

Chukars and Huns both offer something akin to the sound of quail, though neither allows the close approach some quail tolerate. Pheasants exist in another realm. A rooster flush truly does sound like a helicopter, but with the additional distraction of that absurd cackle. It’s thrilling but doesn’t stir my soul like a dervishing covey.

If flushing pheasants are from another realm, owls are aliens from an alternative universe. I hear them when they flush, but only because the limbs of those conifers creak when relieved of the owl’s weight. Then the big raptors float silently away, wings beating languidly down the narrow strip between windbreak and harvested corn.

Flushing quail create a ruckus with their stubby wings frantically clapping against the wind, urging chubby bodies skyward. 

That ruckus nurtures the conceit an easy shot awaits.

It’s not their intention to deceive. Quail just want to get away.

Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.