The Bird Guys

There are men who measure their lives in coveys instead of hours.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Nearly everyone knows that American quail hunting as practiced by our grandfathers is disappearing faster than free air at gas stations. What's left today is generally a kind of elegant charade. You've got well-dressed reenactors who follow dogs they didn't train over land they've never seen to shoot birds who aren't sure why they're no longer in the pen. And the world is chock full of guys willing to pay heavily for the privilege.

Then there are guys like Tom McGuinness, a 73-year-old, semiretired food salesman from Baltimore. You won't see his picture in one of those tweedy hunting magazines with mule-drawn wagons and $40,000 guns. He carries a 20-gauge Franchi with a stock that looks as though it lost a fight with a bear, and he wades into the briers armored in ancient leather chaps and a sweatshirt with leather facing sewn to the cuffs and chest.

Don't tell Tom about the glory days. For the past 30 years, he's been hunting wild bobwhites over his own dogs twice a week from November to February. And he does it on land he neither owns nor rents. ("Once you get out your wallet, it's not hunting anymore," he says. "It's business.")

His secret? Legwork, lots of it. The kind only a man who measures his life in coveys instead of hours is willing to do. Tom and his longtime hunting buddy, Tim Burke, scout hard, ask nice, and keep careful notes on crop rotations and coveys found. The notebook he carries on his dashboard is the fruit of that labor: a treasury of 27 places from the Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware border where he's welcome to hunt.

In some cases, he's been hunting the same coveys for decades. He makes a point of studying his landowners as well as their land. Come Christmas, each gets a box of chocolates or a bottle of Canadian Club with a simple note: "Thanks for letting us hunt. Tom McGuinness and Tim Burke. The bird guys."

"Bring a sandwich and a thermos of coffee," Tom tells me over the phone. "We hunt till dark and we don't stop for lunch." The day dawns bitter; the temperature is in the 20s and west winds are gusting to 35 miles per hour. I'm half expecting an early-morning call to cancel. But Tom and Tim are at the rendezvous, a car wash off Route 50. Tom shakes my hand and sizes up the day.

"Too damn windy," he says. "Hard to get a scent. Hah. If you only hunted when conditions were right, you'd get out about four days a year. We'll try it."

Along with Tom and Tim is John Hall, an old friend. The four of us cram into Tim's quailmobile, an old Buick station wagon. A hose from the heater bypasses the backseat?where John and I are wedged in among presents to be distributed to farmers?to warm the three German shorthaired pointers in the back. Cleopatra and Duffy belong to Tom. Courtney is Tim's dog.

Up front, Tom taps his precious notebook. "Lotta guys like to shoot," he says. "Not that many like to scout. If you're willing to do the work, you can find places to hunt."

Our plan is to run and gun, hitting eight or nine spots and delivering presents to others along the way. Tim drives while Tom updates the notebook and tabulates presents delivered.

The first place we stop is a cutover behind a prefab house next to a stubbly beanfield. These are candy people; Tom shoves a box inside the storm door so the coons won't get it before the owner gets home, then checks his notes. Two coveys here last year.

"We'll form a skirmish line with me on one end and Tim on the other," he says. "Walk the field, then pivot on Tim and come back. Always keep something orange in sight."

Though some woods nearby break the wind a little, it's still blowing pretty hard, and it feels like the kind of day when you might slog briers all day for nothing. But 30 yards into the field, I step into the first covey, which goes off like a feathered land mine. John Hall snaps a cock out of the sky 25 yards away.ourtney brings the bird to her master, Tim, who gives it back to John. "That was nice shootin'," I tell John.

"Oh, that bird was just bein' polite," he says. "Flew into my pattern at the last second." But he's beaming. Five minutes into the hunt and we've got one. It's a good omen.

To someone used to spending half the day chasing after dogs, the pointers are a pleasure. They stay close, work the cover methodically, and check back regularly. On our pass back, Cleo gets birdy near a clump of thick stuff. Her stubby tail vibrates like a rattlesnake's rattle, then locks up on point. Tim pokes the bushes with his gun; two singles flare away too fast and low for a shot.

