Bobwhite Quail: Shoot 'Em Or Lose 'Em?

Along the Florida-Georgia border are 80 quail hunting plantations that make up 300,000 acres of accidental nature reserve. Each year scientists and land managers burn tens of thousands of acres and use various other means to mimic natural conditions, preserving a wealth of biodiversity, including the embattled bobwhite quail. Eddie Nickens and photographer Rob Howard Investigate. 

“Careful, boy.
Watch what you’re doin’ in there.”
Jimmy Patterson certainly looks the part of a huntmaster. He is a big man decked out in a red vest and suede leather chaps, part dog handler, part hunting guide, part choreographer of the Southern plantation pageant unfolding on this Florida savanna. “Easy, boy,” he coos at an English pointer stalking through broomsedge and blackberry. The pointer twitches with checked energy, then freezes in its tracks. In an instant Patterson stands up in his saddle and signals with a lifted red cap. “Point over he-ah!” he yells, and we’re off the horses, pulling guns from leather scabbards.

Lane Green goes right while I stride to the left of the bird dog, fingering two shells into the shotgun. “Careful,” Patterson cautions again, and this time I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or the dog. He slashes at the thicket with a leather flushing whip. A few feet away, two mules shuffle in their harnesses. Hitched to a large wheeled wagon that carries another six bird dogs—the pointers are rotated every 30 minutes to keep them fresh and hunting hard—the mules seem to know what’s about to happen.

Suddenly the covey flushes with a sound that has startled predators across the ages, a roar of whirring wings all out of proportion to a six-ounce bird. “Mark!” Patterson hollers, as a shotgun blasts. “Mark again! Mark!” Another shot, and another quail tumbles from a corolla of russet feathers that floats above the savanna. A yellow Labrador retriever leaps from the mule-drawn wagon and vaults into the thicket. When it reappears, it holds a bobwhite gently in its mouth.

It’s early February, near the end of Florida’s quail hunting season, and this is the year’s 491st wild northern bobwhite shot at the 6,500-acre Foshalee Plantation in north Florida. Patterson tallies the count with clerical fervor, for here in the sprawling Red Hills along the Florida-Georgia border, chasing bobwhite quail with dogs and mules and horses and guns is a fundamental part of what some might consider a counterintuitive reality: Hunting the birds goes hand in hand with conserving them. And with taking care of a vast landscape flush with other animals tied to this imperiled ecosystem.

Northern bobwhite numbers are free-falling across most of the bird’s range, but not here. Read on