The animal world has a number of comedians.
I was entertained again this morning by a little rooster quail that lives in my back yard fencerow. I go out onto my porch, which sits above the ground several feet, to drink a cup of coffee very early when I first get up, and there are birds and squirrels and rabbits everywhere.
My Labrador, Bolt, sits beside me and watches it all, his ears perked high, hoping that I will send him out to get one of the rabbits or squirrels, which he cannot catch. Though he knows he can’t catch one, he gets a great deal of pleasure in chasing the squirrels up a tree. Even now, he doesn’t know where they go.
I begin to whistle like a quail, and the little rooster bobwhite answers. In very little time he does what he has done a dozen times in the past couple of months: He runs as hard as he can run into what I jokingly refer to as my lawn, where wild flowers and grass intermingle beneath giant oak trees. You cannot help but laugh a little when you see him run so hard, in such an erratic course. He is either looking for a hen quail to mate with, or another rooster quail to fight with. Or he perhaps is looking for both. Remember how things were when you were a teen-ager.
Don’t write to me telling me that male quail are called cocks rather than roosters. I know that. But he is not so cocky as he is roostery. He will run around just beneath me, obviously unaware that Bolt and I are watching him because of the screened porch which he cannot see into. Bolt sees him and begins to quiver, thinking that any minute I will tell him it is OK to pursue the little fellow, and he can charge through his swinging dog door, dart down the steps and stand there wondering where the bird has gone. Bolt is something of a comedian himself.
I know a little about quail, but not enough. In some of my classes in wildlife management at the University of Missouri, I made the mistake of questioning what was in the books. MU professors never did appreciate that, but there were so many things my grandpa and the rivermen he associated with had taught me that didn’t jive with the books.
The Big Piney country where I grew up was full of quail. I hunted them as a boy with my dad’s best friend, Charlie Hartman, who raised and trained the best English setters I have ever hunted with. Grandpa told me how he had called rooster bobwhite quail in the summer back in the 1920s and ’30s and shot them with a .22 rifle for an evening meal, sometimes as many as six or seven in one morning. He said that there are always some of the little cock birds that won’t come, because some are actually taking care of a brood of chicks nearby and at such times, they won’t whistle. Grandpa said that it was an unusual thing, but he had seen it a few times, and he thought maybe the hen had been killed, so the rooster took over the job.
My professors said that kind of thing didn’t happen and the books backed them up. Grandpa said they were full of hooey. He said that people who wrote the books often went by what they were told rather than what they saw. He said he had learned that with wild creatures of all kinds, you could never say never or always. “Critters,” he told me, “do strange things at times. They don’t read the books.”
Years later when biologists began to put tiny little transmitters on bobwhite quail, they found out the books had been all wrong. They actually saw hens incubate the eggs, and the rooster take over the little brood of chicks when they hatched. Then, to their disbelief, they saw that the hen would find another rooster and hatch another bunch. It seems strange, but it happens. I am sure it doesn’t happen often or we would have a lot more quail.
But this year there are more rooster quails whistling in a morning than I have heard in the 20 years I have lived here on Lightnin’ Ridge. I have heard as many as four within 200 yards. But the one that comes running up to my porch must be desperate. As he runs, he looks like you might assume Charlie Chaplin would look if he were a quail. Little legs can only go so fast, but he isn’t messing around. He is running as if pursued by a fox. Beneath my porch, he squeals and he chirps in a way you only will hear if you are close to a very frustrated little quail. It is an unusual sound.
Then he flies up into the branches of an oak tree and keeps whistling, the other roosters answering him off in neighboring fields. I understand. I acted the same way when I was 17 and didn’t have any hope of ever having a girlfriend.
Biologists wonder sometimes what it is that make Ozark bobwhites seem to be dwindling in number as the years go by. I figure that for every 20 we had when I was hunting them in the early ‘60s, there is only one today. In some areas, even less.
In a nutshell I can tell them why quail are fewer now. Too many raccoons, possums, skunks and armadillos. Great numbers of cattle and acres and acres of permanent pasture. Too few small farms, old barns and grown up fencerows. Too many house cats and hawks. Too much fertilizer and too much herbicide and too much insecticide. Too few small patches of escape cover, nesting cover and food close together. And too few people like me who would rather hear quail whistling on a summer morning than the sounds of traffic on a busy city street.
We had a good meeting the other day here at my office on the planning and publishing of a new “Ozarks Mountaineer” type of magazine.
We will call it “The Journal of the Ozarks… past, present and future.” The first issue will be out in October, and the first 250 off the press will be numbered and signed by several editors and writers who make it possible. We will print fewer than 2,000 so this might be something to collect.
If you want one of those numbered copies reserved for you, just be one of the first 250 to send a check for $7 to Ozarks, LROJ, Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613.
The cost of publishing this first issue will exceed $3,000, so that’s why we are asking so much for one copy. That cost includes the postage involved. With future issues, as we begin to build subscriptions and newsstand sales, the cost will go down.
No one will make any money on that first issue. Everyone involved will be doing volunteer work. But it will be a great magazine, because there are some great people involved.
The animal world has a number of comedians.
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