MEIMEI (PRONOUNCED MAY-MAY) the red setter has apparently turned to stone. She’s staring at a downed treetop, her head cocked slightly to the left, and not a single auburn hair quivers. It’s as if we’ve stumbled upon a canine statue here in the hills of the Sylamore Wildlife Management Area. Meimei’s point says there’s a covey of bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) huddled together in this tangle of weeds and limbs. Nolan Moore, a wildlife biologist employed by Pea Ridge National Military Park and a quail-hunting addict, moves past Meimei and motions me forward. Nolan’s dog Otis joins Meimei on point.
Meimei’s owner, Kurtis Cecil, a college biology instructor and a bird hunter for more than 40 years, barely contains his anticipation. “There’s only two things that give me this adrenaline rush,” Kurtis says. “I played a lot of football when I was younger, and when you lined up on the 35-yard line for the kickoff, and your heart is fluttering, I get that same feeling when the dog goes on point. It’s that same rush.”
Nolan takes three measured steps into the brush.
A whirring whirlwind of roughly two dozen little balls of feather erupt and climb toward the blue February sky. Even in the buzzing, blurry mayhem of the flush, the brilliant white markings on the heads of male, or cock, bobwhite quail and the more demure buff on the hens’ faces are obvious. It strikes me as odd that those little dabs of color are so conspicuous within such a breathtaking moment, a moment that was once the iconic image of Southern hunting. Odder still: As a lifelong Southern hunter, it’s a moment I’ve never experienced before.
I’m so mesmerized by the spectacle that I completely forget about the 12-gauge shotgun in my hands. The roar of other shotguns on either side brings me back to our purpose. I shoulder the wooden stock as a lone cock bobwhite flutters straight up, the last bird of the covey to lose its nerve, and touch the trigger once. He doesn’t fold, but I’m not sure that I missed. It all happens so fast, and in much the same manner as most other encounters with prey while hunting—long stretches of zero action interrupted by insanely intense moments requiring quick and smart decisions—there’s no time for thought. You lean on learned skill and instinct.
As the smell of gunpowder fades, Otis, named by Nolan’s daughter in honor of Mayberry’s town drunk, streaks past the brush top and snuffles through the brown undergrowth for a few seconds before coming up with a dead hen quail. He brings it, obligingly, to Nolan’s hand. A few feathers cling to Otis’ muzzle.
“He’s a little rough on ’em,” Nolan says as he examines the bird, which is quite sopping wet with Otis slobber. Patches of its feathers are gone, exposing bare skin. Otis is still a pup of only 8 months. He’s a kid turned loose in the playground, and his exuberance is palpable. He’s fairly vibrating, like a fine-tuned sports car. Meimei, older and wiser at 8 years, also hums, but at a lower frequency. Still, both dogs appear to be equipped with only one, or maybe two, gears, and they run wide-open in overdrive most of the time.
Otis is off again looking for more live birds, singles and doubles from the busted covey, that seek out even thicker cover to hide in. But Meimei is sniffing for something else. She finds another dead bobwhite and delivers the bird, a male, to Kurtis with barely a feather ruffled. In contrast to Otis’ mauling maw, Meimei has what’s known in the hunting-dog world as a “soft mouth.”
A discussion breaks out about just who shot the male bird.
“I only shoot male birds,” Nolan says.
“My dog only retrieves birds that I shoot,” Kurtis says.
And here I am fairly certain that the bird in Kurtis’ gloved hand is the one I shot at.
The other two hunters in our group, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever Arkansas State Coordinator Ryan Diener (a trained biologist), and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Quail Program Coordinator Marcus Asher (yet another biologist) both guffaw at the feigned bragging. Marcus doesn’t lay claim to either quail. Ryan later reveals that he didn’t even shoot. Everyone is laughing, and no one really cares who shot the birds.
The elements of a successful hunt always depend on whom you ask. For this quartet of bird hunters, it centers on watching the dogs work and the camaraderie. When finding only two coveys makes it a good day, killing a quail is gravy. But then the discussion turns to who will take the birds home, and a slightly more serious tone colors those words. “They’re really delicious,” Ryan says.
