I long ago accepted the fact that I do not own gundogs strictly because I am primarily an upland and waterfowl hunter. Somewhere along the way – very early on – dogs for me transcended that limiting category of “hunting tool.” Gundogs are not simply a means to an end, they are an end unto themselves. And as such, I believe that if all the birds disappeared tomorrow, many of us would still run our dogs through empty fields where the memory of birds lies fallow, because that is who and what they have made us.
At least I hope so, because the sad truth is, these days being a quail hunter is becoming less a concrete, physical avocation than it is an act of faith: faith that somehow, someday, things will get better and the birds will return. And owning bird dogs is the ultimate expression of that faith. But every year, in the face of rising costs and shrinking opportunity, it gets harder and harder for a growing number of hunters to keep that faith.
That point was driven home this morning as I read this story in the New York Times about the decline of quail hunting in the south (full disclosure: the reporter, James Card, is a hunting buddy of mine). He writes:
The mating call of the bobwhite quail provides the bird its name, a ringing three-count whistle: bob-bob-white. It is a sound many baby boomers have heard while growing up and one their children might have heard. But it is one their grandchildren may never hear. In many parts of their range — from New England to the Dakotas to Texas — bobwhites have disappeared and the sport of quail hunting has fallen on hard times. Quail hunting has been both aristocratic and egalitarian. It is a sport of Southern plantation gentry who ride walking horses with bespoke double guns in their scabbards and have pedigreed pointing dogs racing across the fields before them. It is also the sport of the farm kid armed with a dad’s old shotgun and a rangy mutt for a hunting companion. Both types of hunters have equally satisfying hunts, but these days social standing does not matter. Everyone is quail-poor. Bobwhite quail are one of the most studied wildlife species in the United States, yet conservationists have yet to halt the declining populations.
The rest of the story is well worth a read, and I’d urge you to do so. And I’d also urge you to ponder this: If you own bird dogs, if you’re still managing to keep the faith in the face of these dark times, then you cannot afford to extricate gundog ownership from conservation. Get involved. Join a conservation group. Visit websites like the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Write letters, talk to politicians, do whatever you can to get the message out there that this is a quiet crisis we must address, quickly. Complacency isn’t something we can afford any more. I think we owe at least that much to our dogs for what they give us in return.