The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Quail Ploy

By B. Prentice Jones © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

Out the kitchen window of the old farm house, the thickly overcast sky threatened snow. A fat, full-grown quail (Common Bobwhite) walked slowly from the corner of the concrete block well house across the brown zoysia grass under the clothes lines, stopped just short one of the large boxwood in the screen hedge between the house and the dormant vegetable garden. The quail turned to face the back porch which was to the left from the window, on the opposite end of the house from the well-house. The bird squatted down on his feet, his breast resting on the grass as if on a nest, still faced the porch. This porch is a free-access cattery containing, at the moment four cats busily eating their morning feeding of five minutes ago.

As the quail sat there, a second quail ran fast from the corner of the well-house, scooted halfway across the brown grass strip, and, suddenly, in mid-scoot, flip-flopped, fluttered, stuck one wing straight up into the air, then lay deadly still. The whole action looked as if the bird had been brought down by a shot, though there was no sound, no shot.

The two birds remained frozen in their position for several minutes, like self-made decoys. They remained long enough to be seen by the cats, had the cats not been busy eating.

Suddenly, both birds stood upright in unison as if by signal, walked leisurely through the boxwood, toward the garden area. Precisely at the same time they stood, a whole covey containing twenty-two or twenty-three other birds streamed from the corner of the well house, across the grass strip, into the garden - all fat, mature, beautifully striped specimen. A magnificent procession. They poured into a mixture of green clover and brown buckwheat. The buckwheat had been allowed to mature to seed, the plants now just dark stems of seed pods; the clover had grown in the buckwheat - it would bloom crimson next spring.

While the birds were busily feeding on the buckwheat, Smoky, a long-haired, slate-gray tom crossed the grass strip at the far left end near the porch, walked slowly along the woodpile stacked across that end of the strip, passed through the hedge to the garden side, pausing to spray the boxwood on the end. Smoky was beginning his morning ritual of marking a section of his territory. He is religious about this. He also likes to eat quail.

The covey was no longer visible; nothing moved where they had been the moment before. There was no movement in a wider circle around the spot. They had simply disappeared from sight. Smoky sauntered down the row of boxwood. At the gap where the birds had gone through, he backed up to one of the shrubs and sprayed it. Smoky walked on past the walnut tree, across more grass, and disappeared around the corner of the machinery shed.

About twenty minutes later, the whole covey streamed into single file, close together, fast, streamed like a moving variegated ruddy-and-white and ruddy-and-buff ribbon, back through the gap in the hedge, across the grass, around the corner of the well-house. They crossed the driveway into a clump of low-growing red cedar trees, to cover.

The other three cats, Sassafras (Sassy), a long-haired black, rust-orange, with a little light yellow, calico, but marked like a tortoise, female; and Shady Lady, long-haired bright white body with face, feet, and tail all black-tipped shading to light yellow to gray to white, sauntered one-by-one from the back porch, jumped onto the woodpile, sat, looked about and began their morning grooming.

Light snow started falling.