Bobwhite never disappeared entirely from Arkansas, but their numbers have plummeted since the halcyon days of quail hunting in The Natural State. Getting a true picture of the population density of quail would be impossible. AGFC call counts, however, can help give a bigger picture: The statewide average in 1982 was 6.9 males heard per mile. In 2019, it was only .51 males per mile.
So while the bobwhite quail population wasn’t completely wiped out in Arkansas, “devastated” is a good word for what happened.
WHERE DID ALL the quail go? The top guess is into a predator’s belly. That’s the correct guess, too, but it’s not quite so linear as you might think.
Adult quail rarely die of old age. Like Ryan said during the minor debate about who would take the dead birds home, quail are delicious. All predators in Arkansas—from raptors to snakes—would gladly eat a quail if they could catch it. Coyotes are often blamed for the demise of entire coveys (along with the demise of nearly every other game animal), but research shows that coyotes don’t take adult quail very often and don’t raid quail nests as much as other predators, either. Though coyotes are opportunists and will eat everything from fruit and insects to carrion, including deer—and a quail if they can—most of a coyote’s diet comprises rodents and rabbits. Coyotes are better mousers than the typical house cat.
When I ask Marcus about the effects of predation on adult bobwhites, he uses our meager success to make an excellent observation about just how effective wild predators would be on quail in appropriate habitat. “Think about what we’re doing right now,” Marcus says. “We’re predators. The dogs are predators. How successful have we been?”
After five hours of wading through hellish blackberry brambles and climbing hills that would give a goat pause, we’ve got two 6-ounce birds for our efforts. Dogs aside, Marcus made the best point of the day, and it was driven home by my spasming quadriceps. The amount of energy spent versus calories obtained was deep into the red. Wild predators are smarter about this trade-off than we are. If adult quail have good cover, they’re too hard for predators to catch.
As ground-nesting birds, egg and hatchling are the most vulnerable stages in a quail’s life. Nesting success is just 28 percent, mostly owing to predation, so the majority of eggs never reach adolescence. But bobwhite quail evolved alongside expert nest raiders, such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, even the practically toothless armadillo, and managed to survive and thrive, despite them. Predator numbers fluctuate for various reasons, and periods of more predators will mean more pressure on quail numbers. But within stable bobwhite populations in good habitat, nesting success is typically higher than that low national average. If she has good habitat, a hen may renest up to four times and, in a good year, she’ll raise two broods.
So while the predators did, in fact, kill off the bobwhite quail in Arkansas, Marcus says they had an accomplice. “We’ve taken away all of the quail’s habitat to escape predators.”
The real reason quail and, consequently, quail hunters have been on the decline for a generation is almost entirely because of habitat loss.
“QUAIL HUNTING IN Arkansas really was great from the 1950s through the ’70s and early ’80s,” Ryan says. “That’s why most quail hunters you’ll meet nowadays are old.” On our hunt, Ryan remarked that with Kurtis (55) as the elder of the group, “this might be the youngest collection of quail hunters Arkansas has seen in many years.”
That quail thrived back in those golden days was a happy accident. From the early 1900s through the ’80s, rural Arkansas landscapes looked much different than they do now. Before invasive grasses such as fescue and Bermuda became pasture staples, before widespread use of herbicides manicured the fence lines, rural Arkansas was a bobwhite’s paradise. The broken, diverse habitat of weedy grown-up fences, pastures left fallow in native plants, and timber thinning at a more lackadaisical pace were the byproducts of low-tech agriculture.
As we trail the dogs, my erudite hunting partners entertain themselves, and me, by nerding out on native-plant identification. I can’t match the level of expertise on display. But as an amateur native-plant nerd myself, the proudest moment of the day happens when I blurt out “St. John’s-wort!” before the gang of scientists can key out an interesting shrub.
I don’t mention that I have a St. John’s-wort plant growing in my front yard.
Their keen interest in what plants are growing where offers insight to a key component of quail-habitat restoration—eradicating invasive plant species and encouraging the proliferation of natives. Native plants are extremely important for quail, with seeds, fruits, blossoms and insects that feed on native plants making up the entirety of a bobwhite’s menu. And besides food, native plants also provide that critical cover for nesting and evading predators.
