March 25, 2021
If you’ve ever returned to your childhood bedroom, then you know the unsettling familiarity of the experience. The room is smaller than you remember it, and you’re disappointed to realize that this place that once heaved with possibility and magic is really just an ordinary room in an ordinary house.
If my bedroom was a pasture, then I had that same disappointment last December, as I hunted the edges of an overgrown field in north Missouri, not far from where I spent my boyhood. Back when I was a kid, a pasture like this might have come alive with cottontail rabbits scrambling from one brush pile to the next, fox squirrels chattering in the pin oaks, and bobwhite quail flushing like bumblebees from beneath wild raspberry vines. That’s the way I remember it, at least.
The reality was probably closer to what I experienced in December—hours of walking empty ridges, picking my way through stabbing brambles, and finding places to cross the steep, muddy banks of nameless creeks that, to a kid like me, were as full of mystery and romance as the mighty Mississippi.
I was back in northern Missouri to hunt quail, to see for myself if rumors of the return of Gentleman Bob to the overgrown pastures and field edges of my homeland were true. If I’m being honest, I was skeptical. The alarming decline of wild quail across the counties that border Iowa paralleled the other losses of my childhood—the slow atrophy of the small towns along rural routes, the abandonment of farmhouses where my friends had grown up, the proud country churches now in slumping ruins.
When I was a kid, this part of the state was hopping. At least that’s how I remember it. Our little town—population 129 in the 1970 census—had two churches, a café, and a rocking August fair with a Tilt-a-Whirl and tractor pull. The rural school where I spent my elementary years had a dozen country kids per grade, and we all grew up in each other’s kitchens. The rolling hills were full of modest farmsteads; each family had a bird dog and a rusty shotgun that we used on weekends in the fall to hunt quail. I could put up a half-dozen coveys in almost any walk around our farm, and in the summertime, my wild-eyed little horse crow-hopped and tried to throw me every time a covey of quail exploded out of the buckbrush beneath him.
But about the time I outgrew my horse and my bedroom, the 1980 census counted 111 people in my town. My little elementary school closed that decade. Families moved away, farms got larger, and my buddies traded their pointers for tree stands to hunt the growing whitetail population.
In 1990, only 51 people remained in my hometown. My old school was converted to a hog-confinement facility, and when I returned to Missouri, it was to hunt deer and turkeys. The last wild quail I saw on our farm was in 2003, when I came home to show my infant twin sons where I was raised. We sold the farm in 2009, shortly after my dad died, and I boxed up my memories of that place along with a few stray 20 gauge quail loads I found in the basement of the farmhouse that we abandoned like so many around it.
RETURN TO MISSOURI QUAIL COUNTRY
I moved on to Montana, to raise a family and make a life, but I always kept an eye on north Missouri, which is how my friendship with Rehan Nana blossomed. Nana, whose mother grew up 70 miles west of where I did, lives near Kansas City, and every year convenes a group of bird-hunting buddies on his family’s farm to hunt wild quail on accessible land across northwest and north-central Missouri.
Last December, I joined them, uncomfortable about crashing this group of friends, unsure of my rangy Lab’s talent as a quail dog, and apprehensive about returning “home,” this time as a visitor.
It turned out that I shouldn’t have fretted any of those concerns, with the exception of my dog’s behavior.
Nana’s “Quail Camp” was in its sixth year, a motley collection of dogs—half of them Labs—and hunters from as far away as central Minnesota who stay in a converted grain bin and hunt wildlife management areas or private farmland enrolled in the MRAP (Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program). Nana had told me to expect spotty hunting but good fellowship and even better food.
It was just as he said. Over the years, Nana’s quail campers have found pockets of quail, rarely taking a limit, but enough to keep the crew expecting the next covey rise just around the next turn of the creek and bend of the field.
“It’s not about piling up birds,” Nana told me. “It’s about the idea of quail, and believing that they belong here.”
On our first morning, hunting an MRAP property bearded with luxuriously tall, big bluestem and ridges that tumbled into meandering creeks, a couple of the crew put up singles, and brought two quail to hand. I didn’t see a bird, but that’s partly because I was trying to keep my dog, Nellie, focused on cover and not distracted by running rabbits or playing grab-ass with the other Labs.
Walking the overgrown pasture was just like revisiting that childhood bedroom. Everything was familiar, from the malignantly long thorns of black locust trees to the haymow smell of cured fescue, to the distinctive rust-red of the fenceposts, sold by the MFA co-op at most feed stores in the state. But everything was strange, too. The habitat seemed a little too manicured, the MRAP status a little too self-conscious. This wasn’t walking a back pasture of my friend’s farm, it was a little like hunting a park.
We hit a couple more MRAP properties, and put up several coveys, including one that Nellie flushed accidentally. I fired twice as the birds careened into a line of hardwoods. I was thrilled to hear the whirring wings of nervous birds, and less happy with my shooting and my dog’s headlong enthusiasm, but the very presence of that covey was confirmation of the promise of this place.
