In the South, when someone says they’re going “bird hunting,” it means only one thing — hunting Bobwhite quail. Although people hunt quail all over the United States, bird hunting is strictly Southern and is as iconic as iced tea, grits and college football.
Ask a Southern bird hunter to describe a day of hunting, and he will wax poetic of energetic dogs coursing through park-like stands of ancient pines, carpeted with waist high wire grass, searching for a covey of quail. He will paint a scene of late afternoon sunlight glowing through the pines enveloped with cool, crisp winter air. He will go on to describe those rambunctious dogs instantly locking up and freezing — head down, tail high, muscles twitching — as they point a covey. The exploding covey rise that follows as the hunters walk past the dogs puts weak hearts at risk. The 15 or so six-ounce bundles of feather and dynamite catapult into the air with a thundering of wings that never cease to startle and amaze. This, in a nutshell, is “bird hunting,” but there is much more to this grand Southern tradition.
When this country was still relatively young, the agrarian South created the perfect conditions for an abundance of quail. Small farms dotted the landscape with fields divided by hedgerows and overgrown fence lines. Farming was not as efficient and scientific as today, and a lot of grain was left in the field. These hedgerows and leftover grain provided food and cover for quail. Quail predators such as hawks, foxes and raccoons were virtually eliminated too; more people lived on the land in those days, and they killed anything that might take one of their chickens or could add something extra to the dinner pot. Most of the woods were cut, or thinned, and burned year after year which also provided great nesting habitat for quail. Quail were common, and Southern men learned quickly that they could find more birds with the help of a sharp canine nose; so the hunter-dog relationship found another avenue of pursuit. This was the Southern environment for close to 200 years.
Generations of Southerners grew up learning to bird hunt with their fathers. As boys, they were taught gun safety, how to walk up on pointed dogs staying even with one’s partner (so that one is not ahead of the other and thus in a dangerous position), what birds to shoot and how to pick out and aim at one quail amid the cacophony of wingbeats. They learned the intricacies of raising and training bird dogs and how to hunt a field, finding the most likely places a covey would reside. Year after year they hunted together with family and friends, building memories and strong bonds. Although this tradition still lives, it has changed.
About 50 years ago, the landscape began to transform from small farms and fields to large farms and fields. Farming has become efficient and similar to manufacturing. Hedgerows have been cleared up, and little grain is left on the huge fields. Areas that are not farmed are usually in timber plantations, which are sterile for quail. People left the country and moved to the city, so predators rebounded. It is a federal crime to kill any avian predator, and nest predators, such as raccoons, are everywhere. Add to this red ants, armadillos and coyotes — which were not even here 50 years ago — and it is remarkable that there are any wild quail left. Wild quail numbers have plummeted 75 percent since their days of abundance before the 1970s, yet the sport continues.
Today bird hunting is defined in two ways: wild bird hunting and released bird hunting. Released birds have become the answer for most in having Bobwhite quail to hunt. Since most rural landscapes cannot support enough wild birds to make a hunt worthwhile, hunters have resorted to releasing very young pen raised birds months before the season begins. These birds are usually only 12 weeks old. They must be released in thick areas such as briar patches for protection and also must be fed on a continuous basis in order to survive. Once these birds survive for a few months, they rapidly adapt to the new environment and act wild in the way they behave and fly.
One hunter who practices this type of bird hunting is Will Batson whose property is not far from Columbia. Will grew up bird hunting, joining Wade Batson, his father, and William Jennings Bryan Dorn, his grandfather, on afternoon hunts.
“Those two would hunt a tract, find a covey, get in the car and drive to another farm, and they may hit 10 or so in a day,” Will remembers of his two family patriarchs. “On Saturdays, they would hunt clear cuts on Wildlife Management Areas (public land). Those were great times. We would have breakfast in Godfrey’s Market in Hodges, South Carolina and sardines on the tailgate for lunch.”
Will was always included in those hunts, and they instilled in him a passion for the sport that he, in turn, is passing on as well. “I really respect both men because they never said I couldn’t go. I think that is so important. I try hard to include youth and put them in a position to have a great experience,” he says.
When Will began developing his family farm for bird hunting, he had to undertake some major land management changes to cultivate the right cover. As a cattle and timber operation, the habitat would not support quail; thus, he thinned the timber and eradicated the pasture grass. Gradually, waist high weeds and briars began to develop which provides good cover for quail. Late September into October, Will starts releasing quail.
“I try to keep three to four birds per acre,” he explains. “First release is 800 to 1,200 birds, depending on my cover that year. I then try to release another 200 to 400 birds about a month later.” When the season opens, those pen-raised birds are virtually wild and can make a mockery of even the most seasoned bird hunter.
“I love the history, the challenge of creating habitat, the personality of the dogs and horses, brisk mornings and just spending the day with friends,” Will shares, “but most of all, I love the adrenaline when a covey gets up so fast that your head spins.”
For many, bird hunting is all about the dogs. English Pointers, Setters and Brittanys are the most popular breeds. There is a special relationship between a hunter and his dogs that goes back thousands of years and is hard to adequately describe. That partnership and connectedness in the field adds an element to the sport that is truly sublime.
When asked what kind of dogs he hunts, Will says, “Good ones! I believe the dog is the most important factor. It takes a special dog to hunt wild birds or early release birds. We work hard at having the best bird dogs we can. The dog in our mind is an athlete you ask to go full speed through thick cover looking for a ball of feathers.”
There are still a few who manage their land for wild birds, which is a little more involved because the habitat must support their needs for 12 months out of the year. In addition to escape cover, nesting and brood rearing habitat must be maintained. This requires discing a portion of fallow fields to stimulate ragweed and other early succession plants that are critical for baby quail. Discing strips through fields and open woods also create a nesting edge. Quail prefer to nest in 2 to 3-year-old vegetation on the edge of current year vegetation that emerges after winter discing. Controlled burning in late winter and early spring is a tool that keeps areas from getting too thick and encourages plants that create good habitat for quail. “We have a few wild coveys and try to do all we can to help them along and multiply.” Will says. “I burn, disc and feed for the quail and love seeing the few wild birds we have.”
Even though the old South of land flowing with quail is gone, it is not forgotten. The small farm with the overgrown fence rows, weedy edges and a few rows of leftover corn may be no more, but the intrepid Southerner has found a way to continue his loved pastime. Some, like Will, are carrying on the tradition with a modern twist. From Thanksgiving to the end of February, ask one of these Southerners what he’s been doing lately, and the likely response is, “I’ve been bird hunting.”