But before we get into the logistics of transforming poor habitat back to optimal, we need to understand what optimal habitat once was. And for that, we need to peel back the year, centuries even, back to an Arkansas that would be totally unrecognizable to most modern Arkansans.
THE LANDSCAPE OF Arkansas historically, and prehistorically, looked much different than the relatively dense forests and little to no understory (a layer of vegetation, like grasses and shrubs, under the trees) of today. The best word to describe how the upland woods of Arkansas once looked is “open.”
“The biggest eye-opening experience to me was when we started restoring the park to the 1860s time period,” Nolan says. As a biologist at Pea Ridge National Military Park, Nolan was involved in the decision to thin timber, burn and promote native vegetation at the park. But quail habitat wasn’t the reason behind the decisions. It was done to enhance park-visitor experience.
“When we interpret the battles and we start talking about troop movements and tell people these troops were on this ridge, and they could see this ridge, people were saying, There’s no way I can see that ridge,” Nolan says. “People looked at it and said, I can’t see 10 feet in front of me.” Like most of the Ozarks, the forests in the Pea Ridge NMP were largely overgrown with thick woods of cedar, oak and hickory, effectively choking out native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs that thrived during the 1860s and long before then as well.
The hill country of western Arkansas was once mostly savanna, a blend of prairie and woodland dominated by native grasses and shrubs with far fewer trees. From a geographical standpoint, it makes sense. Arkansas is where the dense forests of the east transition to the prairie ecosystems of the Great Plains. Arkansas has its own Grand Prairie in the eastern half of the state, though it’s not even a shadow of its former glory. The shift is a function of elevation and longitude. The shift is a function of elevation and longitude. Interstate 30, bisecting the state diagonally from Pocahontas to Texarkana, is a near-perfect demarcation of that transition from an elevation standpoint.
I recall when, as a child, I learned that American bison once roamed Arkansas and could not wrap my head around how a herd of 1-ton bovines could navigate the thick woods of oak, pine and hickory. They didn’t. Instead, the bison, along with eastern elk, red wolves, whitetails, wild turkey and bobwhite quail, roamed and thrived in an ecosystem that looked more like a hilly Serengeti than the shaded woods we grew up with.
In those open spaces between fewer trees, native grasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem and plume grass provided forage for the large ungulates. Since those native plants were bunch grasses that grow in clumps, leaving patches of open soil, they provided optimum habitat for hatchling quail to scurry through and hide. Other native grasses, shrubs and wildflowers provided a smorgasbord of seeds and attracted insects as well. This was the western Arkansas landscape when European settlers first laid eyes on it. And one of the main reasons for it was fire. Despite the pontifications of Smokey Bear, fire was—and still is—essential for healthy forests in Arkansas.
Where did the fires come from back then? Lightning is an obvious answer, and climate likely played a role as facilitator. The time period from 1300-1850 A.D. is known as the Little Ice Age. During this 550 years, North America was cooler and drier, which led to a more flammable landscape, but even with the probability of natural causes, many experts believe the fires were mostly man-made. Lit and managed by Native Americans, fire was used to alter the land for reasons that included clearing the understory for woodland travel, manipulating wildlife habitat, enhancing soil nutrients in fields and eliminating pests.
Many historians, along with scientists trained in ecological fields, believe that what European settlers thought of as a “pristine” landscape had help from Native American land-management practices employed for thousands of years. This is the model that the AGFC, Quail Forever and other agencies and conservation nonprofits are using as a standard for habitat improvement in the Arkansas highlands. And just as those indigenous tribe practices led to flourishing biodiversity, modern methods that enhance bobwhite habitat benefit a wide range of other native organisms.
AS THE DOGS crisscross open woods with an understory of broomsedge and frost flower, Marcus explains the hows and whys of thinning a forest and sums up the improvement’s value succinctly. “This is going to help a multitude of species,” Marcus says.
In that simple sentence, I hear echoes of Aldo Leopold.
A scientist, writer and philosopher, Aldo Leopold is also hailed as the father of modern wildlife management. The foundation of Leopold’s ideas were grounded in treating ecosystems not as a collection of individual organisms, but as a community with members dependent on one another to varying degrees. As Marcus explains the ecological reasons behind the habitat management, it’s clear that Leopold’s influence is at work in managing Arkansas’ wild lands.