We stop to deliver gifts at places named in Tom's notebook: Wild Heath and Brisk Wind Farms, Pig Pen, and Concrete Plant G. (Tom explains that they rotate where they hunt so that even though they go twice a week, no covey gets hit more than once every 14 days, which ensures there'll be birds next year.) At one little house, a kennel full of beagles howls when they spot our dogs. The big pointers roar back, steaming up the rear window.

"Save it for the birds!" Tom commands the dogs, who pay him no mind whatsoever. "Guy's a bunny hunter," he tells me, hopping out to stash a bottle of whiskey in the cab of the farm truck. "We trade locations. He kicks up birds, he lets us know. We tell him if we find rabbits. Guys like this're worth their weight in gold."

Our next stop is prime habitat, a field of sorghum with lots of woodsy fingers running into it. "You find a spot like this, you can bet there's a covey nearby," Tom says.

The dogs kick up two groups, one of which must have 15 birds in it. I cover a bird and slap the trigger. The gun clicks but does not roar. The ejected shell has no dent in the primer, which probably means a broken firing pin. Tom downs a bird in briers so thick even he?the most fearless among us?will not venture in. Cleo does, however, and as Tom calls encouragement, she finally emerges with a hen in her mouth. He congratulates her and gives the other dogs a sniff of the bird to remind them why we're here.

We stop at places named Mouse Farm, Timber Slash, and Kenny's Edge. The dogs find at least one covey at each. We eat lunch on the road, sloshing hot coffee onto our laps at each turn. The bird guys believe in hoarding daylight on general principle. Besides, we've got a pretty hot little streak going here. We're currently five-for-five, a personal best for Tom and Tim. At the next spot, a half mile of power line between two disked fields, Tom presses his gun on me, saying he's happy to work the dogs and that he'll take it back for the next field.

Suddenly, I understand why all three of these guys are carrying 20s. Tom's 30-year-old Franchi, the lightest semiauto on the market at the time (and maybe still), is a delight to carry, the kind of gun you can hold comfortably at port arms for half an hour while slogging through chest-high briers. Our first pass yields no birds, and it looks as if the run is going to break. But Tom has other ideas.

"I thought I heard peeps back in that corner by the field," he says. "Let's walk it up."

We turn back into a stiff wind. Sure enough, three birds pop up and Tim nails one. He sidles up to me as we make our way back to the car. "I don't know if he told you, but Tom's got two artificial hips. And he still outwalks guys half his age. Including me."

By now even the sun is impressed and comes out to see if we can keep the streak going. We are all pumped on a secret that's lying unnoticed on the ground like a hundred-dollar bill: huntable wild quail for free to those who take the pains to find them. We stop for a quick walk through a grassy field full of deer beds and droppings near a cornfield and kick up four singles. Tom is no snob. He'll gladly venture onto public land if there are birds there. The next stop is a state game plot. Some men are walking the field 500 yards ahead of us, carrying long guns.

"Probably deer hunters," Tim says. "Black powder's in for a few more days." Tim bushwhacks 30 yards into the woods with Courtney, while the rest of us work the edge. Tom refuses to take his gun back. Suddenly, Cleo's tail starts buzzing, then she locks up, left foreleg cocked and trembling.

"Get up here, Tim," Tom shouts. "Post haste!" Cleo holds for nearly a minute. When Tim's in position, Tom kicks, and birds go flying everywhere. I miss (again), John and Tim each down a bird. Tom, who didn't even have a gun in his hands, is stoked on quail endorphins, clapping his gloved hands with pleasure.

"Hah! That was a nice piece of dog work," he says. "One moment like that and I forget I was ever tired. You notice how I haven't had to give these dogs a command all day except to get back in the car? They work close and they aim to please."

We are eight-for-eight and holding.

