The springtime whistle of a bob-white echoing through the rural Southland used to be cherry and merry. These days its plaintive and mournful.
Once plentiful, the sprite little game bird's numbers have diminished to the point that a quail whistle is more rare than a turkey gobble in many counties.
Its whistle has become a somber reminder of the bob-white's plight.
Tennessee still has a quail hunting season, Nov. 2-Feb. 28, with a six-bird daily limit.
But the number of quail hunters has declined in proportion to the number of wild birds. More and more quail hunting is done on commercial reserves, such as Meadowbrook Game Farm in Westmoreland. Hunters can use their own dogs to work the pen-raised quail, or shoot over dogs supplied by the proprietor.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency continues to study the quail quandary, but so far biologists have come up with no solid answers or solutions.
Shrinking habitat and an increase in wild predators, along with roaming feral and domestic cats, might explain part of the quail's demise in specific areas.
But even in some areas where the habitat remains unchanged from decades ago, quail have vanished.
National and state organizations such as Quail Unlimited and Quail Forever help fund research and habitat-restoration programs, and solicit political and public support.
A recent missive from www.quailforever.org lists "five requirements for survival:"
Nesting habitat (mixture of clumpy grasses, wildflowers and bare soil).
Brood-rearing habitat (well-spaced plants with little ground-level foliage, but dense overhead to protect chicks from predators).
Roosting habitat (weedy grasslands or dense stand of annual weeks, with open canopy to allow quail to flush from predators).
Escape cover (dense shrubs or briars, area at least 1,500 square feet).
Food and water (year-round availability of seeds and insects, sparse duff or debris because quail are poor scratches, with food sources located near escape cover).
"Without all five, quail won't survive," writes Quail Forever.
It would be interesting to know the harvest figures on Tennessee's recently-completed quail season, although no field count is taken by the TWRA. I doubt that few hunters brought home a six-bird limit. Most hunters I know have stopped shooting wild quail because they are so scarce.
I think the TWRA should consider a moratorium on quail hunting for a couple of years to see if that would aid their comeback. I believe most quail hunters would support it, because they don't want the birds to disappear. Dedicated quail hunters could work their dogs and hone their wing-shooting on preserve birds during that period.
Clearly, whatever's been tried in the past hasn't worked, so maybe it's time to try something new. Otherwise, the quail could be doomed.
The plaintive motto of Quail Forever says it best:
"Don't let the Tennessee bobwhite become just an old dog's memory."