More open woodlands are a common sight in the Sylamore WMA, one of the more intensely managed Game and Fish WMAs. But the picturesque and more productive quail habitat was originally managed for the benefit of the Indiana bat, a federally listed endangered species that prefers to hunt insects in a more open forest canopy. In the Ouachita Mountains, work done to promote predominantly pine savannas benefiting the red-cockaded woodpecker, another endangered species, has also bolstered quail numbers.
During the conversation, Marcus brushes up against another Leopoldian thought. “When we can focus on what I call flagship species,” Marcus says, “an endangered species or one that a lot of people are familiar with, it makes it easier to get things done.”
Leopold said that “everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse.” The grouse, while only one-millionth of the biomass of an acre, represented something more profound and powerful as a symbol of the landscape. Leopold called the grouse a “numenon” (now spelled noumenon) and said that if the grouse is gone, an enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost.” Without the bobwhite, the landscape of Arkansas loses tremendous motive power.
As we push through the greenbrier in search of quail, I wonder what power of the land was lost when the last Arkansas bison died and the red wolf ’s howl faded from our memory.
The effect of this philosophy is a holistic effort, not only from an ecological standpoint but also in the form of programs supported by a diversity of agencies and organizations.
“State and federal agencies and nongovernment organizations, typically nonprofits, are working together,” Nolan says. For example, the AGFC (a state agency), Quail Forever (a nonprofit) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, a federal agency) are an example of just how effective the initiative has been for putting biologist boots on the ground. Prior to the quail initiative, the AGFC had only nine private-lands biologists covering Arkansas’ 75 counties. But under partnerships with Quail Forever and NRCS, the AGFC now pays half the cost of salaries for eight additional private-lands biologists who work directly with landowners.
Arkansas is 87 percent privately owned, so while a lot of good can be done on public lands, it’s only 13 percent of the state.
The lopsided ratio of private to public lands actually makes the habitat enhancement on public lands even more significant. In many ways, the work done on public lands serves as an example, a blueprint of what landowners can do if they want quail on their property. And now, thanks to those collaborations, there are enough biologists to help landowners.
“It’s a unified front,” Nolan says. “To me, Arkansas is a great example of partnerships and what can get accomplished when people work together.”
NOLAN IS TELLING me about the dramatic changes at Pea Ridge NMP based on Government Land Office notes from 1836-1838. And as he speaks, he reveals a more subtle threat to wildlife and habitat. “I took my kids to work with me one Saturday, and we’re out there on the prairie in the park, and they asked me, Daddy, what’s this? And I tell them it’s big bluestem and Indian grass. It’s 6 or 7 feet tall. That’s what’s supposed to be here. And my kids go, No, Daddy, that’s what’s supposed to be here, and they’re pointing across the road to a fescue field.”
This seemingly innocent ignorance is called shifting baselines. You could also call it a great forgetting on the cultural level. It’s a decline of habitats and loss of species that happen slowly, over generations. Later generations, in essence, don’t know or appreciate what they’re missing because they never knew it.
A few days after the hunt, I speak with AGFC Deputy Director Chris Colclasure, who tells me that a shifting baseline was a big reason for the timing of AGFC’s quail initiative, which started only a couple of years ago.
“Quail have been in decline since the ’80s,” Chris says. “We wanted to do this while we still have people who remember what it was like to bird-hunt and hear those birds whistling in the spring and summer. It would be much more difficult in the future to try to work with generations who didn’t know what those things were like.
“Without this effort now, bobwhite quail would just be a story to future generations, not an experience.”
But Chris believes the bobwhite experience is coming back and that the future is much brighter for Indiana bats, red-cockaded woodpeckers, wild turkeys and other native Arkansas species that once thrived here as well.
“Quail are a great umbrella species,” he says. “If you manage for quality habitat, you’re going to get response from game and nongame species. It’s about working hand in hand with nature. Let it be what it wants to be, and just give it the processes that it needs.”
Johnny Carrol Sain is a lifelong Arkansas hunter and amateur naturalist. The soundtrack of his earliest summer memories includes the songs of bobwhite quail.