The slanting, painterly light means there's enough time for one last stop if we hurry. The weed stalks in the 10-acre cutover off a two-lane country road seem to glow golden against the dark earth. A dry ditch runs the length of the lot. What looks like a worthless scrub to most people driving past is the land of milk and honey for quail hunters. Tom still won't take his gun back.

"I'll work Cleo and Duffy on the upwind side of the ditch. You three skirmish-line on the other. If they flush, they'll come your way. If they don't, come running when I call."

Tim, John, and I line up 20 yards apart. When we're in position, the wind suddenly slackens and for the first time all day there is absolute silence. We smile at each other. This is one of those moments that stamps itself in your mind for keeps: this pure and unexpected light, the dogs, the ground you're about to walk, the anticipation of birds. No amount of cash buys this feeling of grace, of having hitched a short ride in God's pocket. You can't even earn it. Once in a great while, it may be bestowed on you.

Tim nods, and the three of us move out. We know the whole day has been leading up to this one moment. John kicks up two singles that fly straight into the sun and are out of range in an instant. A minute later Tom calls out that Cleo's gone birdy and to come over. We swing over at a fast walk, pivoting on John.

"Biirrrrds!" calls Tom as eight or nine take wing.

John takes two shots, but they're too far. No matter. The birds were here. "You knew they'd be there," Tim teases his friend. "You shoulda just called us over to start with and save us the walking."

We are all smiling ludicrously.

"Hah!" says Tom. "Nine-for-nine! A new record!" We high-five each other. Our gloved hands make no noisee birds there. The next stop is a state game plot. Some men are walking the field 500 yards ahead of us, carrying long guns.

"Probably deer hunters," Tim says. "Black powder's in for a few more days." Tim bushwhacks 30 yards into the woods with Courtney, while the rest of us work the edge. Tom refuses to take his gun back. Suddenly, Cleo's tail starts buzzing, then she locks up, left foreleg cocked and trembling.

"Get up here, Tim," Tom shouts. "Post haste!" Cleo holds for nearly a minute. When Tim's in position, Tom kicks, and birds go flying everywhere. I miss (again), John and Tim each down a bird. Tom, who didn't even have a gun in his hands, is stoked on quail endorphins, clapping his gloved hands with pleasure.

"Hah! That was a nice piece of dog work," he says. "One moment like that and I forget I was ever tired. You notice how I haven't had to give these dogs a command all day except to get back in the car? They work close and they aim to please."

We are eight-for-eight and holding.

The slanting, painterly light means there's enough time for one last stop if we hurry. The weed stalks in the 10-acre cutover off a two-lane country road seem to glow golden against the dark earth. A dry ditch runs the length of the lot. What looks like a worthless scrub to most people driving past is the land of milk and honey for quail hunters. Tom still won't take his gun back.

"I'll work Cleo and Duffy on the upwind side of the ditch. You three skirmish-line on the other. If they flush, they'll come your way. If they don't, come running when I call."

Tim, John, and I line up 20 yards apart. When we're in position, the wind suddenly slackens and for the first time all day there is absolute silence. We smile at each other. This is one of those moments that stamps itself in your mind for keeps: this pure and unexpected light, the dogs, the ground you're about to walk, the anticipation of birds. No amount of cash buys this feeling of grace, of having hitched a short ride in God's pocket. You can't even earn it. Once in a great while, it may be bestowed on you.

Tim nods, and the three of us move out. We know the whole day has been leading up to this one moment. John kicks up two singles that fly straight into the sun and are out of range in an instant. A minute later Tom calls out that Cleo's gone birdy and to come over. We swing over at a fast walk, pivoting on John.

"Biirrrrds!" calls Tom as eight or nine take wing.

John takes two shots, but they're too far. No matter. The birds were here. "You knew they'd be there," Tim teases his friend. "You shoulda just called us over to start with and save us the walking."

We are all smiling ludicrously.

"Hah!" says Tom. "Nine-for-nine! A new record!" We high-five each other. Our gloved hands make no noise