We hunted more MRAPs the next day, but then I was done. I had promised my hometown buddies an hour drive to the east that I’d pay them a visit, and I had arranged access on the farms of friends I had grown up with. I was eager to see if my memory would play more tricks on me, or if I could put a few home-country quail in my bird vest.
My first stab at reconnecting with my youth was on my best friend, Doug’s, farm. Doug has long moved away, but his dad still lives on the place, which is a sprawl of ratty pastures and 100-acre cornfields. Nellie and I walked for hours, but along an overgrown fencerow I recalled holding birds 30 years ago, she got birdy and put up a huge covey of quail. I missed—again—twice.
Before my final hunt, I met with a grizzle of old friends at the Hy-Vee grocery store deli, which passes these days for a gathering spot now that the crossroads cafes are gone. Everyone contributed their own ideas about what had happened to our heritage quail.
“It’s Roundup,” offered one, referring to the broadleaf herbicide that has redefined commodity agriculture over the past 25 years.
“It’s predators,” said another. “There’s so many ‘coons, bobcats, coyotes, and skunks that no nest can survive.”
“It’s wild turkeys,” another friend declared. “Think about it. Just as we started getting big turkey populations, we started losing quail. Coincidence?”
When I got back to Montana, I asked Missouri’s leading quail expert, Bill White, what he thought was responsible for the “Show Me State’s” decline. White is the Private Land Services Division chief for Missouri’s Department of Conservation. He’s responsible for enrolling landowners in the MRAP program, and is known as “Mr. Quail” for his passion for quail restoration.
“It’s a lot of little things that happened, right underneath our noses,” says White. “Think about those fencerows you hunted when you were a kid. I bet you could look through them. There was a lot of bare ground inside those fencerows and hedgerows, and when a tree fell over, the gap was filled with weeds. Today, those mature hedgerows are tall. They’re wide. When a tree falls, the gap fills with fescue and brome grass. There are hardly any openings in them, and quail require openings to flush to safety. Without them, they won’t occupy those places.”
But White uses another example to illustrate the changes across north Missouri’s landscape that have doomed bobwhite quail.
“When you and I were kids,” says White, who grew up in southeastern Nebraska, “farmers might have had cows, but they also had hogs and sheep and maybe chickens. They also raised hay but also millet and corn and soybeans. Those were messy farms, because there were so many different uses on it. Now? Those places don’t have any livestock, and their ground is devoted to corn one year and beans the next, and it’s probably farmed by a neighbor who wants to expand their operation.”
Those two trends, one microscopic in scale (the overgrown hedgerows) and the other macroscopic (landscape-scale monoculture), have put wild bobwhites on the slide across what could be called America’s Quail Belt, the swath of rumpled country from southern Nebraska, across Iowa and Illinois and south to central Missouri.
The recovery of wild quail, White says, can’t be the responsibility of a single farm. Instead, he says bobwhites will only come back when entire townships return to the sort of sloppy farming that defined my childhood.
“Quail have a chance in north Missouri, because there are enough coveys that will respond when habitat conditions are conducive,” says White, who says quail habitat enhancements include feathered field edges, plenty of forbs and pollinator plants in CRP plantings, and periodic burning to suppress rank grass. “As you go south in Missouri and north in Iowa, the chances of recovery decline, because there aren’t many birds left to fill intact habitat.”
A FINAL RISE
I spent my final morning in my home county on a farm that has been managed by wealthy nonresident owners for 20 years. They bought it as a trophy-buck property, but realizing that the uplands were devoid of quail, they started managing the property for wild birds along with big bucks. It’s a mix of pollinator plants and dense nesting cover, open fencelines, and small plots devoted to soybeans or corn in alternating years.
Nellie and I were alone together on this final day in my home county. I got permission and the PIN number for the locked gate to hunt the managed property. For two hours under spitting snow and dreary skies, I didn’t see a single bird.
Then, as I crossed a harvested soybean field, Nellie got twitchy and flushed a covey of bobwhites in the stubble. I watched as they dropped into a line of big bluestem grass. I kept Nellie at my hip. The wind was right, the mark was correct, and as we waded into the grass, the covey re-flushed. I picked out one black-and-silver bird and dropped it in the rank grass. Another whirred into the sky, and I tracked that bird and folded it at my shot. Nellie brought me the first bird, a Bob, and then worked the cover to find the Betty.
As I tucked the brace of bobwhites into my bird belt, I looked over the series of grassy ridges that stepped up to the Iowa line. I was home, in an ordinary field on an ordinary Midwest landscape. It might not be quite the boyhood bedroom that I recalled, but it’s familiar and as real as the cooling birds in my bag. As I turned my pickup north and west, toward my Montana home, it occurred to me that, at least sometimes, you really can go home again.