Bobwhite quail are the most obliging of training birds… after being set free and scattered across the hayfield, they call one another back to the cage in the evening, climb in, settle for the night, and are ready to go afield again in a couple days.
The whirr of homeward bound wings
THE OLD CALL-BACK CAGE should go to the landfill. Battered by many years of hard use and weathered by more years of neglect, it has been waiting patiently under the porch deck of the garage for the appearance of the next puppy, the next covey of quail. But there will be no more birddog puppies, no more pen-raised quail to teach them the rudiments of their vocation, no need for the call-back cage
Its time has passed, but the quail cage was a rugged and dependable contraption during its long service. This rusting-metal and rotting-wood box helped me introduce eight puppies to birds in the field: Molly, Peg, Pete, Herco, Annie, Jessie, Sasha, and Abbey. Although it has not sheltered a covey of quail for many a year, it is packed full of memories. Yes, it’s useless junk, but some junk is hard to throw away.
A quail call-back cage is a simple but odd-looking contraption, especially this one built from odds and ends: warped 2x2s, scrap pieces of plywood and boxcar siding, wooden pegs, hardware wire, two lengths of piano hinge, and a few dozen drywall screws. The cage measures about two feet high, three feet wide, and eight feet long. It is divided into two quail “apartments,” each with two sections: a wire screen enclosure and a weather-shelter, connected by a small doorway.
The purpose of a call-back cage is to keep a covey of semi-wild quail on hand to use in the first few months of a young dog’s education in bird hunting. A dog can be trained on wild birds alone, it’s true, but using pen-raised birds will speed the process, and give the trainer opportunities to hone the dog’s work in the field. Bobwhite quail are the most obliging of training birds. They hold to point, they prefer to hunker and hide in heavy cover rather than run, and they smell wonderful (my dogs have told me). Most important, after being set free and scattered across the hayfield, they call one another back to the cage in the evening, climb in, settle for the night, and are ready to go afield again in a couple days.
In the wild, the quail’s strong gregarious instinct (an overpowering urge to be part of the flock) is a survival technique. Clustered tightly together in an outward-facing circle with the rest of its covey, a quail is less likely to be caught by a predator and more likely to survive cold winter nights. The call-back cage plays on that instinct to entice the birds home each evening.
After acquiring a couple dozen bobwhite quail hatchlings from the local hatchery and raising them to fully feathered and strong-flying size (about 10-12 weeks of painstaking care), the birds can be transferred to the call-back cage, one half in each side of the “duplex.” Each training day, take the box up to the edge of the hayfield, open the top of one half of the duplex, and shoo out the birds. They will scatter, but not far. Close up the box, fill the water and food dishes in both halves, and go back to the kennel to bring the dog out for its work session. Search, find, point, flush, chase – it’s great fun for trainer and dog, and provides plenty of chances to teach “whoa,” “steady,” “put it up,” and other teamwork skills.
When you’re tired (the dog never gets tired) put the dog up and come back to the cage to observe the most fascinating part of the game. The wire-enclosed section of each half of the cage has a couple entrance ramps, cone-shaped tunnels made of hardware wire, the wide end of the cone at ground level and the narrow end inside the cage, about six inches over the height of an adult quail’s head. Open the guard screens of the entrance cones, back off about 20 yards, and sit quietly to watch the call-back phenomenon.
Evening comes on and the quail remaining in the cage begin to miss their covey mates who have been chased across the nearby 20-acre field by you and your pup. They begin to call: a “come home to me” whistle that can be heard a half mile. From out in the hayfield come lonely whistle-backs, and soon the scattered 10 or 12 birds come flying back. They do a few bobble-head, military-strut laps around the cage, find the entrance cones, walk up the steep ramp, drop into the cage, say hello to their family, get a drink of water, eat some cracked corn, and circulate around, complaining in quailese about the rudeness of the trainer and his dog and the horrible working conditions.
The next training session, you release the birds from the opposite side of the call-back box and do it all over again. For me, the half hour of call-back never lost its fascination. From their markings, coloration, and behaviors, I learned to recognize specific birds and their characters, habits, peculiarities, and the pecking order of the covey.
The downside was that after 20 weeks of hanging out with the quail I could not bring myself to perform the final act of the drama: before opening day of hunting season, release the covey and shoot the birds over the pup’s points or flushes. This inability to serve as executioner probably set my young dogs’ training schedules back a month or so, but it was impossible. How could I shoot my feathery pets?
Come November I would release them from the cage, seal it so they could not reenter, set out water and feed pans each day for a couple weeks, and pretend they would go wild. But a pen-raised covey has no survival skills, and long before Christmas all the birds had become meals for hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, raccoons and other predators that love quail. At first snowfall, the call-back cage was hauled back to the shed and shoved against a wall until the next puppy.
Since my bird hunting days are coming to end, and my French spaniel Abbey has a good four or five years of hunts ahead, there will not be a “next puppy.” The call-back cage will never be used again, and the time has come to break it down and take the remains to the landfill. But not today. Today, I’m sitting beside it, hearing in my memory the call-back whistles and waiting for the whirr of wings of bobwhites coming home.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page